Flame grilled: Meat in the media

By Anna Jones
16th August 2019

I’ve received a few messages on Twitter asking for my thoughts on the media coverage of last week’s IPCC Climate Change and Land report…

Many farmers have taken it as a direct attack on livestock production and some even perceive it as having an anti-farming, pro-vegan agenda.

BBC News seems to have been particularly singled out for its headline on August 8th: Plant-based diet can fight climate change – UN

I should start by saying that I have also been on the receiving end of farmers’ wrath on this subject. Not climate change per se, but meat consumption.

One evening three years ago, when I was travelling with a group of international farming scholars, I voiced an opinion at the dinner table. I said that everyone should have a meat-free meal, every week.

A dinnertime conversation very quickly turned into a debate, and ultimately into a row. As with any argument, only certain bits stick in my memory but I distinctly remember two comments hurled in my direction.

A Canadian cattle rancher, incensed at the thought of people turning away from beef, told me he wants kids to eat “beef for breakfast”.

An Australian farmer got so exasperated he said: “What about the body builders? They need to eat meat every day!”

They took it very personally.

A blind spot among farmers? 

You cannot overstate a farmer’s cultural compulsion to feed and sustain a nation. It is deeply ingrained – a sense of duty and pride handed down the generations. It is their reason for being.

To say you don’t want to eat their food – or worse, you don’t want anyone else to eat their food – is like someone saying “your house is shit” or “your parents are dicks”.

When it comes to this debate there is a blind spot among livestock producers – a cataracts of emotion. Personally I don’t think it’s healthy – but I don’t spend every day caring for animals, putting their needs before my own and braving all weathers to make sure they’re fed and watered.

And please – if you’re rolling your eyes thinking that’s a sob story pedalled by self-pitying farmers, you have no right to do so unless you’ve done that job yourself. For years. And for little or no money. I am a farmer’s daughter and I’m telling you now I could not do it. I don’t have what it takes – you probably don’t either. We should respect those that do.

Why offensive? Farmers produce ALL food 

However. I also believe that many of us in the West do eat too much meat. Not all of us, many of us.

In my social circle – so this is purely anecdotal – it tends to be the older generation and men. My Mum and Dad eat meat every day without fail. I once cooked my Dad a sweet potato and butternut squash chilli. He poked it around his plate for a bit before eyeing me suspiciously. “What’s this orange stuff?” he said.

My boyfriend, Alex, is another enthusiastic carnivore. Steaks, lamb shank, pork belly – he loves it all. Don’t get me wrong, he’ll eat vegetarian food – enjoy it even – but I catch the flicker of disappointment fleeting across his face when it’s my turn to cook and it’s mushrooms.

But me, my two sisters and many of my (mostly female) friends, are increasingly following a flexitarian diet. I’ll often choose the veggie or vegan option in a restaurant (except on my cycling holiday last week when all I craved were meat and carbs). My sister Kate never cooks meat at home – for her meat is a treat when eating out.

And I don’t see why that’s a threat or an insult to our farming industry. Farmers produce everything I eat – whether it’s beef or broccoli.

I was interested to discover my personal experience plays out in the national statistics. I was lucky enough to hear Professor Robert Pickard, Emeritus Professor of Neurobiology at Cardiff University, speak at a Farming Connect event in North Wales last year.

He confirmed that, yes, men eat more meat and some at really unhealthy levels. He also said levels of anaemia are rising in young women and that 40% of teenage girls in Wales have low iron levels.

Now that figure cannot be attributed to a reduction in red meat consumption – puberty takes its toll on a girl’s body – but Professor Pickard made the point that this is a group that may actually benefit from increasing their intake of red meat. Interesting.

The media bit…

Professor Pickard said something else at that event which I jotted down in my notebook: “Journalists have to find controversy and make headlines as controversial as possible.”

At the time I thought, “that’s a bit naive and simplistic,” but in light of last week’s coverage of the IPCC Climate Change and Land report – he may have a point.

I came to this late. The story had completely passed me by as I cycled in blissful ignorance around the Shropshire countryside last week.

But catching up, I have to say I have some sympathy with the farmers. Minette Batters is tearing her hair out on Twitter – I’ve never seen such unguarded emotion and public fury from an NFU president.

Like most time-starved journalists, I don’t have time to read full reports. I’ll read the press release, the executive summary, conclusions and CNTRL+F for the bits I’m particularly interested in.

I’ll also wait eagerly for the fantastic Science Media Centre to send me a rapid reaction briefing pulling together quotes from respected scientists from academic institutions around the country. By now I’m getting a fairly rounded picture of the key messages.

I’ve done that today and nowhere does a transition to a plant-based diet hit me as the headline message.

To me the IPCC Climate Change and Land report seems far more concerned with soil erosion and desertification, the limitations of soil as a carbon store (warning us not to over-rely on nature to get us out of the mess we’ve created), food waste, our desperate need for more trees and the potential conflict between food production and bioenergy (biofuels).

It echoes my own instinct that eating more plants and less meat is, on the whole, a good thing for the planet but states pretty clearly that sustainably produced meat, with low greenhouse gas emissions, is all good. The dietary advice actually felt like a bit of an aside – hardly worth a headline.

To be honest, it’s a real all-rounder. Just good, solid, common sense that I can’t see anyone really arguing with. Unless you want more deserts.

But that doesn’t make for a good news story. And it’s August – so-called Silly Season, when there isn’t much news around and editors are scrabbling for content.

Reductive headlines

The coverage that has so enraged some people in our farming community has done what news always does. Search for the debatey, easy to understand bit so we can all have a good ding-dong. And nothing is more debatey or easier to understand right now than Plants versus Meat.

The vast majority of the population will not lose a moment’s sleep over it, because most of us live in both camps. There is no division. I eat plants. I eat meat. Maybe a bit less meat. But I’ll still eat meat.

But for our farmers – it’s a nightmare. An attack they’ve taken deeply personally – for all of the reasons I’ve explained above.

To add insult to injury, we’re one of the countries naturally best suited to producing sustainable, grass-fed meat because of all our rain and all our grass. To me there is nothing more natural than an animal lazing in pasture, chewing its cud. Ruminating. Doing what it has evolved to do.

I know someone who visited a sheep farm in Qatar – one of the most bonkers things they’d ever witnessed. Sheep. In a country of desert. They were importing the grass to feed the sheep and gunning through vast quantities of water. In a desert. Sheep.

And remember – this was a global report, which takes all of these varied livestock systems into account and acknowledges some are more sustainable than others. Qatari sheep and Cumbrian sheep are not in the same category.

But did the media suggest they were? Not really. Is Roger Harrabin telling me to go vegan? No. In fact, he says so in his piece: “…scientists and officials stopped short of explicitly calling on everyone to become vegan or vegetarian.” That will really annoy the vegan activists.

Beware knee-jerks

I do think there’s been an overreaction and farmers have fallen into the trap of knee-jerk defensiveness yet again. It’s not a good look. It strikes a whiny tone: “Farmer bashing! Let’s see how you’d get on without us! More fake news from the anti-farming brigade! Don’t blame us – blame aeroplanes!”

Beware this tactic – the public has limited sympathy for it. There are legitimate questions and concerns about livestock and arable production, its impact on the environment and the role it could play in tackling climate change.

Deflecting those uncomfortable questions on to a ‘biased media with an anti-farming agenda’ isn’t a million miles away from Donald Trump’s tactic of hollering ‘fake news!’ whenever he doesn’t like something.

I’m also slightly puzzled by the angry exclamations of: “Don’t blame us, work with us! We’re part of the solution!” From what I’ve read no one has for a second suggested farmers should shuffle off and get out of the way.

The whole point of reports like this one from the IPCC is about putting agriculture at the heart of the solution – but it means change. And maybe, deep down, that’s what really rankles. No one likes being told to change.

But I also think parts of the media have delivered a low blow and not played fair on this one. The headline on the BBC article does pluck at the low-hanging fruit; the well-trodden, binary narrative. For me, it didn’t reflect what that particular report was actually about. But it probably got a lot of clicks.

Broad brush strokes 

My other gripe with the media – and I’ve been guilty of this myself – is there’s an awful lot of broad brushstroke language out there about ‘farmers’. As if all farmers think the same, act the same and do the same. Just a collection of clones in tweed.

Absolute rubbish – the diversity of opinion within agriculture challenges, astounds and excites me every day. You’ll find farmers as divided on this subject as anyone else in wider society – and the debates they have among themselves are intelligent, fascinating and based on real, practical, on the ground experiences.

It’s time we, as journalists started to reflect this a bit more. Take the story to the field once in a while.

It takes me right back to my Nuffield Farming Scholarship research – examining the relationship between farmers and the mainstream media. There’s fault and misconception on both sides – but rarely a willingness to explore each other’s viewpoint.

I’m really looking forward to the next Just Farmers workshop in October. We have some fantastic group discussions and debates – and this will almost certainly come up. I get farmers and journalists together, in a room, for a proper chat, face to face.

And they always end up drinking tea together. If not sharing a ham sandwich.

Thumbnail Image by Robert-Owen-Wahl from Pixabay