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Can eating grass-fed meat help tackle climate change?

A new report says there’s no such thing as a "climate change-free steak".

Vegetarians and vegans often point out that cows' methane-filled burps are bad for the planet. But some supporters of organic and free-range farming argue that cows' emissions can be offset by allowing them to graze - which encourages grass to grow and thus helps lock, or "sequester", atmospheric carbon back into the soil.

So do free-range cows cause more climate change than they prevent? Field experts think they have the answer.

A collaborative report by the Food Climate Research Network has analysed the available studies - and concluded that grass-fed animals are, like their more intensively-reared cousins, still net contributors to the climate problem.

Speaking in a webinar this week, the report’s lead author, Dr Tara Garnett, made the following observation: “Sequestration really doesn’t do very much to address the question of livestock related emissions”. In fact, its impact is “miniscule”, she said.

When it come to mitigating agriculture's contribution to climate change, the only reliable answer is to eat less. "People shouldn’t assume that their grass-fed steak is a climate change-free lunch. It isn’t," Garnett said in a press statement.

Grazing can help extract carbon from the atmosphere by encouraging grass to grow and put down deep roots, which can eventually transform into a form of carbon that stays buried beneath the ground. But the report found there are many factors that can interrupt and limit this process: from excessive rainfall and drought, to thin or insufficiently fertile soil, to a high density of livestock.

All these conditions can reduce grazing’s ability to sequester carbon, the report argues. And while some research - such as that conducted by proponents of Allan Savory’s “carbon ranching” - show high levels of carbon sequestration in grazed land, these results are not supported by the peer-reviewed studies. In fact, non peer-reviewed work often fails to factor in the animals’ own emission contributions, Garnett says.

Ultimately, it just doesn't look like it is possible to meet present global demand for meat and dairy in a way that is environmentally sustainable. Even if we limit livestock production to land unsuited to cropping or feed animals only on food-waste products, Garnett suggests, that still wouldn't provide anywhere near enough protein to meet current consumption levels. In fact it would only provide around 13g of animal protein per person per day - which falls far short of the 57g currently consumed by people in high income countries.

But this doesn’t mean that grassfed options should be shunned. For while the report addressed the question of grazing livestocks' net contribution to greenhouse emissions, they did not compare these to emissions from animals raised in more intensively-farmed, feedlot systems. 

This means it is still difficult for those consumers who want to continue eating animal products, to know which production system is best for the planet.

Intensive systems, for instance, demand more crops to be grown to feed the livestock. This encourages the conversion of grassland or forest to cropland, and releases carbon straight into the atmosphere when the soil is exposed to the air at harvest.

The Food Climate Research Network hope to clarify this comparison with a future report looking at grazing's impact on biodiversity. The authors also stress that there may be other reasons why grassfed is the preferable ethical choice - from considerations of people’s livelihoods and jobs, to animal welfare, biodiversity, food security and nutritional value.

Further comparative research on emissions is also required. For while there may be no such thing as a "climate change-free steak", consumers still need better guidance from government in navigating the emissions balances that are being struck by different farming systems. Anything less would be a cow-ardly retreat from the climate change challenge.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Ann Summers can’t claim to empower women when it is teaming up with Pornhub

This is not about mutual sexual fulfilment, it is about eroticising women’s pain. 

I can’t understand why erotic retailers like Ann Summers have persisted into the twenty-first century. The store claims to be “sexy, daring, provocative and naughty”, and somewhat predictably positions itself as empowering for women. As a feminist of the unfashionable type, I can’t help but be suspicious of any form of sexual liberation that can be bought or sold.

And yet, I’d never really thought of Ann Summers as being particularly threatening to the rights of women, more just a faintly depressing reflection of heteronormativity. This changed when I saw they’d teamed-up with Pornhub. The website is reputedly the largest purveyor of online pornography in the world. Pornhub guidelines state that content flagged as  “illegal, unlawful, harassing, harmful, offensive” will be removed. Nonetheless, the site still contains simulated incest and rape with some of the more easily published film titles including “Exploited Teen Asia” (236 million views) and “How to sexually harass your secretary properly” (10.5 million views.)  With campaigns such as #metoo and #timesup are sweeping social media, it seems bizarre that a high street brand would not consider Pornhub merchandise as toxic.

Society is still bound by taboos: our hyper-sexual society glossy magazines like Teen Vogue offer girls tips on receiving anal sex, while advice on pleasuring women is notably rare. As an unabashed wanker, I find it baffling that in the year that largely female audiences queued to watch Fifty Shades Darker, a survey revealed that 20 per cent of U.S. women have never masturbated. It is an odd truth that in our apparently open society, any criticism of pornography or sexual practices is shut down as illiberal. 

Guardian-reading men who wring their hands about Fair Trade coffee will passionately defend the right to view women being abused on film. Conservative men who make claims about morals and marriage are aroused by images that in any other setting would be considered abuse. Pornography is not only misogynistic, but the tropes and language are often also racist. In what other context would racist slurs and scenarios be acceptable?

I have no doubt that some reading this will be burning to point out that feminist pornography exists. In name of course it does, but then again, Theresa May calls herself a feminist when it suits. Whether you believe feminist pornography is either possible or desirable, it is worth remembering that what is marketed as such comprises a tiny portion of the market. This won’t make me popular, but it is worth remembering feminism is not about celebrating every choice a woman makes – it is about analysing the social context in which choices are made. Furthermore, that some women also watch porn is evidence of how patriarchy shapes our desire, not that pornography is woman-friendly.  

Ann Summers parts the net curtains of nation’s suburban bedrooms and offers a glimpse into our peccadillos and preferences. That a mainstream high street retailer blithely offers guidance on hair-pulling, whipping and clamps, as well as a full range of Pornhub branded products is disturbing. This is not about women’s empowerment or mutual sexual fulfilment, it is about eroticising women’s pain. 

We are living in a world saturated with images of women and girls suffering; to pretend that there is no connection between pornography and the four-in-ten teenage girls who say they have been coerced into sex acts is naive in the extreme. For too long the state claimed that violence in the home was a domestic matter. Women and girls are now facing an epidemic of sexual violence behind bedroom doors and it is not a private matter. We need to ask ourselves which matters more: the sexual rights of men or the human rights of women?