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Meat’s future – a bit of a tricky issue

December 24, 2015

Wassledine Red Poll bull - great tasting and slow grown, grass fed beef from BedfordshireHaving enjoyed a pretty hearty meal of stir fried vegetables and tofu with egg noodles on Tuesday evening, I switched on BBC Radio 4 to provide washing up entertainment and listened to a documentary featuring Henry Dimbleby, called ‘A Meaty Problem’. Worth a listen if you have a moment.

The focus was on the need for us to reduce our meat consumption, for reasons of health and to reduce carbon emissions and water and fossil fuel use. This is definitely something I would support and we try to push the simple idea of eating less meat, but better meat. The programme included some interesting glimpses towards a possible future where meat is engineered from stem cells originally harvested from the parent animal – steer, chicken, whatever. These cells would be grown in a carefully controlled environment and then, and this is the part I struggled to understand, processed into the structure of meat complete with marbling and texture, by a 3-D printer. All very sci-fi. The human population of the world certainly needs access to high quality, affordable protein, and although I was initially very dubious about factory engineered meat, having thought about it for a while, I’m inclined to think, why not?

We are becoming more squeamish about killing furry animals for food, so perhaps eating insects is a better way to reduce the overall cost of our protein. I believe some insects are very much more efficient converters of vegetation than traditional farm mammals. Insects surely would require a great deal of processing before most people in Europe and North America are prepared to eat them and there would be a cost inherent in that.

The part of the show that really made me stop and wonder was mention of the inefficiency of free range farming. The example cited was a chicken producer who compared his housed system with a free range alternative, suggesting that the speed of production he was able to achieve made the other appear inefficient and wasteful of resources. Such an argument was a new one on me, or so I thought. Again, after a while I realised that its logic and truth is a throwback to what must have been revolutionary changes after World War 2, that led to hens being raised in battery houses and pigs in factory systems – both of which have thankfully fallen out of favour to some extent, thanks to long-term campaigning and pressure from a wide range of quarters. I speak as a convert from one philosophy to the other and I found it a little unsettling to hear what I assume would be the same outcome – an increase in factory farming – proposed using subtlety different reasoning.

Our beef production is very small scale and our prices are not low. Customers buy from us for a variety of reasons – local provenance, high welfare standards, low inputs, lack of routine medication, as well as great taste, of course. We don’t claim to be particularly efficient, indeed one particular selling point is our animals’ age at slaughter; just less than thirty months. Which by some standards renders us decidedly inefficient. Because our cattle eat grass in spring and summer and hay, cut from our farm in winter, our inputs, particularly cereal feeds, are very much lower than their efficient equivalent. It takes longer but requires fewer inputs and we think the result is better.

Eat less and better quality meat, eat insects and yes, cultured and printed meat if we must, but surely we can’t allow ourselves to slip back to the dark days of factory reared, poor welfare food in the name of efficiency.


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