We asked an Aspiring Sheep Farmer about High-Welfare Meat

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More Than Carrots helps our users discover and recommend restaurants that do vegetarian food well. However, we know that most of you eat meat and care about the quality of it and we want to support you in learning about this topic as well. We aren’t the experts here, so we have partnered with Ben Eagle, an environmental and agricultural writer from Essex who blogs at www.thinkingcountry.com and tweets @benjy_eagle.  He has written for The Guardian, The Countryman and Earth Island Journal, among others. He is a meat eater, an aspiring meat producer, the son of a former conventional dairy farmer (who still farms, but no longer dairy cows), and a conservationist who sees livestock grazing as central to conservation strategy in many parts of the country.

 

Here is what he says about meat:

“This article will hopefully provide you with answers to some fundamental questions about eating and producing meat. As suggested above, I have eaten meat for my entire life and whilst I have watched various friends turn to vegetarianism or veganism over the years I remain a meat eater. I understand that there are complex ethical questions behind it but I see meat production as a fundamental part of overall food production moving into the future, helping to meet the nutritional needs of the human population, and making best agricultural use of areas of land in the UK where it is difficult to grow crops. Livestock farming also makes a lot of conservation work economically viable.

The most important question for me is how we can make the industrial approach to meat production, i.e. vast CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) and zero grazing units, a thing of the past. These systems take a significant proportion of grains out of the human food chain. The alternative to industrial meat production is a world where people eat less, but higher quality grass fed meat. This meat should attract a higher value that can be retained by the food producer, enabling greater economic sustainability in relatively poorer rural areas.

However, you may ask whether grass fed is really better and, if so, in what ways and how much better? This article will hopefully give you some answers.

Without further ado, let’s take a look at some quick questions that might be on your mind with regards to meat production. The main thing I hope you’ll take away is that, whilst we should be striving for the best standards in food production and aim for producing as much grass fed meat as possible, the amount we can produce is finite. After all, the amount of land we have is also finite.

Why do cattle and sheep eat grass?

Let’s start with the basics. Grazing animals such as cows, sheep, goats, deer and others can convert the cellulose in grasses (which we as humans cannot digest) into an edible format (proteins and fats that humans can digest). That is because, unlike humans, pigs and other monogastric animals, grazing animals are ruminants which possess a rumen (along with a reticulum, omasum and abomasum if you are a cow), a bit like a 45 gallon fermentation tank full of bacteria which break the grasses down.

What happens when a cow eats grain?

The rumen normally generates huge amounts of gas which is normally expelled through the rear end (which isn’t so great from a climate change point of view). However, when a cow eats too much starch and not enough roughage (which is what happens when we feed them grains), rumination slows down and gas becomes trapped, putting pressure on the animal’s lungs. This doesn’t always happen but it’s certainly more likely to happen in cows that are fed grains instead of eating grass.

Eating too much grain can also cause acidosis. A rumen is usually pH neutral and feeding grains can cause it to grow more acidic. This can lead to all sorts of conditions, from diarrhoea to bloat and liver disease. As with all physical stress it also leaves the animal more prone to other diseases such as pneumonia.

How much land does a grass-fed cow need?

To be honest, there is no definite answer to this one. Like with all things, it is very complex and open to many different variables. It depends on weather, forage type and quality, rainfall, grazing system and grazing objectives. You might have conservation objectives when you are grazing as well as food production aims. For sheep, you might have anything between 2 or 3 and 15-20 sheep per hectare. For cows, you might have one or three or four. However, the main thing to remember is that overstocking will have detrimental effects on the pasture itself, on the soil (leads to compaction) and on the health and welfare of the animals (greater stress and less available forage leading to health issues).

How much water does a cow drink every day?

This again depends on a range of different variables, such as the age and weight of the animal, stage of production, temperature, stress and whether it is lactating. Basically, the heavier the animal the more water it requires. It varies between three and thirty gallons per animal and lactating cows will need about double the amount of water compared to a dry cow.

What’s the Difference between ‘grass fed’ and ‘pasture fed’ on UK labels?

You might occasionally see different labels and be confused as to what the difference is between them. In the UK, ‘grass fed’ can be used if an animal has spent part of its life grazing grass, but not necessarily all of it. The rest of the time they will have been fed cereals or other feeds. ‘Pasture for Life’ animals have been raised purely on grass.

Are ‘Pasture for Life’ animals fed anything else?

During the winter, when grass is less plentiful, these animals will be fed conserved grass in the form of hay, haylage or silage (pickled grass), so it is still grass in a form but not directly grazed. When the weather allows, animals might still be grazing outside as well but their diet will be supplemented by conserved grass.

How can you identify high-welfare meat?

It is vital that, as a consumer, you know where your meat comes from. We live in an age of good food stories and traceability, and yet, many consumers do not know, or even think about, the origin of the piece of meat they have just purchased. We rely on distributors, retailers and regulators to ensure our food is safe, but we cannot rely on them being the ‘ethics police’. It’s only by knowing where your meat came from that you can take an informed decision of whether you want to buy it and consume it. When you make your purchase decision you are supporting the system in which that animal lived and which it died for.

Your best option is to purchase directly from a farm, on a farmer’s market or via a butcher. If that’s not possible, you should look out for quality labels. Unfortunately, labelling is overly complex, with numerous quality labels on display. It can be difficult to wade through all of them and understand what they really mean. The Soil Association Organic Standard and RSPCA Assured are probably your best bets if you buy meat in supermarkets. Some other labels, whilst legal, are ethically dubious, marked with the names of fictional farms to make consumers think the product is somehow more ‘wholesome’, ‘local’ or ‘ethical’. 

As a basic rule of thumb: if you don’t know where your meat comes from you probably aren’t getting meat that you would want to be eating.

 

Is better meat more expensive to produce?

Yes, we should be willing to pay more for higher-quality meat to meet the costs faced by the producer who should earn a fair wage for raising a quality animal. Other costs along the value chain, like killing animals in a small-scale abattoir, can also be higher when compared to the industrial approach. It’s only right that this cost is passed on to the consumer, who eventually benefits from this extra care in the process.”

What's Next for More Than Carrots?

Some of you have been following us for a while, some have just met us. This post is a summary of our last couple of months. Our product is explained in more detail here.

It’s January 2019 and this is where we are:

  • More Than Carrots has been going for about 2.5 years. Our brand is well-liked and the topic ‘meat reduction’ is more relevant than ever. On the flip-side, we want to focus on creating solutions for meat reducers. We launched 6 different products. None of them really caught on.

  • As part of our last solution, we have built a database of hundreds of ‘mainstream’ London restaurants, which we ranked by how easy they make it for meat reducers to skip the meat. But we haven’t really found a good way of making all this information accessible to you.

  • As of last month, we have run out of funding.

The logical thing to do would be to stop. We discussed that option a lot.

However, here are 3 reasons why More Than Carrots is still around and why we don’t want to give up:

  1. ‘The Market’, as in all those much talked-about ‘Meat Reducers’, may not be ready for selecting restaurants in a different way yet, but it will be at some point. And we want to be there when it is.

  2. Our planet is just too important for us to stop working on this. We won’t go into more detail here. If you found us, you probably agree.

  3. The problem we solve, enabling diners to find restaurants that allow for the best experience with plant-based and vegetarian food, is real and hasn’t been solved. We keep meeting entrepreneurs who try. Dish-based search tools, blogs, review tools, everything you can think of. These are all things we have tried as well. Our products may just not have been good enough, but we believe that those solutions actually don’t solve this problem with existing technology (reach out if you are interested in discussing this). That said, we believe that we now have a solution that works:

    • Our App is different in that we don’t shy away from saying which restaurants we believe are NOT great at veggie.

    • Our App is also different in that it allows you to search by using the criteria you normally search for (location, cuisine, price) instead of focusing on dietary needs. We THEN show you which relevant restaurants have the best veggie and plant-based offerings.

    • And, our App is different in that we don’t just focus on what dishes exist, but also on how easy it is to order them. We assume that 90% of the population would still prefer enduring a root canal treatment over publicly asking for a vegan menu. So restaurants that ‘hide’ their plant-based food don’t score highly.

So what’s next?

Our data is now more accessible via our brand new iPhone app. We’ll need 2,000 regular users to make the app financially sustainable and bootstrap the hosting and development costs. Try it! If it’s helpful, use it :)

In addition, our newsletter will keep delivering restaurant ideas straight to your inbox once a week. You can subscribe here.

If you’re in Central London, maybe even join one of our new ‘Less Meat-Ups’. We host them in our favourite restaurants to discuss all of this in person.

Here is the ‘secret’: Restaurants want to please their customers. They are ready but they will only take a plants-first approach if we (the market) tell them that that’s what we want! Let’s show them that we do.

How much better is vegetarian food? An easy way to do something good for the environment

Have you ever thought that an environmentally-friendly diet sucks if it means eating less meat? And do you wonder how much of a difference it even makes if you cut out meat? Let’s look at the latter:

Meat is indeed a very energy-intensive way of feeding ourselves. By becoming vegetarian you would reduce your greenhouse gas emissions from food by about a third. If you are a real meat lover you would almost cut them by half. But it’s also worth knowing that not all meat is equal. By just choosing different types of meat you can reduce your environmental impact quite a bit.

Not all meat is equal

The differences are quite significant. The chart below shows the carbon emission equivalent per kg of meat for different types of meat at farmgate, and the carbon emissions in 1kg of other foods for comparison:

Sources: Environmental Working Group, Meat Eater’s Guide to Climate Change and Health (2011); Natural Capital Ltd. 2009. Life cycle assessment of Scottish wild venison. Scottish Natural Heritage Archive Report No. 024. Both sources provide values for emissions at farm gate, before processing and transportation.

 

Why are emissions from meat so high?

There are 2 rules to ballpark how much emissions your meat probably caused:

1. How did the animal live?

Farmed animals’ feed has usually been produced somewhere else and transported to the farm. That means that the animals’ food has its own high footprint from farming and transportation, which really adds up over the years. One of the reasons why chicken has a lower footprint than beef is that chickens eat less than cows. Wild animals like deer eat only grass and other naturally growing food. That’s why their impact is also smaller. However, it’s all about the balance. The reason that we farm cattle is that we need so much beef to maintain our diet. If everyone replaces all beef with venison tomorrow, we’ll probably end up in the same bad place again. It’s about variation, and, ultimately, about eating less meat overall.

2. Does the animal ruminate?

The digestive system of ruminating animals is different from ours. They partly digest food, then bring it back into their mouth, chew it again, and then it goes into their stomach. While doing this, they exhale a lot of methane, which is a very potent greenhouse gas and more or less doubles the footprint of the meat from these animals. Ruminating animals include cattle, sheep, goats, and deer. Again, the best answer is to eat less meat, but eating chicken or pork already improves your footprint by avoiding these methane emissions.

Interestingly, how far the meat has been transported is not very important

Even when meat is transported far, emissions from transportation will likely be < 5% of total emissions. Meat production has such a high footprint that farming methods have a much bigger impact than transportation. Emissions from transportation are mainly relevant for vegetables and fruits that have a short shelf-life after the harvest. For example, asparagus or berries generate almost 0 emissions if grown and consumed locally. However, if they are air-freighted to the UK emissions from transportation will make up > 90% of their total emissions.

Where can you start to reduce your footprint?  

  1. Meat supply in the UK has increased by 28% between 1985 and 2015 and in 2015 alone it increased by 5%. Stopping that trend by not eating more meat every year, or going further and reducing meat consumption, is a great start.

  2. Try some of the amazing vegetarian dishes out there. Check out our iPhone App!