The programme called on the British public to reduce their beef consumption as a means to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
It made various claims about livestock systems that were based on research on farming in the US, South America and Australia, where farming practices differ widely from those in the UK – where vastly more sustainable practices are carried out. A number of basic factual errors about cattle were also made during the programme.
In response, the NFU has sent a letter of complaint to the producers of the programme and has called on Channel 4 to involve the farming industry in the development of any future productions that are focused on food production.
To combat any negativity around British meat, we are collaborating with our members to generate positive livestock content throughout the year for the public. Scroll down to see what we're doing to set the record straight.
Read our letter of complaint
To the producers,
Channel 4 has aired a programme which claimed it wanted to “cancel” the “British countryside” and “British cows”, and which tried to convince its UK audience that they should eat less beef using claims and data which, by the programme’s own (brief) admission, relate to farming practices from outside the UK.
In our view, The Big British Beef Battle amounted to an onslaught on British farming – which produces beef to some of the highest animal welfare and environmental standards in the world – and yet justified that onslaught with facts predominantly relating to farming in other countries.
Research for this programme appears to be alarmingly lacking, repeatedly making claims about livestock systems and methods without sufficient clarification that they don’t happen in the UK.
A three-minute segment which looks specifically at British beef production is, in our view, simply not proportionate in a 47-minute programme, especially when the UK imports very low volumes of beef from places such as the US and South America, which do adopt large-scale feedlot systems. Yet it was the climate impact of these systems which were referenced throughout the remaining 44 minutes which risked leading beef-eating viewers to believe that is what they would be buying.
In the UK however, 87% of beef is fed predominantly forage-based diets with only 4% of the average annual beef diet being soyabean meal equivalents. In our view, the fact that global statistics appear to inform the premise of the whole documentary does little to help British people make informed choices about the British beef on offer to them.
We agree that people should be considering how they can adopt a more climate-friendly diet but, unfortunately, this programme has missed a valuable opportunity to do that. In the UK we have some of the most sustainable livestock systems in the world, turning inedible grass into high quality, nutritious protein, grazing cattle on fields that store a huge amount of carbon. UK livestock also plays an integral part in producing other foods. Their manure is an organic fertiliser which boosts soil health and is widely used by arable farmers to grow the nation’s crops, reducing the use of chemical fertilisers.
However, as this programme is currently framed, it could lead people to potentially cut out sustainably-produced British beef from their diet – a rich source of protein and essential nutrients such as iron (in which women are often deficient), zinc and B vitamins – while having no meaningful impact on their individual climate footprint.
And it’s not just the NFU saying this. While the programme references that greenhouse gas emissions from UK beef are less than half than the global average, further research would have shown the Climate Change Committee stating that sustainably-produced British red meat does have a part to play in a balanced diet and a balanced eco-system.
There were even some basic facts which were wrong. For example, cattle do not have three stomachs as was stated, they have four. This inaccuracy breaks number three in your own compliance code.
The production team also chose to opt for a newspaper article as part of the basis for its argument against eating beef – an article which also focused on global figures rather than UK-specific data. In our view, these figures are irrelevant to the debate at the heart of this programme given that it is entitled “The Big British Beef Battle”.
We struggle to see how this programme adheres to the standards broadcasters in the UK must follow.
I understand that Channel 4 wants to delve into provocative debates, but it must do so in a way that is accurate and informed by thorough research which is relevant to its audience.
To help achieve this, I ask if Channel 4 is planning any other programmes focused on food production, farming systems or consumption of food in the UK that producers reach out to the NFU in the initial research stages.
I’d also be happy to host Ade Adepitan, and any Channel 4 producers, on one of the many British livestock farms which are doing important work to reduce emissions as part of British agriculture’s journey to net zero – work which was seriously overlooked in this programme.
NFU Deputy President
All year round, we look to highlight the high levels of animal welfare and the sustainability of producing British meat to the public.
Prior to Channel 4 airing their programme on 1 December, we shared a number of positive livestock posts to counter the negative messaging from the show.
We joined forces with AHDB to cover topics such as: Why British red meat is so important, how grazing cattle can encourage birds and how beef is an iron source.
With these posts, we reached over 100,000 people on social media with our posts on the importance of British livestock.
Are the public influenced by anti-meat messaging?
There is often a lot of noise around meat consumption in January, but we are interested to know just how influenced the public are by anti-meat messaging.
In January 2023, our YouGov survey results showed that the take up of Veganuary is low (less than 5% of the public) with very few continuing beyond January.
It also showed that the majority of the UK population eat meat and dairy at least once every week.
The NFU’s presence at COP
We are representing British farmers at COP28. The NFU is calling on the UK government to urgently implement practical, progressive policies that will support the net zero transition and help British farmers adapt to a changing climate.
This includes policies such as supporting carbon auditing on farms, standardising carbon calculators and investing in water management infrastructure.
Mythbusting with the local authorities
Deputy President Tom Bradshaw will be hosting a webinar with local authority procurement teams in January 2024.
The focus will be to ask education establishments to highlight British farming’s climate friendly credentials and encourage commitments to source more food from local farms to support the local economy.