Eating meat as an act of conservation

 

I care deeply about the natural world we live in. I want to pass a planet on to my children which is in a better condition than it was passed to me, and as an optimist I believe this is achievable by the time I return to the soil. Contrary to widespread contemporary understanding about someone who cares about sustainability, I’m not a vegan. I am a strong believer in personal choice and have no issue with veganism. It’s brilliant to see plant based options on supermarket shelves, questioning the idea that meat plays a central role in every one of our meals. I’m thrilled that so many people have fundamentally re-evaluated their consumption, particularly when environmental impact reasons are given, and made life choices to change this. While I have reduced the amount of meat I eat, I’ve also learned that the issues are a little more complex than they are made out by the well-known vegan films you might encounter on social media

An English longhorn in a habitat it would have evolved in. Photo from The Horned Beef Company.

An English longhorn in a habitat it would have evolved in. Photo from The Horned Beef Company.

One thing I certainly agree on is that intensively reared meat has to go. I understand that when we have real poverty in the world (and in our country) calling for the cheapest way to produce meat to be gone is a tricky issue. I don’t have a definite answer, but there are potential alternatives available or on the horizon. Plant based fillings for ‘sausage’ rolls, ‘chicken’ nuggets and ‘bleeding’ burgers are convincingly similar, yet healthier. If you can’t tell the difference, could or should that be a default replacement? I am fascinated by the potential of lab grown meat, which could offer even cheaper meat than we have now. Then there’s edible insects too, but this may not be for everyone. I don’t know what the definite answer is for cheap protein, but I’m convinced I don’t like our current solution which fuels the pro-vegan arguments by caging animals, belching greenhouse gases and feeding food that could be eaten by humans to animals.

But not all meat is like this; in fact if meat is reared correctly, it benefits our environment - a critical part fo the debate left un-discussed. Ruminant grazers and browsers are an essential part of most ecosystems in the UK and given that we have hunted their natural predators to extinction (wolf, lynx, brown bear), the balance can only be kept with a predator, which I believe can be humans. Ecosystems are complex and need all players in the to function correctly. This can be our act of conservation.

The effects of Tamworth pig’s ‘rootling’ at Knepp estate, which “can initially look pretty drastic but in this small area I counted 10 lapwing, 20 redwing, 15 starling, 6 fieldfare, a pied wagtail and a green woodpecker, all feeding amongst the disturbed soil and tussocks.” - Quote from Charlie Burrell of Knepp estate.

The effects of Tamworth pig’s ‘rootling’ at Knepp estate, which “can initially look pretty drastic but in this small area I counted 10 lapwing, 20 redwing, 15 starling, 6 fieldfare, a pied wagtail and a green woodpecker, all feeding amongst the disturbed soil and tussocks.” - Quote from Charlie Burrell of Knepp estate.

Our grazers and browsers have evolved alongside our immeasurably complex and wonderful landscape. Many species have evolved to thrive from their presence, for example, an English longhorn cow can carry 230 species of seeds in its fur and gut, and distributes these more effectively than any landscaper could, fertilising with dung as they go. Wild boar ‘rootle’ through field and woodland turning over soil, stimulating growth and biodiversity with disturbance. There are 19 species of dung beetle in the UK, all of which, of course, rely on grazers (that haven’t been fed worming tablets) for their food. Some bird species rely on dung beetles for food. These are just a few examples of hundreds of symbiotic relationships which have evolved over millennia. Constantly moving, wild or pasture eating, traditional hardy breeds create and maintain high levels biodiversity in our landscape, and there are a number of studies now showing that their emissions in methane are more than compensated for by the carbon the grassland captures in its regeneration.

I’m a firm believer in assessing how we as humans can fit into ecosystems and take resources from them in ways that synchronise with ecological function. Strong biodiversity requires grazing animals to regenerate vegetation, and requires the grazing animals to be predated. There is a living example of this - the natural stocks of wild pigs, cattle, horses and deer in the rewilded area of Oostvanderplatz, Holland, have to be culled to prevent their slow and painful death by starvation or disease, which are symptoms of overpopulation. Nature can be cruel, arguably moreso than a quick death by human hands. This overpopulation can happen quickly with no factors to control numbers. For example, wild boar have an average of five piglets per litter and reach reproductive maturity in about a year. By the time a wild boar sow is four to five years she is likely to have had five to seven litters. In her lifetime she may produce thirty piglets, which in their lifetime produce the same, that’s 900 pigs in two short generations. These creatures have evolved to compensate for predation, starvation, injury or disease. With predation removed, it’s the other less favourable factors that will stabilise populations and if we’re culling animals, then we should be eating them.

I buy beef from The Horned Beef Company who have hardy breeds grazing and browsing woodland and scrubland and are tough enough to be outdoors all year. Their positive impact on the landscape they graze is huge. Pic from THBC website.

I buy beef from The Horned Beef Company who have hardy breeds grazing and browsing woodland and scrubland and are tough enough to be outdoors all year. Their positive impact on the landscape they graze is huge. Pic from THBC website.

Suggesting things like not feeding grazers worming tablets and letting them wild graze brings up questions of land use. How do you realistically produce low-intensity meat to feed a population? Well, you produce less of course. But also I believe we can free up some land by changing our meat type. Perhaps our current meat industry’s biggest crime is that it is often fed grain or cereal crops. This, we‘re reminded by vegans, requires much more land per calorie or gram of protein. Living on an island, we’re tight for land and as a basic principle, I agree with this and I’m not interested in eating meat that’s been fed cereal or cropped pulses. Of course, some hay in the winter might be welcome, and indeed we can channel a lot of plant-based food’s by-product into animal’s diets sustainably, but in principle the 40% of our land that is currently used for growing animal feed, should be turned into mosaics of wild or pasture landscapes that soak up carbon, are high in biodiversity and provide food for us through native (sorry, no sheep) grazers and browsers. In case I haven’t made it clear enough, head of livestock would be considerably fewer in number than our current levels of intense farm animals.

I personally propose that we should be able to eat meat, but that it should come from wild or holistically managed landscapes. Wild boar or perhaps Tamworth pig if you fancy a treat of pork, English longhorn or Highland if beef is on the Sunday menu, or game for a weekday hotpot. I am still surprised by how overlooked rabbit, venison, partridge and pheasant are when they are relatively cheap (particularly rabbit) compared with lamb or beef. I would (and do) go as far as to add grey squirrel to this list too. Being alien, they have no native predator yet and are in serious need of one! We should be eating much more of this meat and encouraging our food producers away from the alternatives.

 
Sebastian Cox