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Environment & ethics   |   Diversity

Has our meat industry gone cuckoo?

Watching Liz Bonnin’s recent BBC One documentary Meat: A Threat to Our Planet?, it’s clear that the provenance of meat and its environmental impact is becoming a topic of national interest.

The film focused on the vast cattle ranches sprawling across the US, and the devastation of the Amazon rainforest as trees are cleared for pasture – driven by meat and animal feed production.

By contrast, British livestock can be raised on pasture-fed systems, grazing land that sustains a variety of plant species, herbs, wildflowers and nitrogen-fixing clovers that support a wider diversity of insects and other wildlife. Well-managed soils that are fertilised in this way act as a carbon store that is important in mitigating climate change and because pasture-fed livestock eat a natural diet, they grow slowly with higher welfare standards.

These are all things that ethical consumers might want to look for when choosing meat, and to do so most of us rely on the certification labels on packs and trust the messages that are marketed to us.

Specifically marketing ‘wildlife-friendly’ meat, Bristol-based business Farm Wilder sells ‘cuckoo lamb’ and ‘fritillary butterfly beef’ nationally via online retailer Fresh Range, and aims to promote food from “Britain’s most wildlife-friendly and sustainable farms”.

As founder Tim Martin explains: “We, as a community in sustainability agriculture, need to be able to get our message out there – the solution is to eat less but better meat, which is what Farm Wilder does – it’s pasture-fed, wildlife-friendly beef and lamb.” .

But there is some confusion over the transition period between farmers signing up and receiving a biodiversity management plan, and how meat that is in transition is labelled as wildlife-friendly and sustainable before farmers take any specific steps to become pasture-fed. There is no suggestion that Farm Wilder's wildlife conservation and biodiversity standards are insufficient in themselves. 

Mark Owen and Naomi Oakley’s Challacombe Farm on Dartmoor is certified by the Pasture-Fed Livestock Association (PFLA)’s Pasture for Life standards. In 2019, they supplied 23 lambs to Farm Wilder and in 2020 they will supply 20 more. However, Oakley says she has “deep concerns about the other suppliers" ability to meet the PfL certification.”

The PfL certification means livestock have to be 100 per cent grain-free, and as such is much more stringent than the more generic ‘grass-fed’, where livestock can be fed grain and other foods towards the end of their lives.

pasture fed
A pasture-fed grazing system encourages diversity in plant and wildlife.

“The idea of marketing wildlife-friendly meat that’s raised to a high welfare standard was just superb,” says Oakley. “Lots of farmers are good at producing meat and good at producing habitat but hopeless at marketing – I was blown away by the Farm Wilder concept but then it used the PFLA as a springboard for selling meat that wasn’t particularly sustainable.”

Oakley, who also works as principal adviser for uplands at government body Natural England, says the “presence of a species on a patch of farmland does not mean the farmer is managing for it”.

“Why should people pay a premium for something that they are not utterly assured is being truthfully produced?” she adds.

According to Martin, all 15 farms currently signed up were selected because of their existing biodiversity and minimal use of grain feeding, with many that are too intensive or not sufficiently interested in transitioning rejected for the scheme. 

Each farm is inspected annually to generate a biodiversity action and grazing management plan, he says. “For farmers to join the scheme, they have to commit to transitioning to 100 per cent pasture-fed over three years,” says Martin. “Our standards are based on Pasture for Life but with additional requirements for biodiversity and specific wildlife.

When asked whether any of the Farm Wilder farms are already certified by the PFLA, he responds: “Yes, some of them are. I don’t know how many, probably two or three out of 15 farms across Dartmoor and North Devon have signed up to the scheme.”

Another supplier to Farm Wilder is farmer Cat Frampton, who farms 30 Hebridean sheep and 25 Angus x Hereford beef cattle on Great Hound Tor Farm on Dartmoor.

She is a member of the PFLA and hasn’t fed her livestock any grain for 18 months, so she’s working towards PfL accreditation. Her 100-acre family-run farm is a hotspot for cuckoos and has been surveyed by the Dartmoor National Park Moorland Bird Project. But she explains that none of her livestock has reached Farm Wilder consumers yet.

Some of her cows have gone via Farm Wilder to a North Devon finishing farm but those animals are yet to be slaughtered.

Clyde Coaker at Bittleford Farm has supplied beef to Farm Wilder since April 2019 but hasn’t yet had his first official farm inspection or biodiversity action plan. “The cattle graze the marsh fritillary land and both cattle and sheep graze on land that cuckoos inhabit,” he says.

“They have visited and the inspection is imminent – our cows are currently grass-fed but I’m not necessarily going to transfer the whole farm over to the pasture-fed scheme because they [Farm Wilder] don’t take all my produce.”

The purpose of Farm Wilder is to help farmers convert to being sustainable, says Martin, so there will always be some new farmers who aren’t pasture-fed. 

“It’s very much down to trust,” continues Martin. “If it’s Farm Wilder, people will know exactly how it is farmed – that it’s pasture-fed virtually 100 per cent but not certified as 100 per cent because it’s farms in conversion. Hopefully, people will start to know and trust the Farm Wilder brand – some are pasture-fed and some of them aren’t fully there.

“As our detailed standards make clear, if a farm isn’t making sufficient progress, it must leave the scheme, at either the first or second annual farm visit,” says Martin..

“If we’re going to sort out the sustainability of British farming we need to find ways to help and support farmers in transforming their farms – and that’s what we are all about,” he says, adding that Farm Wilder is also contributing to the wider discussion around sustainable farming and the global environmental crisis through education around how shopping choices can improve biodiversity and sustainability.

It’s the transition to sustainability and pasture-fed and how that is communicated that could be problematic for consumers buying from the site. “I do think Farm Wilder has good intentions,” says Anna Heaton, head of the certification committee at the PFLA. “Our issue is that apart from Cat Frampton and Challacombe, we don’t know them – they’re not PFLA members, let alone certified. We know there is a period of transition but nobody can feed off the certification mark or logo until they are certified.”

Pasture for life
The Pasture for Life logo is one of many sustainable food certification schemes. 

“Having our PFLA logo on the website makes it sound like we are actively working with them, which we are not,” states Heaton. “Our certification should only ever be used for 100 per cent pasture-fed products, and that’s where the line is getting a little blurred. The whole point of having rigorous third-party certification is so that someone who can’t visit the farm can be assured that what they are getting meets a particular standard.”

“There is an appetite for wildlife-friendly meat if it’s done right and if people can trust it,” she says. “I would hope PFLA can work with Farm Wilder to deliver something better.”

While pasture-fed systems do boost biodiversity, there is no official wildlife-friendly farming-specific accreditation in the UK. As such, trust in the existing certification schemes is vital, especially in meat where standards of production can hugely vary.

"The RSPB warmly encourages and welcomes schemes that help wildlife-friendly farmers market and sell their produce,” says Tony Whitehead, a spokesperson for the conservation group. “It is, of course, vital that consumers can buy with confidence, knowing precisely how their purchase is saving wildlife and precisely what support the products are receiving from wildlife charities." 

Wildlife meadow
Certification labels can help guarantee protection of biodiversity. Image Peter O'Connor.

For others, a bigger issue is the ever-growing number of on-pack labels, each with their own inspection and audit process. This process is time-consuming for farmers and confusing for consumers, according to the Sustainable Food Trust (SFT), which is trialling a new umbrella sustainability assessment that it says could replace a “piecemeal” certification approach.

“The problem lies not in the good intentions of the relevant certification scheme, but more in the piecemeal and siloed approach which has become endemic in food labelling,” says the SFT’s chief executive, Patrick Holden.

“There is a growing interest in the development of a harmonised scheme, not just in the UK but all over the world, and I believe this would be the only way that we can ensure that the farming systems of the future best address climate change, deliver more sustainable food and meet the ethical concerns of today’s consumers.”

Until then, and while consumers still have to take brands at their word, there remain questions to be asked.

***

- This article was amended on 8 December to clarify that it is raising the issues around a transition to sustainability and how that food is labelled and marketed, and the wider pitfalls around certification and trust. There is no suggestion that Farm Wilder's biodiversity and conservation standards are insufficient. 

Since this article was published, the PFLA and Farm Wilder have had positive discussions about formalising their partnership, allowing them to work more closely together to bring the positive results that both organisations are looking to achieve.

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