Organic Meat for a Greener Diet

Why eat organic meat?

Most people like to eat meat. There’s no doubt that meat-eating can form part of a healthy diet.

But how healthy is meat eating for the planet? And how sustainable is it? Is it worth eating organic meat - is it actually better - or greener?

Here's a look at some of the issues and some of the benefits of eating organically-produced meat.

A troubled industry

The meat industry in Britain and other western nations has been in trouble recently.

The causes of BSE - a serious disease in cows which transmitted itself to humans - have been found in the farming practices which have emerged in the last 30 or 40 years. Animals such as cows which, as everyone knows, are clearly vegetarian had been fed a diet which included meat by-products. There have been heart-rending scenes in the media of animals slaughtered because of disease.

This is a disease which could never have happened under organic meat farming as organic farmers rely on wholesome organic fodder appropriate to the species being farmed.

The BSE crisis is now apparently behind us as better management systems have been employed. The feeding of meat and bone products to cows is now totally banned in the UK. Even so, many meat products are sub-standard. Scams such as horse meat being substituted for more expensive meats continue to crop up. The cheap end of the meat market is being targetted by criminals in search of a fast buck and regulations need constant scrutiny to ensure that well-travelled meat is safe to eat.

Infectious agents such as bird flu continue to lead to massive wastage in large-scale intensive systems. It is not clear that bird flu can be entirely avoided in organically reared flocks. However, the potential for large outbreaks is less; organic farms are far less intensively stocked than most modern chicken farms.  See Compassion in World Farming for a report which supports the view that intensive rearing systems have lead to an increased vulnerability to avian flu in flocks.

Animal welfare

The health and well-being of many factory-farmed animals is well below acceptable standards. And, aside from the humane issues of animal husbandry, much of the meat produced is of low quality, laced with chemical residues and nutritionally poor.

Present standards of husbandry on non-organic farms allow the routine use of growth-promoting antibiotics in the raising of livestock for meat. For example broiler chickens in the UK now grow at twice the rate of 30 years ago.

Some countries allow the routine use of hormones too.

Birds are raised in cramped and stressed conditions without access to daylight and fresh air. All this is often conveniently hidden from public view inside intensive battery farms, many of which have sophisticated security systems to keep away members of the public.

If you want to know more about factory farming please see CIWF(Compassion in World Farming).

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall runs a campaign to get British supermarkets to drop factory farmed chicken and buy free-range only. This is an on-going campaign which is producing great results in Britain and has also produced waves further afield.


The pressure to produce more, cheaper, faster, and bigger (but not better) has everyone in thrall.

But in the aftermath of all the misery of ruined farmers and mass slaughter programmes, more people are turning to organic meat. And more people are experiencing and understanding the benefits of going organic.

What is better about organic meat?

Organic standards are quite high. Almost all the foodstuffs given to the animals on an organic farm have to be organically produced and GM free. For example, in the USA 95% of food given to food stock in the USA have to be organic produced for the meat produced to qualify as organically produced.

There are also strict regulations about medical treatments which are allowed. For example, the use of antibiotics is quite restricted.

The Soil Association does a great job in Britain developing and assessing standards. In the US the Organic Consumers Association lobbies to maintain organic standards.

However, there are increasing pressures from companies wanting to produce factory-farmed organic meat - a complete contradiction if ever there was one!

If a farm gets organic certification from the Soil Association you can be sure that a lot of hard work has gone into that farm and rigorous tests have been carried out.

Different countries have different standards and you may need to check for yourself how reliable organic standards are currently in your home country. IFOAM (The International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements) is the international organisation pushing for consistent organic standards worldwide.

IFOAM's Organic Guarantee System is designed to aid the development of organic standards and third-party certification, and it helps provide an international guarantee of these standards and organic certification.

Organic meat standards - what do they mean?

Meat that has an organic certification should be really organic, wholesome food. There should be no harmful chemical residues present. The meat will be nutritious and tasty. On the whole the animals will have been humanely treated throughout.

Because of the premium price charged by organic farmers for their produce there are occasional scandals where racketeers seek to exploit these higher prices by fraudulent sales practices. Fortunately, these cases are fairly rare; the organic certification processes in place (at least in Britain) are fairly rigorous.

Certification by such organisations as IFOAM leads to consumers' trust in organic production systems and the end products. Credibility and trust is being built by certification schemes and the organic movement worldwide is going from strength to strength. Many countries of the developing world are seeing the benefits of organic agricultural methods - some are now pioneering organic farming techniques.

Slow grow methods

Even organic meat is often too high in fat, though. This because some organic meat is still reared in a relatively intensive way, using protein-rich fodder.

Fortunately some farmers are now making a virtue of slow-grown meat which is naturally leaner. This is better from a welfare standpoint as well as nutritionally. This way of raising livestock for meat was the norm until 40 or 50 years ago.

Wild meat

Wild meat is a good source of lean protein and is well worth considering as apart of a healthy balanced diet. 

Wild meat such as game is naturally leaner than farmed meat. It is not necessarily organic, however, as most estates producing game give supplementary feed which is usually conventionally grown. Even pigeons, often shot as farmland pests, cannot be seen as ideal organic food as they are feeding chiefly upon the growing crops of conventional farmers.

If you can, find locally-sourced organic meat. You will be better able to ascertain that the meat really is reared in a proper way, with high welfare and organic standards.

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Is organic meat green?

Well hopefully not actually green! But broadly yes, it is greener, - greener than factory farmed meat certainly, by a long way, for all the same reasons that other organic food is greener.

Organic farms use fewer chemicals and drugs, so there is less strain on the surrounding environment and water supplies. Less inputs of this kind can also mean less packaging and other wasteful by-products; chemicals and drugs all have their own packaging and waste disposal needs. Many organic farmers grow a proportion of their own fodder crops which again means less transportation and less packaging.


Organic farms are usually far better for biodiversity, supporting as they do a relatively rich eco-system of plants and animals. A lot of recycling of materials goes on in the organic farming year. Manure from animals is used to grow new crops to feed the animals - or it is recycled locally.

Mixed farms with both animals and vegetable crops provide more opportunities for wildlife such as birds.

Is animal rearing for meat a strain on the planet?

Rearing animals for meat certainly puts more of a strain on the planet than vegetable-based foods. The biggest factor is land use. It takes on average about 8 times as much land to produce meat as it does to produce an equivalent amount of vegetable protein. Some products are far higher than this.

In a world that is still unable to feed all its people, that is a significant fact. Many developing world economies export meat to rich western nations while their people subsist on low-protein diets.

The water usage in producing meat is also a sustainability issue. Farmland irrigation accounts for as much as 70% of our water use worldwide. Intensively grown fodder crops are a large part of this; less water would be needed if more vegetable foodstuffs were grown for direct human consumption. It has been estimated that just one kilogram of grain-fed beef takes 100,000 litres of water to produce. Water shortages are becoming a very significant issue in some parts of the world because of intensive farming, population pressures and changing climate patterns.

There are also issues with the transportation of organic meats - as with non-organic meats. Transportation adds significantly to the gases that produce climate change. So local non organic food may be greener than organic food from far away.

Climate changed by meat?

Meat production is also a significant contributor to climate change in other ways. Sounds incredible, doesn't it?

Methane produced by stock animals is actually accounted as a very significant greenhouse gas. The more we go for cheap and plentiful, intensively reared meat, the more greenhouse gas we produce. Around 4% of the world's greenhouse gases are thought to be caused by stock rearing. As more people worldwide adopt a so-called western lifestyle, that proportion continues to rise.

Much of the feed stuff is intensively produced with the aid of artificial fertilisers which are petroleum based. The whole of the modern farming system is heavily dependent upon fossil fuels which are the main cause of climate change. There is an enormous hidden cost to our modern farming practices.

Virgin rainforest is being clear-felled in the Amazon to provide space for grain-fed herds of beef cattle, at incalculable cost to the planet and our futures.

Does that mean we all have to be vegetarian to be green?

I wouldn’t say so, though a vegetarian diet can be healthy and delicious. If you are lacto-vegetarian (i.e. eating cheese and other dairy foods), you are still contributing to the problem anyway!

For a wider view of why veganism may be beneficial for you as well as the planet check out Vegan benefits for health and longevity which is a guest article by the vegan food company GobbleGreen.

Most people actually eat far more meat than they need. In fact, a lot of ill health can be put down to excessive meat eating, particularly the high-fat low-nutrient stuff coming from the factory farms.

Sir Paul McCartney of Beatles fame has recently started a world-wide campaign for "meatless Mondays". See for details of the campaign.

My attitude to meat eating is to keep it as a relatively small part of my diet and to source everything from reputable organic, free-range and local farms. Locally produced meat can be relatively sustainable, particularly in a mixed farming economy. Small mixed farms can support other local businesses and by products such as manure can help other local growers, including homesteads.

So, if you want to be greener, eat less meat and make sure all the meat that you do eat is locally-sourced and preferably organic meat!

If you do this you won't be spending any more money and your health will benefit too.

free-range hens enjoying the sunshine

Picture: Free-range hens enjoying the sunshine

There are good arguments for including some animal-sourced foods in our diets. Some animals can grow well on land which is unsuitable for other types of agriculture, for example. Animal husbandry can sometimes use up waste products as acceptable fodder, for example waste food can be given to pigs. Pigs can also play a part in successful low-carbon farming by acting as soil cleansers (thereby reducing the need for machinery). Stock animals also play a valuable part in the ecology of other species such as birds and insects.

Also, many farm animals can live happy and satisfying lives if cared for in a non-intensive and humane way. 

There are plenty of vegetarian and vegan recipes in the Green Recipe Book - including lots of recipes featuring beans and peas.

The Green Recipe Book - organic healthy recipes for everyday eating


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