Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Grazing the uplands - an environmental nightmare?

The BBC Countryfile report on Sunday discussing claims that farming could be ruining our uplands prompted many farmers to take to social media to vent their fury.

The film featured RSPB uplands expert Pat Thompson, and Guardian columnist and author George Monbiot, giving their views on the environmental damage caused by upland sheep farming, pitched against farmer Carl Waters who was defending his way of life.

George Monbiot is certainly not one to hide his strong views on sheep farming, having made headlines last year with his book ‘Feral’ and his claims that the Welsh hills have been "sheepwrecked" and grazed to destruction.

Nobody would deny his right to have an opinion on this subject, but the views he expressed in the Countryfile report, which went as far as to blame flooding in the valleys on heavy animal grazing and the resulting lack of vegetation and compacted soils, touched a nerve in the farming community.

With farmers in some parts of the country, particularly the Somerset levels, suffering the effects of terrible flooding which has continued unabated for several weeks, Mr Monbiot’s comments blaming sheep for the problem felt rather like kicking the industry when it was down.

There is no question that the BBC is right to address difficult issues such as this, but their failure to give any farming industry organisation the opportunity to participate in the debate alongside uplands farmer Carl Waters has led to many feeling short-changed by the report.

There are many strong arguments for continuing the graze the uplands which were only mentioned in passing during the Countryfile piece. Livestock farming provides essential employment to the two million people who live in the English uplands and has shaped the appearance of our cherished upland landscapes, as outlined in our Landscapes without Livestock report. While these areas are grazed they also act as a massive carbon sink, sequestering carbon in the pasture which would otherwise be released into the environment.

However, above and beyond any of these factors, the uplands play a vital role in producing food. The English uplands are home to 44 per cent of the breeding ewes and 40 per cent of the beef cattle and, with many of these areas unsuited to growing anything else which could be used to feed our growing population, the sheep and cattle that graze these areas fulfil an important role by turning something which can’t be digested by humans (grass) into nutritious food.

It’s very easy to polarise issues such as this and characterise the farming industry as the ‘baddy’, lacking any moral conscience. This is, in fact, very far from the truth, as we ask ourselves difficult questions every day about what we do, our impact on the environment and how we can minimise that impact, as our three environmental roadmaps and numerous research and development projects in that area will attest.

Beef and sheep farmers act as responsible, considerate custodians of vast swathes of our countryside, in particular the uplands, and it’s extremely unlikely that beef cattle and sheep will be disappearing from our hillsides in significant numbers at any point soon. It’s therefore essential to engage with the industry in order to have a balanced debate and work together to farm these environments in the most sustainable way possible.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Is it healthier to go veggie?

On the eve of speaking at a House of Lords debate on the health impacts of vegetarian and vegan diets, EBLEX nutrition manager Maureen Strong took a scientific, evidence-based look at the key nutritional issues

There are a number of reasons why people choose not to eat meat. Respect for sentient life (as opposed to plant life), religious belief, animal rights, health issues or for cultural, environmental, aesthetic or economic considerations. My focus here is purely on the advantages and disadvantages of vegetarian and vegan diets from a health perspective.

It may not be the most exciting or ‘sexiest’ of messages but the key to good health is a balanced diet, based on moderation in all things, plus an active lifestyle. Diversity in the diet is an extremely important component of healthy eating. Both vegetarian and non-vegetarian diets can be either good or bad for health, depending on the variety and quantity of foods selected. Dietary deficiencies are most likely to be seen in people with very restrictive diets.

Potential health problems stemming from a poorly balanced diet are much greater for vegetarians than non-vegetarians, especially vegans. Non meat-eating diets are much more likely to lead to deficiencies in calcium, iron and vitamin B12 intake if they are badly planned. A particular danger with poor vegan diets is that they will not provide sufficient energy (calories), especially during infancy, childhood and pregnancy.

My fellow debater for the All Party Parliamentary Food and Health Forum at the House of Lords this week will be Professor Tim Key of Oxford University, who is leading the UK work on the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC). This study, involving 500,000 people (around half of them non meat-eaters) from 10 European countries, has been examining the effects of a vegetarian diet on long-term health since 1993.

EPIC has reported that British vegetarians have low mortality compared with the general population. However, in pointing out that vegetarians consume more of the ‘protective’ foods such as fruit and vegetables, the study has stated that any potential health benefits of a vegetarian diet could actually be “attributed to non-dietary lifestyle factors such as a low prevalence of smoking and a generally high socio-economic status, or to aspects of the diet other than the avoidance of meat and fish”.

Vegetarian diets can result in a number of dietary deficiencies for the following reasons:

·         Many of the richest sources of major minerals are found in animal foods

·         Natural dietary sources of vitamin D are limited to animal foods

·        A plant based diet could be limited in the availability of some indispensable amino acids if different plant proteins are not adequately combined

·       High levels of fibre content in vegetarian diets, which includes phytates and oxalates, can impair intestinal absorption of some minerals such as iron, zinc and calcium

·      The iron found in plant foods, eggs and milk is an organic (non-haem) form and has a much lower absorption rate from the intestine than the iron complexed with haem found in animal flesh

·         The richest source of zinc is found in animal foods.

In the literature, the protein, micronutrients and fat found in meat and meat products have been associated with chronic diseases such as cancer and coronary heart disease (CHD). Yet it should be stressed that while meat may contain a few, not clearly defined cancer promoting factors, it also contains a number of cancer protecting elements such as vitamin A, folate and selenium. Moreover, the cancer protecting factors in meat can be optimised by a diet that includes fruit and vegetables.

The British Nutrition Foundation sees it this way: “Vegetarians have been found to be at reduced risk of coronary heart disease (CHD) and some forms of cancer in some studies. It is not possible, however, to disentangle which aspects of the vegetarian lifestyle are associated with the possible protective effect. It is certainly inappropriate to blame any single food, or even diet in general, for the causation of CHD or cancer.”

The fact is meat is a good source of protein, readily available iron, calcium, magnesium, selenium, zinc and a range of B vitamin. Since such a high proportion of women of child bearing age are iron deficient and considering the evidence linking meat consumption to cancer is so weak, eating meat as part of a balanced and varied diet should actually be encouraged.

This blog first appeared on the AHDB website

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

What should the legacy of 'horsegate' be?

Given the contradictory stories that have appeared in the media over the past few days, the public could be forgiven for being very confused about the legacy of last year’s horse meat scandal.

A 2.9 per cent decrease year on year in the volumes of beef sold (in the 52 weeks to 8 December 2013) has variously been heralded by the mainstream media as a ‘slump’, a ‘slide’ or a ‘slip’. Conversely, The Grocer, which never shies away from making valid criticisms of the food industry, took a different tack, beginning its 11-page horse meat scandal anniversary feature with an article entitled “Why Horsegate is yesterday’s news”.

Much of the mainstream media interest in the story appears to have been generated by an enterprising campaign by the producers of Quorn, who contacted journalists to trumpet the news of the 10 per cent growth in sales they experienced last year while simultaneously directing them to stories about the fall in red meat sales. Similarly, vegan organisations have been celebrating the rise in the number of people Googling the term ‘vegan’, while going vegan for January (the clumsily-named ‘Veganuary’) has picked up some coverage as part of a wider trend about giving things up for the new year.

So, have consumers really made a long-term commitment to eating less red meat?

Taken at face value, a 2.9 per cent reduction in overall sales volumes of beef (a drop of 7,800 tonnes) should not be ignored. However, it’s important to put this figure in the context of tight supply, strong demand and the resulting rise in the farmgate price.

Overall expenditure on beef was up 3.8 per cent due to a rise in average price per kilogram, partly due to a squeeze on production (UK beef and veal production from January to November 2013 was back 4.3% on the same period in 2012) and partly due to supermarkets responding to demand for meat reared closer to home. Named varieties such as Aberdeen Angus and Hereford are experiencing strong demand, which anecdotally they are struggling to meet.

What isn’t up for debate is the impact on frozen ready meals and frozen burgers, which have undoubtedly had a challenging time, down 7.6 and 7.2 per cent respectively. Fresh burgers enjoyed a boost though, up 1.8 per cent thanks to a warm summer, and if we go back to the period when the horse meat scandal was headline news, the 12 weeks to 31 March 2013, fresh beef sales were up 4.6 per cent. This indicates that consumers turned away from frozen and processed product to fresh, home-grown beef.

There has certainly been an element of consumers experimenting with different proteins, and, according to The Grocer, Quorn reported a 38 per cent uplift in sales at the height of the scandal, with its manufacturing facility working flat out to produce more than 140 tonnes of Quorn a week. However, even if production continued at this level for 52 weeks of the year, total annual Quorn production would still be less than 8,000 tonnes. To put this into context, total beef, lamb and pork sales in the 52 weeks to 8 December 2013 were 550,000 tonnes.

Our own research suggests supermarkets are now stocking more British beef and lamb. Consumers are seeking out assured product, like that bearing the Red Tractor logo or our own Quality Standard Mark (QSM), in order to give them confidence about traceability and provenance. Hopefully this is the real legacy of the horse meat scandal.