Meatless Mondays might be harmful in SA

Cattle farming. (Supplied)

Cattle farming. (Supplied)

It began as a solidarity and social responsibility campaign during the World Wars to encourage the American people to tighten their belts “for the soldiers”, but Meatless Mondays are back. This time round, activists are telling us to eat less meat to save the environment. It is a small personal sacrifice to swop my steak for zucchini one day a week. But am I doing more harm than good? 

A study at the University of Pretoria is evaluating the value of livestock in our daily lives, from livestock’s role in the economy, to its effects on sustainability and environmental stewardship and the nutritional benefit we derive. Farming is an important contributor to the South African economy and this study has found that meat production’s impact on the environment is sometimes overblown. 

Livestock, particularly cattle and sheep, are often blamed for climate change. In 2006, the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation reported that the global livestock sector contributed almost a fifth of total greenhouse gas emissions. Since then, researchers globally have challenged this value, estimating that livestock’s greenhouse gas contribution is between 1% and 8%, overshadowed by transportation and energy sector’s contributions. 

According to a study at Cornell University, global beef cattle population contributes to as little as 1% of greenhouse gas emissions; the researchers found that the daily production of greenhouse gas by one cow is equal to that of a car driven 3.2km. This means that driving to the shop to buy groceries produces as much as 800 times more greenhouse gas than a hamburger with an 85g 100% pure beef patty. 

In addition, South African farmers focus on breeds such as Nguni, Afrikaner and Bonsmara, which are adapted to our local conditions and have a lower impact on the environment because they are breeds that have better feed efficiency. 

If you are considering limiting your red meat consumption for health reasons, the University of Pretoria study found that South African red meat products are much lower in fat than thought. 

In fact, trimming the outer fat layer from a steak reduces the fat content to less than 10%, which is often considered the benchmark for lower fat foods. The South African department of health promotes up to 90g cooked meat per day, and while South Africans are considered a meat-eating folk, recent food intake studies found that we consume significantly less than this as a population, eating less than 60g cooked meat per day on average. 

A review of food intake studies between 2000 and 2010 found that adult South Africans consume on average between 44g and 60g of meat daily, which includes white meat, red meat, meat products and offal. According the Abstract of Agricultural Statistics 2012, there is about a 78g edible portion of meat available in South Africa per person per day.

In addition, many South Africans suffer from nutritional deficiencies, some obvious, others unseen. Many working women suffer from iron deficiencies resulting in low energy levels, while seeming well-fed or even overweight. The latest National Nutrition and Health Survey found that almost two in three South Africans were overweight or obese. Other deficiencies, such as vitamin A and protein deficiencies, are also present in overweight people who live on a repetitive diet of starchy staples such as maize meal porridge and bread, fast foods and unhealthy snacks. These deficiencies damage brain and body functions. Eating red meat, which is high in these nutrients, could play an important role in improving the health of South Africans. 

Also, the latest local research by the University of Pretoria and the Agricultural Research Council on the composition of South African lamb, mutton and beef found that locally produced meat has a higher nutritional content than previously available data reported. Data for sheep meat was traditionally borrowed from the United States, and those for beef were from a local study conducted in the 1990s before the current production and classification systems were implemented. 

Fresh, local, red meat produced on South African soil is in fact healthier (lower in fat and higher in other nutrients such as protein and iron) than its overseas equivalents. This means that lean, local red meat has a similar fat content to white meat such as chicken. 

Apart from crushing greenhouse gas and health myths, the study highlights that livestock production positively contributes to our food supply and the economy. According to the department of agriculture, fisheries and forestry, only 2.6% of land in South Africa can be used as high-potential arable land suitable for crop cultivation, while 11% can be used for extensive livestock farming. 

The greatest limitation for crops is the availability of water. Livestock production on land that has low potential for crop cultivation, such as areas in the Karoo, positively contributes to our food supply, job creation and economic growth in the region. In the Karoo, for example, sheep farming has traditionally been the backbone of the agricultural economy in the semi-desertous area, which is characterised by low rainfall and extremes of heat and cold. 

Livestock is also the largest agricultural sector in South Africa, contributing significantly to the employment of mainly unskilled labour. The 2013 Economic Review of the South African Agriculture showed that the value of agricultural production was estimated to be R180-billion annually, with animal products contributing nearly R84-billion or 46% of total agricultural production. Agriculture represents about 7% of formal employment, employing 8.5-million people in a country struggling with widespread unemployment.

During the World Wars, Meatless Mondays were a patriotic way for Americans to support the war effort, ensuring that soldiers had access to nutritious foods. But the University of Pretoria’s research into the sustainability of the South African livestock industry highlights the important role that red meat plays and raises questions about whether this movement does more harm than good in South Africa. 

Nicolette Hall is a PhD candidate at the University of Pretoria.