Sustainable meat: Keeping the hills bald for red meat

The inevitable farming backlash has started, against George Monbiot’s ideas of restoring more natural ecosystems in Britain in his new book Feral.

In an article in Farmers Weekly (where else?) on tuesday a Farmers Union of Wales spokesman drew comparisons between Monbiot’s ideas (which include removing grazing from upland areas in Wales) with the forced removal of native american tribes from national parks such as Yellowstone and Yosemite. This is a bit unfair in my view, as although some Welsh may claim to be native Britons, Monbiot is certainly not advocating forced resettlement into reservations. Nor are Welsh hill-farmers hunter-gatherers in the way that the native Americans of the western USA were.

On the same day an interesting and hopefully influential report was published, from the International Devleopment Select Committee,  on the need to adopt sustainable farming systems  – and in particular the urgent need to reduce the amount of meat consumed, especially in the west. The sensible report promotes the need to switch from cereal-based meat production to pasture-fed systems. You might be surprised at how much cereals are now grown to produce the meat you eat. Welsh hill lamb farmers can at least claim that their meat is mostly pasture-fed.

Naturally the NFU refuted all this – quoted in the Western Daily Press –

Peter Garbutt, chief livestock adviser for the NFU, which itself “believes that red meat has an important role to play in a healthy balanced diet”, said today: “The UK livestock sector plays a crucial role in sustaining some of the nation’s most beautiful and treasured landscapes as well as being the bedrock of rural communities. Almost 60 per cent of farming’s uplands, which is dominated by livestock, is designated as National Park or areas of natural beauty. More than two thirds of the UK’s agricultural area is made up of grassland.

“The reality is that if red meat consumption falls dramatically there would be a very real risk of the most valuable environmental assets being abandoned, and we would see lowland grasslands switched to arable production.”

Of all UK farmland, 65 per cent is only suitable for growing grass – and the rain-fed pasture system means that the UK has one of the most efficient beef sectors in the world. And while this may also mean slightly higher prices over grain-based intensive farming, UK consumers consistently choose grass-fed beef over grain-fed.”

Let’s just tease these  arguments apart for a minute as they are a bit mixed up.

1. If you cut down eating so much red meat, our treasured uplands will cease to be grazed and abandonment will mean we lose treasured environmental assets.

Well for starters, over 60% of welsh hill lamb is exported. official figures from 2011 show that the total value of the sheep sector in wales is £270M. £168M of this was exported; over half of it goes to France.

So it turns out that our French friends are making the most contribution to keeping Welsh hills bowling greens with contours/treasured environmental assets (delete as appropriate).

The NFU should be shouting “Ne quitte pas mange les agneux des collines de Pays de Gaulles!” across the channel. Apologies for my french.

2. More than 2/3 of Britain’s agricultural land is grassland.

Err yes well this is my special subject so I can go on for days about this, but I won’t. Suffice to say that most grassland in Britain is not in the uplands, it’s improved grassland in the lowlands, dominated by one or two, if you’re lucky up to 10 kinds of plants, mostly perennial rye-grass and white clover, often heavily fertilised to make silage.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s still better to buy beef that’s pasture-fed, even if it is only rye-grass, than cereals-fed (but is there a proper labelling system to show which is which?). But the truth is that the average British pasture has less wildlife than the average wheat field. If you really want to eat sustainably grown meat, buy it from farms that have pastures which are manageed with wildlife in mind – at the moment, this is tricky, but they do exist and you will have to hunt around for one near you; don’t expect to find this sort of thing in the supermarket.

3.  UK consumers consistently choose pasture-fed over grain-fed beef. That may be true  when they are given the choice. But UK consumers have been somewhat disappointed to discover recently that what they thought was beef (pasture or grain-fed) turned out to be horse, pork and who knows what else.

And is this the same NFU promoting pasture-fed beef that is also promoting large-scale indoor beef units where animals never get to see any grass, other than of the ensiled variety?  My cognitive dissonance warning alarm has just gone off!

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About Miles King

UK conservation professional, writing about nature, politics, life. All views are my own and not my employers. I don't write on behalf of anybody else.
This entry was posted in bees, biodiversity, environmental policy, George Monbiot, grazing, management, meadows, rewilding and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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