The impact of meat production on the planet is a hot topic – with our increasing population as well as appetite for meat, we need to consider the environmental impact of producing and consuming more and more of it. Dr Michael Mosley’s latest Horizon documentary for the BBC, Should I Eat Meat?, has been exploring this subject in more detail. One surprising argument put forward in the second programme is that intensive farming has a better carbon footprint than organic and free-range farming, particularly in chicken farming. We thought we’d take the time to address this topic in full below.

Yes, intensive chicken farming may be better in terms of its carbon footprint, which is primarily due to the much shortened lifespan of the chicken, bringing about greater efficiencies in production. But we need to look at the bigger picture.

An intensive rearing unit for chickens is like a hot bed for antibiotic resistance. It’s not necessarily because they’re dirty and unsanitary – and quite the opposite in many cases – it’s because the chickens are confined to an unnatural environment allowing them little opportunity to build their immune system. Contributing to this, and as a consequence, they are given significant dosing of antibiotics. Organic systems which have free roaming flocks at a low stocking density create a more natural environment that stimulates a healthy immune system not dependent on antibiotics. This is a far safer position to be in, considering the World Health Organisation says antibiotic resistance is now a current, major threat to public health.

The same issues with antibiotics can be said for intensive cattle systems. However, we do know that organic cattle systems have a significantly lower carbon footprint than intensive models. This is primarily because of the carbon sequestering role that the grasslands provide, which the organic cattle have to graze on.

So therefore, the organic movement can say with confidence that when looking at a system versus system approach, organic farming has a lower carbon footprint. It also prepares us for climatic extremes when the weather turns nasty. The Soil Association website sums it up:

‘Organic farming methods offer the best, currently available, practical model for addressing climate-friendly food production. This is because it is less dependent on oil-based fertilisers and pesticides and confers resilience in the face of climatic extremes. It also stores higher levels of carbon in the soil, and as a result if organic farming was common practice in the UK, we could offset at least 23% of agriculture’s current greenhouse emissions.’

Ultimately, we would be better off as a planet if we chose only to eat meat that we know has been produced responsibly – i.e. organic certified. However, with current trends of meat consumption, the shopping budget and planet cannot sustain it, so we must consider eating a little less meat (but better quality), and consume within our means.