Eating no, or less, meat is all very well but it needs to be looked at within the bigger picture. The most depressing bit is that a lot of us are eating less but it won’t make a blind bit of difference to the 75% of the UK population who aren’t, or the vast numbers globally. I’ve always been a great believer that, given the information, people will make the right decisions. With most food related issues it seems that interest will precipitate a series of simple questions and consequent decisions. If only things were as simple with farming and greenhouse gases. There are lies, damned lies and statistics, but all we can do is give you the information and a few hints in as unbiased a way as possible. Guy’s doing that and I thought last week’s newsletter got it about right. Eating meat isn’t just about one issue – but nothing I’ve heard to date has come close to changing my opinion that organic is the best option for the taste buds, heart (in its emotional sense), body and the environment.
Unfortunately what we thought were the most natural of meats, beef and lamb, have been shown to be, in GHG terms, the worst. Enteric fermentation, resulting in methane emission through flatulence, has made ruminants the bad kids on the block, but would they be saying the same about the tens of millions of bison that roamed the North American prairies if we hadn’t wiped them out and substituted them with beef in feed lots? In the States about 22% of beef is grass fed – I would assume it’s a bit higher over here. Organic beef is almost always, by nature of being free range, grass fed. Permanent pasture or long term grass leys and their root systems obviously don’t sequestrate anywhere near as much carbon as rainforests but they’re a lot better than a field of, dare I say it, vegetables. Grass fed also means no nitrogen and energy heavy arable feed crops, or rainforest destruction. It’s also largely local and doesn’t get frozen and shipped around the world. I rest my case m’Lud and I hope you’ll take the similar cases of lamb and venison into account as well.
Pigs might not belch and fart in the bovine manner (as Guy wrote last week, in GHG terms, they’re far better than cattle and sheep) but as with beef, the more we eat, the worse it gets. The William Cobbett inspired picture of eating every bit of pigs but the squeal, fed on waste from the kitchen, is about as likely as pigs with wings. Since Foot and Mouth in 2001, feeding swill has been banned, so grain, supplemented by soya protein, has become the norm. More animal feed means more fertile land needed for cultivation and we all know where they find that. Pollution, antibiotic use and appalling animal welfare all go hand in hand with large scale pig farming. Organic is the only system and label that provides any worthwhile guarantees. Free range still has no legal meaning – they could be free to range around a 2m x 2m pen. Outdoor reared means they’ve had access to the outdoors (could be a small concrete yard) for half their lives and outdoor bred means just that – absolutely nothing from day one onwards. If the FSA pulled their fingers out and helped find a safe way of using food waste we could all eat a bit of ‘low impact’ pork without being told we’re putting the planet in jeopardy. Of all the meats, it’s pork that falls most readily into a, ‘meat as seasoning’ diet. In fact, it is the best use for organic pork. It’s full of flavour, a great meat for processing, curing etc, but it’s a different beast to fast growing intensively reared pork and needs to be treated as such.
For the most part, chickens fall into the same basket as pork. They’re naturally omnivorous and great scavengers, and until the second half of the last century, an affordable roasting chicken was unheard of. Chickens produce 300 eggs a year and this, coupled with intensive rearing, selective breeding and a good feed conversion ratio, meant cheap meat for the masses. Cheap chicken has come to define the modern food industry, and it tastes of virtually nothing. However, we all want it so the organic sector has had to come up with an acceptable alternative. The differences are enormous; double the age, flock sizes of 500 (rather than tens of thousands), constant access to pasture etc etc. I could go on but I don’t want to be accused of my own version of enteric fermentation so in a nutshell, if we’re going to eat less meat and, for the most part, treat it as a seasoning, I hope you’ll agree that organic fits the bill far better. It’s a bit like killing two birds with one stone, but we should only eat one.