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Follow us for updates of life, food & wildlife on the farm here in the Lower Derwent Valley, Yorkshire.

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.

Changing patterns of UK food consumption over half a century
Changing patterns of UK food consumption over half a century

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.

UK cattle numbers continue to decline significantly from the mid-1970's
UK cattle numbers continue to decline significantly from the mid-1970's

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.

Whimbrel; rare wading birds depend upon cattle grazing for habitat and food
Whimbrel; rare wading birds depend upon cattle grazing for habitat and food

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.

Coarse vegetation, lacking in diversity, takes over if left ungrazed
Coarse vegetation, lacking in diversity, takes over if left ungrazed

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.

The Alternative?

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.

By Rosewood Farm, Jan 7 2016 11:56PM

This might not be what you were expecting me to blog about this month but when asked (it's one of the unfortunate hazards of being around the sustainable ag community) if I was taking part in veganuary this year, I declined. The #veganuary website asks, Why take part in Veganuary? Well, why not?, so I thought I'd summarise some of the reasons why you too might decide to give it a miss;

1) January is one of the worst months to rely upon plant based foods

Think about it for a second, in conservation, when do we feel the need to feed wildlife most? That's right, winter. Food is in short supply for our wild animals at this time of year and it is during these months that many animals die for lack of sustenance. Humans, on the other hand, have developed sophisticated food production, storage and transport techniques that allow us to eat exactly what we want, when we want it, but this does come at a cost.

2) It's not seasonal

We're always being urged to eat more seasonal food, for a variety of reasons, and it makes sense for us to eat whatever is available in abundance at that particular time of year. Our vegetable crops are at their most naturally productive during summer, so you'd think they'd schedule a month for eating more veg when there is naturally more available, but apparently not.

Image credit;
Image credit;

On the other side we have meat which, as a natural food for humans, would tend to be consumed in greater quantities during winter when alternatives were less available. At the same time, a limited plant based food supply encourages more hunting to protect the valuable crops and stores from all the other creatures that are struggling to survive the winter. The temperatures (usually!) tend to be cooler in winter, which makes for easier preservation and storage of meat too, so if ever there was a time to eat meat, it's now .

4) It drives imports

You may be thinking that the seasons don't apply any longer and we can produce everything we need from plants, in which case have a look at some of the recipes designed to tempt your tastebuds this month. Chickpeas, Coconut, Tomatoes and Tofu - not exactly your usual homegrown favourites from the garden in January, or indeed any time of year for three out of the four. So how far does your meal have to travel to reach you, and is it really ethical to be importing so much water in fresh produce from arid regions?

Image credit; Holy Cow vegan recipes
Image credit; Holy Cow vegan recipes

5) It drives exports

Britain has quite a wet, cold climate that isn't so great for growing annual crops year round, but it is a wonderful climate for grass! About 65% of our agricultural land in the UK is grassland so we are capable of producing a lot of meat at home. The trouble is that we can't just change our land and climate to suit changing diets, so our farmers continue to rely heavily upon livestock to produce edible food. A switch to less meat, particularly in winter, gives them fewer options to continue making a living from the land. One solution is to export what we can produce in order to pay for what we can't.

Exporting food just to import alternatives is hardly sensible, even if you don't care about the environment or animal welfare. We believe that animals should be killed as close to the farm as possible, which is why we use small, local abattoirs, just a stone's throw away from the fields where the animals graze.

6) It's dull

OK, so maybe you don't feel the need to import all your ingredients and already buy everything locally. In the UK that probably means you have a few dried pulses, winter brassicas and selected root vegetables to make a meal from. Far better to give it a go in the summer when there's often a glut of fresh produce available, so much so that we end up feeding the excesses to animals because we can't possibly eat or store it all.

Image source;
Image source;

7) Wildlife suffer

We have a climate suitable for growing grass but we've still lost 97% of our wildflower meadows over the past 100 years. These are important habitats for a wide variety of insects, birds, plants and mammals and often the last haven for biodiversity in otherwise arable landscapes. Our grasslands are very important threatened habitats for winter visitors too, with waterfowl and waders enjoying the seasonally inundated wetlands as safe places to feed and spend the winter. Grasslands have developed over thousands of years of pastoral farming but to date there have been few efforts made by the vegan community to support these habitats.

Winter visitors to the Lower Derwent Valley
Winter visitors to the Lower Derwent Valley

8) Farmers suffer

Farming, particularly with livestock, is a 365 days a year job - animals can't be turned off for a few months. Winter is the most expensive season for farmers, at a time when animals require greater daily care and attention while they are not able to be out grazing. While every farmer needs to make a profit to feed both his/her own family and to reinvest in the business, more often than not it is cashflow, rather than profit, that means a business ceases to trade. With many abattoirs and markets closed over the Christmas period, January is an important time to start selling livestock and produce again.

9) It drives factory farming

A commonly held belief is that reducing the amount of meat we eat is beneficial for animals and ourselves, but as a recent assessment from the US Food & Drug Administration showed, we're eating less meat but using more antibiotics to produce it. By cutting back on consumption there is a negative feedback loop where the farmer receives less money and therefore has to produce more, for less. Most likely the smaller farmers simply have to cease production enabling, larger industrialised units to increase their size & economies of scale.

10) It was very carefully planned to be this way

They were correct, January was the ideal month to capitalise on the post-Christmas lull as both personal finances and mood are at an annual low. It was obviously not chosen to make the most of the wonderful food we can produce seasonally and sustainably in this country.

So, rather than indiscriminately cutting out a whole food group at the worst possible time of year, I urge you to take a look at the food you buy each week and consider just how much you do know about how and where it was produced. All meat and dairy sold in the UK can be traced all the way back to the farm or farms where it was produced, veg and manufactured goods are a little harder to follow. Vegan, vegetarian or omnivore, I challenge you to do this for at least one item of food this week (and don't make it too easy by choosing the last of the winter greens from the garden!). It may not be immediately apparent from the labelling and you might need to ask your suppliers for some more information, but what better way to connect with the food you are eating?

Once you've discovered where your item originates, call or email the farmer to talk and learn about your food. Ask if it would be convenient to visit the farm sometime and really reconnect with it's origins. I hope, for your sake, that this means a short journey into the local countryside, rather than buying a plane ticket to the other side of the world!

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