By Rosewood Farm, Nov 17 2016 12:12AM
Monday came around and it was time to select two cattle to make the journey across the road to the abattoir. At thirty months of age these animals have both spent three summers at Rosewood grazing some of the most species rich grasslands in the country. Their meat, offal and bones will feed many families over the Christmas period, and their hides will be tanned in a UK tannery next year, the proceeds from which provides our main source of income.
Last week we made a Facebook post about swapping turkey for Rosewood Farm beef this festive season and advising our customers to order early if they wanted something special for the big day. The post attracted some criticism from a couple of vegans who thought we should instead be advocating a meat-free meal this Christmas.
It’s true that we don’t need to kill and eat these animals to maintain the grasslands, they could do exactly the same job if they were allowed to live out their days on the farm. The problem is that taking care of their needs does take up a lot of time and money and despite launching our Meat Free Monday box to help fund the slaughter-free ideal, after nine months we are yet to receive any donations.
One crop that was suggested as an alternative for the ethical eater was almonds. I'm sure many of these nuts will be consumed over the festive season by meat eaters and vegans alike. It turns out that most, 1 in 5, of the world's almonds are produced in the US state of California, a staggering 935,000 acres of them, equivalent to 25 times the area of our remaining UK meadows or one-quarter of Yorkshire.
I have nothing against almonds per se, but suggesting that they are a better ethical alternative to Rosewood beef seems crazy (you could even say that it's nuts) when you take a look at how California produces those crops. As Philip Lymbery recalls in his book, Farmageddon, the almond orchards are far from idyllic;
"Not the chirp of a bird or the buzz of a bee. It was eerie. The distant thud of a helicopter breaks the silence; an aerial crop-sprayer dousing the carpets of monoculture in every direction with chemicals to keep nature at bay."
Eliminating wildlife completely from our farms is one way to avoid them eating our crops, and a very common one at that, but at Rosewood we take the opposite approach. Our aim is to encourage as many plants, insects, birds and mammals as possible to thrive alongside our cattle and sheep. It means we can produce food and allow wildlife to flourish without competition between the two.
Even if you can forgive the way the almond crop is produced (it’s a big ask, but run with me on this one…) to call them ‘vegan’ you must also ignore how the crop is actually used. We humans only eat the kernel which represents just 14.5% of the crop by weight (as a comparison, a beef animal will yield at least 33% of edible meat). The remaining 85.5% of the almond consists of the hull and shell, which are used as livestock feed and bedding respectively. This scenario isn’t restricted to almonds either, other meat & dairy alternatives such as coconut and soy products also rely upon intensive livestock operations to provide a use and market for the by-products, something that is never mentioned in the promotional material.
Although almonds and other nuts may provide the basis for an alternative christmas meal, we’d find it very difficult to replace the cows with nut trees here in the Lower Derwent Valley. The suggestion that we should produce crops instead of meat relies upon the notion that all land is the same and its use may simply be switched from one crop to another. Nut crops require a well-drained soil - not something we have much of in the wetlands of East Yorkshire!
Assuming it was possible to grow almonds in the Ings, just as all land is not created equal, neither are all crops. Proteins are made up of a series of building blocks called amino acids. Our bodies can synthesize some but not all. The others, essential amino acids, must be consumed as part of our diet in order to grow and repair the muscles in our bodies. Proteins which contain the essential amino acids in the ideal proportions are regarded high quality proteins. Almonds score a worthy 55 out of 100 on protein quality, but beef is way in front at 94.
Even if both protein sources were complete (ie 100+) because of the protein quantity of each, to receive your full daily requirement you would still need to eat at least 227g of almonds as opposed to just 151g of beef. The good news for the nuts is that you could gain 66% of your daily calorie intake v only 19% for the beef. So on the Rosewood diet you’d have to force down a few more mince pies & chocolate to make up the difference!
As interesting as nutrition is, our food choices remain much more about our experiences and how they make us feel, rather than facts and figures, though. Eliminating animal products from our diet feels like the right thing to do because there is no getting away from the uncomfortable truth that an animal has died to provide you with meat. The less obvious truth is that the only way to remove death from food production is to eliminate almost all life, as the Californian almonds growers seem to have achieved.
Pioneering US farmer Joel Salatin is well known for his inspirational thoughts [pdf] on what our food system should look and feel like;
"Food production should be aromatically and aesthetically pleasing. [...] Our senses have been given to us for a reason. How do we know we have infection in a wound? It smells bad. If our food production system stinks, it doesn’t bring much happiness."
With that thought fresh in my mind I decided it was time I took a break from writing this blog and went outside for a walk to check the cows. The sights, sounds and smells of life in the grasslands of the Lower Derwent Valley are always a pleasure and the primary reason I choose to do this work. While words and figures can easily be manipulated online it is much more difficult to fake the experience of walking across a landscape full of wildlife. Perhaps that is why our Facebook vegans choose to believe their own version of reality rather than experience ours.