“Hereabouts” are an ancient oak wood, several acres of scrubland, and at the top of the vast field, moorland. I have thought about this moment a great deal in the past weeks. The future of our food right now is up for debate for the first time in forty years. On the agenda are food supply post-Brexit, new trade deals, the UN’s rescheduled Climate Change Conference hosted in Glasgow next year, and the recurring health concerns attached to red meat.
British farming has quite a gauntlet to run. Where Stuart’s heritage breed Dexter herd fits into this future remains to be seen, but being in the meat business myself, I naturally have a view. My argument is direct. Heritage breeds, like Stuart’s Dexters, need to be front and centre of Britain’s future meat supply – not just for beef, but across all species.
This might seem farfetched – how can you a feed a whole country on Highland cows or Swaledale sheep? There are so few of them in fact, many are already classed as rare by the Rare Breed Survival Trust and Britain imports so much of its meat already.
Well, for starters, as a nation we could do with eating less cheap meat from intensive systems which finds its way into diets lacking in natural nutrition. The thought of food imports produced to much lower standards and undercutting our own farmers appals me.
My mantra when it comes to food has always been balance. Everything in moderation, plenty of fresh air, and quality over quantity. However, in 2017, Eurostat found the UK spends the least on food out of (then) EU countries, while the recent National Food Strategy Report found as a nation we spend half the daily amount of time eating as the French do – and yet their obesity rates are far behind our own.
When France’s most famous butcher, Yves-Marie Le Bourdonnec proclaims Britain’s beef as the best (to disdain in his native country), and yet we Brits tend to eat cheap filling food on the hoof, there is a huge disconnect from the quality on our doorstep. And that’s what you get from British heritage breed beef. I’ve been to every corner of the globe tasting food – and no-one does better quality beef than us. It’s no coincidence that the world’s famous beef cuisines are based on our heritage breeds. Take Uruguay for instance. Their national herd is predominantly traditional Hereford beef.
But this is just the half of it. When we’re talking about heritage British breed beef, we’re talking grass fed, another reason why heritage breeds should be central to our food supply. Our breeds were developed over centuries to suit local conditions. The rugged Galloway, for instance, with its thick coat, can weather the stormy weather of the borders. The Welsh Black is as at home on craggy uplands as it is in the valleys. With our maritime climate, one thing these islands have in abundance is lush pasture – cattle grazing country.
There is growing awareness of the food and global meat industry’s vast carbon footprint. I am used to hearing now that people do not eat meat for environmental reasons. This is commendable, but not all meat is created equally. Grass fed animals on pasture put carbon back into the soil, take longer to mature, and in this country aren’t being raised on what was virgin forest.
There is a better way. Beef, naturally reared is a superfood.
Stuart’s Dexter herd, for instance, are part of the local ecology, maintaining a habitat which they share with ground nesting birds, orchids, and other animals. At Beswick Hall Farm on the River Humber, another supplier of my business, Ed and Nic Duggleby, are engaged in regenerative grazing with their herd of Belted Galloways. The cattle graze and nibble away encouraging new plant growth that takes carbon from the air sequestering it into the ground in the form of root and micro-organism growth. The manure of the cows enriches the soil and supports insect life, with a cascading effect up the food chain. It is anticipated that the forthcoming Agriculture Bill, farmers will be paid according to their environmental services, and its heritage breed farmers who look well set to manage this transition. The farmers and producers who I am fortunate to work with take their responsibilities as custodians of the countryside very seriously.
Contrast here our heritage breeds with the continental breeds that took over British stock in the second half of the twentieth century. These beasts can get big quick on grains – exactly what the commercial farmer wants or thinks is best, but it’s an inefficient use of land to grow grain to be converted into meat. It’s this land use too – alongside deforestation – which partly accounts for grain-fed cattle’s huge role in global emissions and high freshwater use. As we look to build sustainability into the food supply chain, grass fed should be what climate conscious meat eaters demand, and heritage breeds fit this bill. Previously, heritage breeds were often a labour of love for farmers who cared about the survival of the breed, but I see such produce becoming more economic as consumer awareness grows. A smaller national herd, but with more diverse breed populations suited to their local environment could be the way to go. Variety for resilience.
That is not all though. Grass fed has a much better nutritional profile than the alternatives. I think of it as a superfood. As Joanna Blythman points out in her excellent book, “What to Eat,” there is evidence that grass fed has plenty more Omega-3 fatty acids than grain and soya fed beef. These acids are important for healthy brain function and thought to protect against heart disease. While beef does contain saturated fat, there is no clear evidence that saturated fat causes heart disease. The benefits of grass fed beef were confirmed in a recent conversation I had with Dr Tom Little. Tom founder of Colour Fit, a business which supplies diet plans to elite athletes, counting top tier football clubs among his clientele. He points to Conjugated Linoleic Acid as a key benefit which is found in abundance in grass fed meat, and is good for heart health and immunity.
All of this might seem idealistic – I’m the first to admit that. For ten years I’ve been beating the drum for heritage breeds, and it all began because the flavour was so much better. Now I see that the breeds we almost lost in the twentieth century could be the key to a sustainable future.