‘Eat no more than moderate amounts of red meat and little, if any, processed meat.’ This advice from World Cancer Research Fund International has become received common sense, and not just for health reasons. Methane-emitting cattle and sheep have also been identified as major sources of climate-warming greenhouse gases (GHGs).
The combined health and environmental case against red meat seemed to have been sealed in 2019 with the publication of the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems.
This landmark report was justly heralded as ‘the first full scientific review of what constitutes a healthy diet from a sustainable food system’. So who could argue with thirty-seven world-leading scientists when they concluded that we should ‘Aim to consume no more than 98 grams of red meat’ per week?
But although the evidence for the evils of red meat seems to be overwhelming, all of it is subject to the same, crucial limitations.
Almost all the studies treat all meat as the same, only distinguishing between beef, pork and lamb, processed and unprocessed. When we start making finer grained distinctions, the picture that emerges is far more complicated.
Start with the health case. It is indisputable that many studies have shown an association between high levels of meat consumption, especially processed meat, and specific health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, certain cancers and even all-cause mortality. Of course, every scientist knows that correlation is not causation. But when associations are repeatedly found, it is reasonable to assume a causal link. In short, it would be a miracle if the reason why people who ate more meat suffered worse health outcomes had nothing to do with their diets.
However, it is very difficult to separate the effects of red meat in itself and other factors in the diet.
Most obviously, the highest meat consumption in the world is in the USA, where the kind of red meat that’s being eaten is overwhelmingly highly processed and from intensively reared livestock. So it would be unreasonable to assume this as evidence that pasture-fed, unprocessed meat is equally bad.
Or consider the catch-all term ‘processed meat’. This lumps together traditionally cured Bellota Ibérico ham from acorn-fed, free-ranging pigs and industrial bacon from animals that are kept in cages that do not allow them to even walk. To assume these are equally unhealthy would be rash, to put it mildly.
One recent study suggested that the real culprit is not processing itself, but the use of nitrates in some forms of processing. As the report’s lead author, the ironically named Dr Brian Green, said: “Our findings clearly show that not all processed meats, for example, carry the same level of risk.”
Dig deeper and it becomes clear that nitrates are not in themselves dangerous. The average European consumes 80% of their nitrates from vegetables and only 5% from meat. The reason processed meat is singled out is that the combination of the nitrates, proteins and high heat creates nitrosamines, the compounds identified as cancer risks. This means that cured meats, such as Parma or Pata Negra ham, don’t carry the risks of cooked bacon and ham.
A heavy hint that there are other factors other than just red meat consumption at work is found in the Eat-Lancet report, which acknowledged that most of the studies they had drawn on had been conducted in Europe and the USA, and that an analysis of studies carried out in Asia, poultry and red meat consumption was actually inversely associated with all-cause mortality. In other words, in Asia, those who eat more meat live longer.
Some of the facts trotted about red meat are not just incomplete, but essentially misinformation. For instance, the Eat-Lancet report noted that processed red meat is classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as group 1 carcinogen, and unprocessed red meat a group 2 carcinogen. But simply being on this list does not make a substance dangerous since everything depends on how much of it you consume.
What about the environmental hazards of ruminants? Once again, almost all the major studies fail to disaggregate how the meat is produced. Most beef comes from cows kept in feedlots and fed grain or soy that is grown on intensively farmed land that has often been cleared from forests. The GHGs from this are significant. Livestock is responsible for 14.5% of all anthropogenic GHG emissions, and cattle makes up 65% of this.
But the impacts of pasture-reared cattle and sheep are vastly different. The reason for this is that pastures act as carbon sinks. Yes, they emit methane (CH4), but this only stays in the atmosphere for 10-12 years before it breaks down into carbon dioxide (CO2) and hydrogen. The pastures capture this CO2 through photosynthesis. It’s a virtuous cycle that some claim is carbon-neutral. Even if this is exaggerated, it’s clearly very different from the kind of industrialised cattle farming which only spews GHGs out.
As for the argument that it is more efficient to grow arable crops than rear livestock, most cows and sheep graze land that is not suitable for growing crops. They also provide the manures that help those crops to grow, which would otherwise have to be produced by environmentally damaging industrial processes. This creates a bind for would-be followers of a diet which is both organic and vegan, since most of those organic crops need animal manure.
It is almost certainly true that the average Westerner eats too much red meat, and the average American far too much, both for their own health and that of the planet. But just because too much is bad that doesn’t mean the least possible is best. The conversation should move on from the bogus question of whether red meat is good or bad and focus instead on where that meat comes from, how it is prepared and how much of it we eat.