By Debbie James

The farming industry is reminding the public of the benefits of meat and dairy in a balanced diet as it fights back against what it says are misleading claims by the vegan lobby.

Dairy and livestock farming has been under sustained attack from the anti-farming lobby as the Veganuary campaign gathers momentum.

Broadcasters including the BBC and Channel 4 have devoted a large amount of airtime to the views of environmental activists on the role played by farming in climate change.

Farmers are now levelling criticism at those activists for providing an “unrealistic’’ remedy for climate change which is at odds with mainstream opinion.

They are also accused of focusing on the food sector while neglecting the role of the largest producers of greenhouse gases, such as transport and industry.

One of the programmes that has provoked anger in farmers is Channel 4’s ‘Apocalypse Cow’ in which environmental campaigner George Monbiot is given a platform to argue that the biggest problem driving the world towards global disaster is how we feed ourselves.

He suggests ending agriculture as we know it, turning vast tracts of land over to forestry, and relying on emerging technologies such as creating protein from bacteria and producing lab-grown ‘meat’ from stem cells to produce food.

But the farming industry seeks to set the record straight on some of the claims that went unchallenged in that programme.

Gwyn Howells, chief executive of Hybu Cig Cymru – Meat Promotion Wales (HCC), insisted that switching to lab-produced artificial foods was not the answer to providing healthy nutrition to a growing global population or to addressing climate change.

“I doubt that many people will share the presenter’s (George Monbiot’s) enthusiasm for switching to processed foods mass-produced from bacteria and stem cells in laboratories,’’ he said.

Mr Howells added that the programme had failed to question the “wildly optimistic’’ claims made about the potential of this technology, its cost, how much energy it would consume, and how quickly and safely it could be developed.

“George Monbiot’s proposal is unlikely to be an effective response to climate change and the challenge of feeding a growing world population,’’ said Mr Howells.

“It takes aim at the wrong target, namely agriculture, which produces fewer emissions than transport, industry and energy generation.’’

Wholesale re-forestation of productive agricultural land is questionable according to international studies such as the IPCC Climate Change and Land report; these warn that such a response risks global food security and urges governments to take advantage of the potential of grassland to sequester carbon since reforestation could take decades to produce net benefits.

“Sustainable forms of agriculture offer more immediate and realistic solutions to mitigating climate change,’’ said Mr Howells.

“Wales, with its overwhelmingly non-intensive, grass-fed beef and sheep sector, is ready to lead the way in responsible and sustainable farming.’’

His sentiments were shared by the president of NFU Cymru, John Davies, who argued that the debate about food production, both domestically and globally, was “incredibly complex’’ and too important an issue to get “side-tracked’’ by arguments that ignore this.

Farmers, said Mr Davies, relied on a healthy and diverse natural environment and recognised their responsibility to protect the land they look after.

“In Britain we have some of the highest standards of environmental protection in the world which we know the public value and trust," he said.

"What’s more, Welsh and British farming has an ambition to become net zero by 2040 and is demonstrating this can be done alongside invaluable food production.’’

Neither could these discussions ignore the many social and economic benefits that Welsh farms deliver, he added.

“We know the public want to eat quality, nutritious, sustainable, climate-friendly food – real British food – and Welsh and British farmers are proud to produce it,’’ said Mr Davies.

Although the Sustainable Food Trust (SFT) said it agreed with genuine concerns about the impact of intensive agriculture and the serious threat from global warming, policy director, Richard Young, said the Trust strongly disagreed with claims made about grazing animals.

The SFT sees grazing animals as central to the development of sustainable food systems, in particular in countries like the UK where grass grows exceptionally well and where over half of farmland is unsuitable for cropping.

Mr Young said claims made by Mr Monbiot during a keynote speech at the Oxford Real Farming Conference were “exaggerated’’ and that he had quoted global statistics not relevant to the UK.

“George claims that the carbon footprint of eating 4kg of beef is greater than that of flying from London to New York and back. But data from a paper George has previously used himself shows that he exaggerates by 400 per cent, based on the most extreme example, and 2,200 per cent for the best examples from the UK,’’ said Mr Young.

He also challenged another claim that approximately twice as much land is used worldwide for grazing as for crop production but that it provides just 1.2 per cent of the protein we eat.

Mr Young’s own calculations found that UK grassland produces 25.6 per cent – 31.5 per cent of protein per person per day, not 1.2 per cent.

During the conference, journalist and food writer, Joanna Blythman said that she had investigated plant-based diets and that she would not be adopting these because they did not meet her criteria for health or living within planetary limits.

“For me, any diet that automatically leaves you nutritionally deficient in essential micronutrients, a diet, which by definition, isn’t nutritionally complete enough to sustain healthy human life, is a non-starter,’’ she said.

She also analysed the global EAT Lancet diet which recommends only tiny amounts of food derived from animals and pointed out how inappropriate this would be for vast swathes of the world where populations suffer from under-nutrition.

“When ideologues living in affluent countries, countries where obesity and Type-2 diabetes are rampant, pressurise poor countries to eschew animal foods and go plant-based, they are displaying crass insensitivity, and a colonial White Saviour mindset,’’ she said.

Peter Segger, an organic vegetable farmer, raised the issue of nutrition. He said that the Government is doing little to address what he saw as a “shocking’’ decline in the nutritional value of fresh produce and that this jeopardised future health and sustainability.

Criticism of ‘Apocalypse Cow’ also came from the National Sheep Association (NSA) which said it did not offer an opportunity for a balanced debate.

NSA Chief Executive Phil Stocker said there was no opportunity to present the opposing view.

“NSA stands by its point that sheep farming is one of the most sustainable ways of food production and produces quality meat and fibre from little more than vegetation, mostly grown by sunlight rain and soil nutrients, whilst also providing a beautiful countryside for the British people to enjoy,’ said Mr Stocker.

“While it’s not widely recognised at this point, sheep farming is an ultimate form of renewable technology and NSA is very disappointed this was not reflected in this programme.”