If you’re a meat-eater, you need to consider carefully the source of the meat you buy

It’s an emotive subject and there’s no doubt that the demand for meat is in decline. We’re regularly being told that gasses given off by our cattle herds are contributing to global warming, and that it’s environmentally unfriendly eating meat, although a recent programme on BBC Radio 4 had an expert talking on this issue, he stated that in terms of the traditional rearing of cattle which grazed off the land, there wasn’t really much wrong with this environmentally.  He said the real issue was that we corrupt this natural process by feeding livestock with all sorts of supplementary food stuffs, such as soya, corn, etc., primarily to boost growth. Without wishing to appear indelicate, the analogy is that it’s akin to feeding someone a meal of baked-beans!

The past few years have seen a decline in the sales of meat for many reasons – vegetarianism and veganism has been on the increase, primarily in the 18 to 35 age group. Many of these cite environmental issues, as well as animal welfare and health reasons as other concerns. But it’s probably true to say that we’re all concerned about what we eat today, and we know that eating meat can carry baggage.

Food miles

As with many food stuffs, one of the most salient environmental factors is that of ‘food miles’. I was on a Brittany Ferries trip over to France last year and in the on-board restaurant they’d provided information about the source of beef used within their meals – France and Argentina!  What you may ask, is wrong with British beef?  Don’t we have trade agreements with Europe? The additional worry is how do we police foodstuffs imported from far-flung countries such as Argentina, where we have little or no control over how food is grown. This is an area where we very much rely on our supermarkets to ensure what is brought in is fit for our consumption. Undoubtedly the pursuit of locally grown foodstuffs will really come to the fore in the future, although many farmers say that supermarkets make production difficult or unviable because of their iron control of the market and pricing.

Supermarkets not engaging at local food production level

Talking of supermarkets, the great pity is that in their endless pursuit of profits and market share, they have failed to truly engage at local food production level. Take my local Waitrose store for instance in Sidmouth.  Yes, beef is available from their meat counter, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find any locally grown beef – a crying shame because several miles up the road on East Hill, you can source some of the greenest beef in Devon, having the best provenance you could ask for, and virtually zero food miles (you can read our East Hill Pride’s story  in our Food & Drink chapter).

Consumers – a call to arms, to effect radical change

The supermarkets only exist because we patronise them with our combined spending, through which means we’ve given them immense power.  We’re all guilty, life today is busy, supermarkets are convenient and have a wide range of products that mean we can find everything we need in one place – we all use them.  Perhaps we the consumer could redress the balance by getting together and telling those supermarkets that they have to reform – the key is for us consumers to combine our might in order to influence their operation at local food production level. For the supermarkets playing ball, I’m sure they would feel immense benefit because they’d truly be working at local level, supporting our farming communities, and not just vacuuming money out of our local economy as they do currently.

Also, there are major contradictions when it comes to local meat production and sale, how often do we hear farmers telling us how little they make from livestock farming.   There’s obviously somewhere in the chain where the price takes a massive hike!  Food produced locally is always going to be greener than imported, it’s that simple – this is an area that needs resolution as there is currently a major disconnect which prevents us as consumers from exercising choice in the convenient facility of a local supermarket.

Fields devoid of livestock, breed extinction?

There’s an argument to say that if we all cease eating meat, then there will be no requirement for farmers to rear and grow animals on their farms.  I can hear vegans shouting their approval, but ultimately, if we cease to consume meat, it would result in many of our breeds dying out out, fields would no longer contain livestock, the landscape would change permanently, which could be a very sad state of affair.  Would this mean more arable crops on the land where livestock previously grazed – a worrying state of affairs because arable farming, with the associated monoculture and pesticide control, will not help our natural environment and wildlife, although the many arguments could equally be levelled at meat production with its associated downsides.  The question you must ask yourself is do you really want your countryside to be devoid of sheep, pigs, cattle – do we wipe them out because we all wish to be vegan/vegetarian – there’s a huge dilemma. Unfortunately this comes right back to commercial interest and drivers, but if the money’s not there, our farm animals will cease to exist apart from in zoos.

Tokenism

If you’re a Waitrose shopper, you’ll be aware of their token scheme – spend a certain amount and you get a green plastic token which you can then drop into the box of the charity you’d like to benefit. It’s a good idea, obviously devised by the Waitrose’s marketing team, somehow though, you can’t help but feel you’re being cleverly manipulated each time you deposit a token. It’s your money they take, make no mistake, supermarkets are money making enterprises. If they really were so benevolent, couldn’t they adopt charitable or cooperative status? – probably not! 

A recent quote by Waitrose’s MD Rob Collins was “Being mindful of how we live and eat has become a priority in today’s world. As we become increasingly mindful of our own health, the well-being of our family and that of the planet, we’re reshaping how we shop, cook and eat.” The question to ask is if there’s genuine desire from our supermarkets to change, or are they just surfing the wave of consumer trends to optimise their profits?

Waitrose appear to be at the front in terms of their becoming greener, they’ve committed to having packaging that’s widely recyclable, reusable or home compostable within two years – a great initiative that we need to see taken up by the other supermarket brands. They also have a range of other changes to enable them to cut energy wastage, which again is laudable, but the reality is that the UK government and the EU should have pushed regulation for all of this years ago!

Join the Proud to be Green scheme, together we stand tall and can effect positive change.