Updated: Mar 15, 2021
With Welsh farm incomes falling and environmental concerns surrounding world meat production at an all-time high, there is little wonder that Welsh beef and sheep farmers are worried. So, we ask, what is the case for sustainable meat production in Wales?
British beef and lamb are some of the most sustainably produced in the world thanks to our wonderful natural grassland. Animals here feed largely on grass and by-products of other crops. And the feeds we give to animals in the UK, to supplement grass, are mostly by-products of human food, like brewers’ grains and surplus food which would otherwise go to landfill.
What many don’t realise is that livestock grazing lands - just like trees - store carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. And increasingly enhanced grazing practices, like mob grazing and strip grazing, which result in less poaching and better grass growth, are being used in Wales to improve carbon storage. As a result, only 4.5% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions come from UK livestock farming – as compared with 27% for transport. In fact, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said that sustainable livestock production, like the many low intensity systems found in Wales, can be very much part of the solution to climate change.
Pasture lands also provide vital habitats and food sources for some of our most treasured and at-risk wildlife species. Rhian Pierce of Plas Dolben, a beef and sheep farmer from the Clywdian hills, is one of 12 farmers from North-East Wales who earlier this year set up the Farm and Countryside Education Group to help counter inaccurate claims from vegans and environmentalists. She says: ‘Many rare habitats in Wales require grazing to maintain them in the optimum condition for the associated birds, flowers and pollinators which depend on them. These include ffridd habitats, blanket bog and woodland to name just a few. All of these rare habitats are at risk of land abandonment and loss of rare species if farmers stop grazing them.’
Welsh animal welfare standards are acknowledged to be among the best in the world, so by choosing Welsh beef and lamb, you are not only reducing food miles, but also helping support rural farm businesses and keeping money in the local economy. By comparison, feeding a growing UK population from plant-based proteins alone would mean us relying more heavily on imported foods, which would have a bigger environmental impact.
Plant-based diets can also leave people short of haem iron and vitamin B12. Better surely to make red meat part of an omnivorous diet and benefit from the numerous minerals which red meat provides to support a healthy immune system, as well as vitamin D. Welsh, grass-fed red meat also contains a healthy ratio of omega 3 to omega 6 fatty acids. And by eating quality, pasture fed meat we are also reducing the demand for oily fish, which is often depleted in fish stocks.
Happily, while consumer interest in sustainability will continue to be a key trend, interest in ‘regenerative agriculture’ which helps to reverse climate change by regenerating topsoil and restoring biodiversity is predicted to increase. (Read Gabe Brown for further info!) Demand for pasture-fed meat in Wales and the UK continues to rise, so here’s hoping that 2021 will bring more balance and understanding to the debate on the future of our food and our planet.