By Rosewood Farm, Jan 28 2017 10:50PM
This week it was revealed that scientists have teamed up with supermarket bosses to ‘encourage’ us all to replace red meat with more vegetables and fruit. That’s right, supermarkets have only taken about 70 years to start caring about our health and that of our environment - but do they really?
Now, some farmers rely entirely on supermarkets to sell their produce for them and they have to be rather careful about what they say for fear of losing their contracts. Here at Rosewood our only contract is with you, the consumer, so we don’t need to skirt around the issues. The only thing we have to fear is a court case but to be honest, the publicity of the supermarkets stamping on a small ethical producer would be a gift!
Firstly, let’s look at some stats. By 1961 there were already 572 supermarkets established in the UK, and they continued to grow, with the biggest four, Tesco, Sainsburys, Morrisons & ASDA accounting for 76.4% of the UK grocery market by 2011. At the same time the amount consumers spend on food has declined from just under £1 in every 3 in 1961 [pdf] to just over £1 in every 10 by 2011 [pdf].
It’s not only the way we buy food and how much we pay for it that has changed; over the same 50 year timespan what we eat has also been transformed. The FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) keeps track of global food consumption levels and the figures make for some interesting reading.
As we can see, fruit & veg has seen huge increases in consumption of 52%, almost five times that of meat. And they want us to eat even more despite the UK already importing some 65% of our fruit & veg. There is nothing in the announcement about stocking more British or sustainably grown food so we can only assume that the plan is to ship in even more produce from water-stressed regions of the world, despite the obvious issues.
Meanwhile, levels of red meat consumption, most commonly blamed for both declines in health and climate change, have in fact already dropped by 1657 tonnes or 25% of daily consumption. Bearing in mind that over the same period the UK population has risen by almost 20%, individually we are eating 37% less beef & lamb. Hardly a compelling argument for skyrocketing demand.
Here in the Lower Derwent Valley, we are experiencing the direct consequences of this shift in food patterns. The floodplain meadows have been annually grazed the same way for at least 1,000 years but this traditional practise is coming to an end quicker than you might think as people move away from eating grazed meat. In line with the common trend of falling cattle numbers, our area has seen its own decline, leaving us as the last cattle farmers left standing on the floodplains.
Reproduced from; Agriculture; historical statistics [pdf]
It’s not just the decline in red meat consumption driving the change of land use, we have also severed our links with animals as workmates - once upon a time we relied upon animals, cattle and horses, to provide the power to grow all our food and they required large areas of pasture in order to harvest the sun's energy and turn it into work. Since the 1930’s, when fossil fuels started to replace draught animals in earnest, the UK has lost more than 97% of these grasslands to either intensification, drainage and/or the plough.
Some of the measly 3% which remains does have significant protected status but the one thing that legislation can’t protect against is now their biggest threat - neglect.
Farmland birds and small mammals thrived in the patchwork we used to have of short grasslands, wet woodlands, marshes and waterways and so too did migratory winter visitors which rely on cattle grazing these pastures for food and habitat. Grasslands provide resilient crops that can withstand and protect the soil from being washed away in the seasonal floods. The one thing that underpins this diversity of life is the annual removal of the grass crop by mowing and/or grazing, without that the fragile ecosystem becomes much more homogenous, with the more delicate plant species, and the animals that rely upon them for food, outcompeted by coarser, rank vegetation.
It’s not that environmentalists and farmers don’t recognise the need for grazing animals to maintain biodiversity, but it’s just that they can no longer [financially] afford to do it because demand has dropped and what demand there is does not want a beef supply that ebbs and flows with the seasons.
We can see this if we revisit our consumption graph - although it shows an almost 40% reduction in red meat consumption, the figures DO show that individual total meat consumption has risen by 11%, largely driven by the almost 5-fold increase in poultry (not red meat) alongside a 6% increase in pork. The scientists & supermarkets didn’t mention that, perhaps because it runs counter to their conclusions or maybe it was because the supermarkets are responsible for the massive increase in chicken consumption in the first place.
Chicken is a wonderful meat for supermarkets. They have grown their market entirely on the back of convenience, and what that means in practise is predictability - you want to walk into a supermarket and know that your 300g packet of chicken breast will be there every week, year round. Throw a load of cheap fossil fuels at chickens and you get quick, predictable results. Because mother chickens don’t need to rear their own young like mammals, we can ramp up egg production, bang those eggs in a machine, move the hatchlings into a climate controlled shed and have them oven ready in just 40 days, when you just scoop them up off the barn floor and pack them in to crates on a lorry.
Imagine trying to sell a supermarket a bunch of wether lambs which had to live out on a mountain for a couple of years before being ready, each reared by mothers of differing abilities and shaped by good or bad weather - lol!
Veg is even easier to manipulate. There are no pesky welfare concerns to bother yourself with and soil erosion is an unedifying thing for consumers to learn and protest about compared to animal cruelty. The production of them rides on the coat tails of the idea that vegetable growing is a wholesome activity and not actually completely reliant on fossil fuels to provide its machinery and chemicals, especially moreso as they involvement of animals in their production recedes. Entire trailerloads that don’t meet the spec can be rejected without a second thought.
It’s great that consumers are now concerned enough about preserving our environment to let it influence their buying habits - this is proven by the fact that supermarkets are using this as the excuse to try making us more reliant on crops. It’s great that consumers want to support small farmers, evidenced by the popularity of supermarkets faking this on their labelling. What is crushingly disappointing for us is that the message designed to encourage us to eat a more sustainable diet is now having the exact opposite effect.
Gone is our varied mosaic of farmland, gone are the cattle grazing the pastures, chicken is king and vegetables can get away with murder.
If Sainsburys really does want ideas to encourage us to eat less meat, rather than just maximise it’s own profits, I have a suggestion - they should stop selling it! Before the rise of supermarkets our meat came either directly from farmers and/or butchers, we valued it more and we ate slightly less chicken, pork and seafood and more grazed meats which maintained higher levels of wildlife and more variety in the countryside, simultaneously offsetting the damage caused by crop production. Farmers were able to make a living and our traditional meadows were grazed properly. Today the consumer has been separated from the land where their food has been produced and the people who produce it, and both have suffered as a result. Without supermarkets exerting their desperate need for predictability and uniformity we could make better use of our natural resources again.
So c’mon Sainsburys, go the whole hog, ditch the meat altogether and let consumers, the environment, animals and farmers get a better deal.