Blog: Challenging the narrative around livestock

Wednesday, 6 December 2023

One hour of Friday night television has provoked a whole weekend of reaction from livestock farmers on social media, and rightly so.

For anyone who has seen Channel 4’s ‘The Big British Beef Battle’, it’s very difficult not to argue that it was misleading to British consumers and included a number of factual inaccuracies. Included in this (which sums up the feelings of many watching the show), was the claim that cows have three, not four stomachs.

The opening of the programme focused on referencing average global livestock emissions, in order to challenge the British public to give up beef to help save the planet.

However, it failed to mention that a global average paints a very different picture to focusing on a country that, in 2021, saw 85% of beef sold in supermarkets being domestically produced and predominantly grass fed. Instead, presenter Ade Adepitan chose to inform his viewers that the vast majority of cattle are fed with soy, grain and corn – without clarifying that is not the case here in the UK but in other parts of the world.

This global approach to a programme, pitched at a British audience, continued throughout the full hour, including talking about the environmental impact of US beef production (why, when we don’t import US beef to the UK?) and methane emissions, which didn’t take into account that AHDB’s GWP* analysis shows that since 1990, methane from UK livestock has had no additional warming impact on the planet.

The reaction on social media reflected just how important an issue this is for the industry, although in one tweet the show’s presenter tried to argue that the programme wasn’t about farming.

Although many consumers wouldn’t have been watching this show, it demonstrated a key issue for AHDB, that the narrative around livestock agriculture and its impact on the environment needs addressing. And that’s why we have chosen to raise our concerns with Ofcom.

Too often we are seeing broadcasters and journalists pedalling the message that one of the best things you can do to help tackle climate change is to stop eating red meat. But we know that the evidence for this claim is oversimplified and distinctly lacking.

These claims are based on those global averages that keep getting quoted and don’t take into account that UK livestock farming is very different to most of the rest of the world, due to our unique landscape, or the role that livestock plays in benefitting our soils as well as nature, wildlife and human health.

The challenge that AHDB and the wider industry faces is getting our message heard. Why you ask? Because in truth the science is complicated. It’s much easier to focus on a simple narrative being put across by some of the experts when other experts are trying to explain the various caveats in the story you are trying to tell.

So, what is the solution? We need to keep telling our story and telling it well. We need to find ways to explain the complicated issues in a simple way and make it interesting. We also need to give our levy payers the information they need to tell their own stories, after all the media love a good case study and farmers always have a good story to tell.

But we also have a harder job, which is to challenge the current narrative.

This isn’t an easy task, but with the evidence on our side, we must explain to certain members of the media why their simplistic narrative on livestock is doing more harm than good.

We know that red meat has a key role to play as part of a healthy and sustainable diet and we know there is a need to feed a growing population. With that in mind, whether it’s a TV programme being watched by a few hundred thousand people on a Friday night, or an online news story read by millions, we have a duty to ensure journalists do their job, in ensuring the narrative they present is impartial, balanced and evidence based.

After all presenting the facts is only what we’d expect of ourselves.

Read our complaint to Ofcom

Image of staff member Phil Maiden

Phil Maiden

Head of Media Relations & External Affairs

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