Patrick Holden, founding director, Sustainable Food Trust
For me, one of the most inspiring aspects of last week’s Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC) was the predominance of the voices of practical farmers in the speaker line-up.
Some delegates quite literally crossed the road from the other, better-known conference, swelling the ORFC numbers to 800 on both days.
However, there was one session, organised by the Eating Better Alliance, focusing on the role of livestock farming post-Brexit, which upset the mainly producer audience every bit as much as it would have done at the traditional Oxford Farming Conference.
It was not so much an objection to the alliance’s overall message the UK needed to eat less but better meat – endorsed by its 39 members, including the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, WWF-UK, Friends of the Earth, Oxfam, the Soil Association and the Vegetarian Society – which jarred with most of the audience.
Rather, it was their misguided conclusions and policy advocacy, which I felt was directly related to the fact none of the four speakers had any real experience of livestock production.
As a consequence, not only was much of the ‘evidence’ unbalanced or inaccurate, but there was also serious muddled thinking.
Specifically, in urging consumers to cut their consumption of all animal-based foods dramatically, they seem unaware they have been contributing to the destruction of equatorial rainforests, from where an increasingly high proportion of dietary fats come these days, as well as hastening the demise of the UK’s traditional grass-based livestock sector.
While the Sustainable Food Trust shares important objectives with most of these organisations, we eventually withdrew from the alliance in 2015 when it became clear policy stances of this nature were more likely to be part of the problem than the solution, whether the metrics of measurement be greenhouse gas emissions, environmental pollution, soil degradation, biodiversity loss, animal welfare or dietary impact on public health.
Misguided campaigns such as this need to be opposed as they are fuelling the rise of vegetarianism and the ever-increasing consumption of chicken at the expense of beef and lamb which can be produced from our own resources, namely from the 70 per cent of UK farmland which is under grass for sound agronomic and environmental reasons, including its vital role as a carbon store.
According to a Mintel survey in 2013, 12 per cent of the UK population and 20 per cent of those aged 16-24 now eat no meat.
It has been estimated those under 30 eat on average just 15g of lamb a week, a dietary choice which, if continued, will decimate UK sheep production even more than the potential loss of free access to the EU single market.
But to help see off such campaigns and the equally well-meaning but misguided George Monbiot, livestock farmers will need to maximise use of grass, reduce dependence on imported livestock feeds, antibiotics and nitrogen, and avoid over-stocking whenever possible.