The topic of meat is complex and divisive. Some nutritionists will say red meat is bad for you, that it’s too acidic and contains too much saturated fat and hardens your arteries and therefore you should cut down or even cut it out of your diet, whilst others say it’s vital for energy and full of protein and minerals such as iron and our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived off the stuff so we’ve evolved to eat it. Of course the issue of animal welfare literally soars to the fore when many people discuss eating meat – highlighting many animals’ low quality of life, their often cruel and cramped conditions, whether the animal suffers, the inhumane ways they’re killed (many of us questioning whether it’s necessary to kill any other living creature for our consumption at all). Then there’s meat in terms of the environment and climate change, which can leave you a little foggy-headed when you hear that two-thirds of available fresh water on the planet is used in farming; a third of all crops are used to grow feed for farm animals, such as soya for Europe’s chickens and pigs, which contributes to huge deforestation of the rainforest and loss of biodiversity; and 14.5% of global greenhouse gases are produced by meat and dairy farming which is more than every car, train and plane combined. Then there are questions of all the pesticides, chemicals, artificial hormones and antibiotics used in the production of meat.
All of this can quickly become overwhelming, and it’s easy to switch off from it all – to shut our eyes and block our ears. All of those facts and figures paint a picture of farmers and their practices as detrimental to a myriad of life forms and to the planet itself. But a fundamental point in all of this is that most of this negativity is the result of factory farming – producing meat on an industrial scale. What about the brighter picture? All those small family farms that care for their animals in an intimate, personal and compassionate way? Those farmers who live and breathe farming and for whom it is a proud and rewarding tradition?
Our local Hampshire butcher, Toby Bowtell, is one such farmer. The Bowtell family have been producing meat using the same plot of land for five generations now. They’re what you might call small artisan producers, supplying to a specific market of local people. A kind of remnant of what farming used to be.
Almost as soon as I sit down with him, the topic of the horsemeat scandal of January 2013 comes up, and Toby simply shakes his head. After the scandal hit the media, much of the British public suddenly stopped buying red meat. People decided white meat such as chicken could be much more ‘trusted’. This meant there was a run on chicken, so big supermarkets such as Tesco demanded and bought huge supplies of it. The effect of this upon the smaller producers was disastrous.
“It takes us three months to grow and produce chicken,” Toby says, “and I can’t suddenly up production at the drop of a hat. We buy day-old chicks and because the chicken market had gone so big everyone bought extra chicks, so then the bigger your buying power and the higher up the food chain you are, the more you get.”
“We only buy 200 chicks at a time and so when there’s a shortage it’s the little people at the bottom of the pile like us who lose out. It means we get nothing, which from the perspective of the huge European chick producers is just, you know, tough.”
The reality of the situation was that since the Bowtells couldn’t get their hands on chicks at the beginning of 2013, they ran out of chicken every week throughout the spring and early summer, meaning their customer base suffered. And what’s more, they take much time and care over the production of their chicken, buying in a French breed of chicks called Sasso which are specially developed for the free range and organic market.
“Sasso are slower growing and they’re produced to run around outside, so they’re proper outdoor chicken as opposed to indoor chicken. Commercial chickens are bred specifically to be ready for the table in 40 days, whereas ours are ready in 90 days.”
The fact that the Bowtells take more than double the amount of time to grow their chickens than those produced by the big corporations for the mass market shows the dedication and effort small farmers put into their trade. Traditional methods, a hands-on attitude and direct contact with the animals they look after means they’re literally in the thick of it, entirely involved in the process of producing meat from another animal for human consumption.
The family grows all the grass for feeding their sheep and cows themselves, giving them silage during the winter, and they only use artificial fertiliser when the dung they use as natural fertiliser runs out. Furthermore, they buy in free range piglets from a family friend not far away in Hampshire, and they’re kept in fairly natural conditions.
“They’re what we class as open barn,” Toby explains. “They have fresh air, daylight, straw on the ground and plenty of space to run around. And if they want to lay out in the sun or rain they can but most of the time they lay in the straw in the warm. But then if it’s minus 15 degrees outside, it’s minus 15 – the barn’s not heated and has no kind of climate control. The weather is the weather.”
Just like with turkeys and chickens, if everything is in a temperature-controlled shed, farmers can calculate that if a chick comes in at one day old, then if you feed a specific amount and type of food at a certain age it will be a certain weight. But if, like the Bowtells, you run an outside system, the animals simply are what they are.
Considering all of this, on the surface it’s clear that local, artisan butchers are not to be classed with their bigger competition in terms of the impact they have on the environment. And, Toby reveals, it’s what goes on behind farming practices that presents some good news for environmentalists concerned with conservation and loss of biodiversity.
“An awful lot of conservation is done through farming nowadays,” Toby says. “There’s so much done for the environment that people just never see. They just see fields of corn but it’s about what people are totally unaware of.”
With fields of corn, the outside 24 metres aren’t sprayed which means the right kind of weeds are allowed to flourish and so hosts of insects have something to feed on which in turn are food for the English partridge. Another example is that big square patches in fields are left undrilled specifically for skylarks. In fact all kinds of birds such as buzzards, red kites, songbirds and barn owls are now being positively helped via agriculture.
“Over the years farming techniques have developed at such a rate that barn owls were disappearing. But now headlands are set aside so there are places for mice to thrive. On these headlands there are flowers that produce the right kind of seeds and the hedges don’t get cut so there’s bramble, which means the mice can eat the blackberries. The result of all this is that there are more mice, and so the barn owls can then survive because they can hunt them.”
Just this example alone demonstrates the complexities of food chains and on what each particular type of animal depends for survival. “It’s conservation as a whole,” Toby says. Twenty-five years ago they were ripping out hedges and cutting all the wildflower meadows. But now there are incentives for farmers to re-sow those meadows and all over the country hedges and trees are being replanted.
“It’s all sort of driven towards things being put back to how they should be. It’s a responsibility. Everyone’s different – we’re only tenant farmers – but I feel we have a duty to do our bit, to make sure the trees don’t get damaged, that the ground is looked after properly and that the dung’s put on at the right time and so on. There are a lot of people on this planet and I feel we should be preserving what we have, and if that means eating a little bit less meat then you know, that’s what we should do – and I’m a butcher!”
Toby suggests that one easy thing we could do to help the environment is to shop at farmers markets so that the meat you buy is grown locally and the miles and energy involved is less than that produced for the mass market. But, as this suggests, whether or not we do this isn’t up to him and it isn’t up to the manager of an agribusiness.
“I’m very proud of what we produce,” Toby says, “but I would never knock the farmer that produces millions of tonnes of wheat or battery farmed hens because while the general public want cheap chicken people are going to grow mass produced chicken. It’s people’s choices and the only way that will ever change is by people changing themselves.”
Toby touches on a very important issue in terms of meat production – the way we think about our food. It’s very easy wandering round a supermarket to simply slip a packet of chicken breasts off the shelf and into your trolley without a single thought. Almost like an automatic action. Sealed in plastic, sitting on a white sterile shelf, the whole experience is so clinical, so detached, so impersonal.
But animal farming is just the opposite. It’s intimate, involved and intricate. To eat the flesh of another animal, human beings have to be personally involved with the rearing, growing, feeding, killing, butchering, gutting and slicing up of it. At least, we had to be until the advent of factory farming with assembly lines of cows and pigs hooked up on machines. And this is where a big part of the problem lies. We’ve become distanced from animals, from the whole process, which has allowed us to eat as much meat as we like with no cognitive association between steak and cow or bacon and pig.
Moreover, people want cheap food – particularly meat, which Toby is quick to recognise. “It’s all about supply and demand and unfortunately food is not something that a huge majority of people hold as an important thing. Everyone has a set amount of money and they’re entitled to choose what they want to spend it on. You don’t have to have an iPhone, you don’t have to drink or smoke, or you don’t have to buy £100 trainers. But if that’s what people spend their money on then there’s always going to be consumer demand for cheap, economy meat.”
All of this is certainly true, but as a recent article by Foodtank reveals, there are in fact many hidden costs in the production of ‘cheap’ food via conventional agriculture. Apparently being the obesity epidemic globally costs us US$2 trillion in healthcare, procured from our own wallets and purses through taxes. Then there’s the cost of soil erosion, pesticides and fertilisers, the need to create more and more artificial pollination as bees continue to decline, the scarcity of fresh water and the need to purify it – many of which are either overlooked or ‘invisible’ and play no part in countries’ estimation of their economic value. So, in reality, cheap meat isn’t cheap at all.
Therefore, all in all, industrial-scale farming seems purely negative and harmful – to our health, to our wallets, to animals and to the planet.
Fundamentally, there needs to be a shift in our thinking, in the way we view animals. And going to a local butcher’s farm shop to buy your meat (perhaps seeing the cows in the fields flicking their tails or the chickens running around in true ‘free-range’ fashion) rather than a supermarket is at least one step towards this. It’s almost like a step back, in a way. That’s certainly what it feels like when I visit the Bowtells, walking through the farmyard, seeing their cows up on the hill, going into their little shop which has its own gritty character. I distinctly remember always running to look at their pigs when I was younger and loving leaning over and watching them lounging in the hay. Happy pigs make me smile, and they definitely make me think twice (or more accurately ten times) about buying sausages.