Grazed and Confused!

Guest post by REG member Marian Harding. The opinions voiced here are not necessarily those of REG – comments welcome!

Anyone come across the ‘ditch dairy’ vegan campaign? It featured so prominently on my radar earlier this year that I felt in need of counselling! However it doesn’t seem to have been taken very seriously by farmers – maybe their social media orbit safely avoids the ‘green consumer’, and maybe they don’t do much shopping either! However the chickens will come home to roost soon enough as the market for our produce vanishes in favour of plant based substitutes made in factories using stuff we can’t produce here, what shall we do then?

As I look out over the Pevensey marshes SSSI to the South Downs National Park I see landscape maintained by extensive meat and milk production, much of which is supported by agri-environment schemes which specify low input grazing and haymaking systems. Wildlife organisations have had an influence on these schemes, but seem to side-step the issue of habitats in relation to what we eat, and mostly continue to advise us to eat less meat despite using sheep and cattle to manage their nature reserves. ‘Green’ choices seem very disconnected to the Sussex landscape but will obviously have implications for what we farmers get up to!  My limited understanding of almond and soya ‘milk’ production leads me to query it as a ‘green’ alternative in this country where grass grows so well, and most UK cows and sheep will have spent a large part of their life eating  grass so I wonder if the carbon footprint figures that condemn them may be unreliable , as Graham Harvey suggests in his book ‘The Carbon Fields’.

Climate change and pollinators in peril are current threats that are influencing environmental thoughts. Farmers respond to demand just like any other business, but they are getting very mixed messages, cheap food sells, despite all the worthy words.  Not only am I inundated with messages from environmental organisations telling me not to drink milk or eat meat, but also to support a ban on neonics, GM crops, hormones, routine antibiotic treatment and a host of other agrochemicals, some of which are already banned here anyway, and all of which are banned on organic farms.  I understand that the UK has the largest membership of conservation organisations in Europe, but why is organic food ‘niche’ here whereas in Europe it’s mainstream and the conservation organisations and organic farming groups all sing from the same hymn sheet? Do we have a lack of joined-up thinking here or just  a different analysis? Maybe it’s a result of the ‘land sparing’ principle sometimes espoused by the RSPB, whereby some land would be used for ‘conventional’ intensive agriculture and some ‘rewilded’………and we all continue to eat food laced with chemicals, much of which is from faraway places where labour is cheaper and there is no frost! Not my idea of healthy food!

One thought on “Grazed and Confused!

  1. Your analysis of the issue is quite correct.
    Farmers are also confused and a some are angry at the accusations made about agriculture in general.
    As an organic livestock farmer i also get a bit tetchy.
    It is absolutely correct that apart from stopping flying one of the most effective ways of reducing our personal carbon footprint is to eat less meat.
    But that is because most meat, including chicken and pork as well as beef is intensively reared. By intensive I mean that they are fed a protein rich diet based mainly on soya and maise (often GM maise from the USA) and other cereals. They do not graze on grass or if they do occasionally go outside, like free range hens, this is a very small part of their diet.
    Extensively reared grass-fed animals, like mine, that are outside grazing on grass for 6 months of the year and then, when housed in the winter, are fed conserved grass – as silage or hay – have a much smaller carbon footprint. Methane emissions from these ruminants are significantly offset by maintaining grassland which is one of the most effective ways of locking up carbon in soil.
    I do not like to be bracketed with meat producers such as found in feedlots in the USA where thousands of head of cattle are fed grain indoors all their life and never see – yet alone eat a blade of grass.
    The other issue is that farmers are largely held responsible for biodiversity loss through intensive agriculture and the use of pesticides but it is not their fault. Food production increases since the 1950s as a result of an industry applying science and technology. This scientists were sure that they were doing the right thing and were supported by governments who helped fund the research. Farmers were convinced that the scientists knew what they were doing and applied the chemicals, sprays and fertilizers as the best science told them to do. They also enjoyed the increased profits that resulted. But no-one was able to warn them of the unintended consequences. In environmental terms the chickens are now coming home to roost and the cost of this technological miracle is only just being realised. Everybody,including farmers,need help tackling the consequences of biodiversity loss and pollution caused by modern farming. Let us hope it is not too late for Nature to recover.

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