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Ditching the plough, not the cow...

By Rosewood Farm, Feb 1 2016 02:01PM

Riverford is a name that comes up many times when talking to our customers; many of them supplement our grassfed meat boxes with an organic vegetable version from the veg box pioneers. So when I heard talk of a Riverford meat-eating survey, I was intrigued what had prompted it, especially so soon after my veganuary blog post. You can read Guy Watson’s thoughts here.

Now, I’m inclined to agree with Guy on the merits of Cowspiracy, a film perfectly designed for boosting sales of tofu and destroying animal agriculture. However, it seems to have got to him too as he concludes with the statement ‘most forms of animal agriculture are simply wrecking our planet.’ A more balanced statement would also point out that a large proportion of agriculture’s impact comes from growing crops.

A neighbour waters his crops while I feed my cows
A neighbour waters his crops while I feed my cows

Here at Rosewood, an all grassland farm in Yorkshire, we’d be hard pressed to convert to organic vegetables; our heavy, marshy land is not best suited to crops and at present what isn’t damp and splodgy is under 6ft of flood water. Cows can be whipped off the land at a few hours notice to escape floods, eating stored grass from the same pastures instead, as has been practised for at least 1000 years in this area.

Crops would just be ruined. Not to mention the damage caused by running tractors over such damp ground and the sheer sacrilege of taking a plough to biodiverse pasture and replace it with one, or maybe two things at most. There are lighter pockets of land in the valley and recently there has been a move towards arable production and a corresponding rise of soil erosion and silt ending up in the river as a result.

There is a grain of truth to the issues ‘Cowspiracy’ raises, of course. The interpretation of the message misses the mark however, and here at Rosewood we grow increasingly worried that this simple, popular message risks harming progress towards a more sustainable future, despite good intentions. ‘Meat’ is such a generic term to use, all meat is far from equal, so to say we should eat less ‘meat’ is like saying we should eat less ‘food’ - correct in many cases, but hardly universally so.

The ‘eat less meat’ message becoming so popular relies on people accepting the headline statements at face value. Take for instance, the ‘shocking’ greenhouse gas figures in Guy’s blog telling us that livestock production produces the same GGs as every vehicle on the planet combined. Sounds awful, until you consider that according the the UN, this is around 14.5% for livestock at most, so even if you put every carbon belching car and every farting cow kept in the most eco unfriendly manner possible together, you still only arrive at 30% max. That means if we could ALL be vegan and ride nothing but bicycles from tomorrow, we’d still have 70% of our greenhouse gas to trouble us. So there is something other than driving cars and eating meat, which we are told are the worst of the worst problems, that is responsible for 70% of our emissions…

Similarly, there is a popular notion that beef consumption has gone wild recently. In fact, whilst it’s true that the world as a whole is eating more beef today than in 1961, rising by 126%, before we start gasping in horror, perhaps we should also take into account that at the same time world population has risen by 127% - effectively, our beef consumption is in fact static.

Meanwhile, pork weighs in at a hefty 336% rise, but far and away the biggest climber is poultry with a whopping 1033% increase over 50 years. Seafood has also seen similar explosive rises, and look at the problems the ocean faces, so again, it feels like beef is being unfairly targeted as especially problematic for the planet.

Free range pigs at 'pasture'
Free range pigs at 'pasture'

The reason we no longer produce pork at Rosewood, and have never produced poultry commercially, is because these both rely heavily upon annual crops, mainly grain, for the bulk of their feed. Both (naturally forest-dwelling) species can be kept at pasture, but in a way that feels even worse - tying up both pasture land, putting it under the damaging effects of snouts and scratching claws where they were not designed to go without big tree root systems to protect the soil, and ploughing up the other half of our land and carting the results to them.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that we should give up our eggs, pork & poultry completely, because pigs and poultry can be unsurpassed waste converters, if kept under the right system. And I’m not saying that all cattle are entirely pasture fed, far from it - but they can be, readily. Just as crops can be grown under permaculture methods and escape the monoculture, soil erosion, fossil fuel reliance and pesticide issues that trail them around, too.

Following Cowspiracy and Guy’s logic, beef, pork, eggs, poultry AND crops should be cut from our diets completely, based on the results of some growing systems. By Rosewood’s logic, we should carefully examine where everything we eat comes from instead. 'Cutting down' on an entire food group, without being asked to make a distinction based on production methods, penalises the producers in that group who are trying to change it for the better and gives those in other groups a free ride on sustainability issues.

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