Natural grasslands produce tastier meat

Cattle and sheep grazed on natural grasslands produce tastier, healthier meat and help protect biodiversity, according to a new study funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

The research, part of the Rural Economy and Land Use (RELU) programme which draws together the social and natural science, concluded that natural grasslands provide grazing animals with a richer, more diverse diet than the improved pastures used for more intensive farming.

The taste panels rated biodiverse beef from cattle breeds such as Longhorn - a traditional breed particularly well adapted to unimproved grassland environments - to be more tender and more flavour intense than meat from conventional breeds.

Chemical analysis showed that the meat from animals with a more biodiverse diet was also healthier. Meat from wild-grazed lambs - particularly those grazed on heather - was found to be higher in natural antioxidant, vitamin E, anti-carcinogens and healthy fatty acids than meat from animals grazed on improved grass land.

The study was inspired by observations of French rural communities, where there is a long standing tradition of associating the ecological quality of the land with the quality of the food produced on it.

Professor Henry Buller of Exeter University and leader of the research team, said: "Many French farmers actively maintain the biodiversity of their grasslands in order to protect the future of the high quality food produced from it. We wanted to know if this approach could provide a model for more sustainable farming in the UK."

Although intensive agriculture dominates the British countryside, a growing number of farms are using natural and species-rich grasslands such as salt marshes, heather and moorland to graze cattle, sheep and lambs.

Research has shown that consumers are increasingly willing to pay for food with links to natural sounding places, but Britain has been slow to take advantage of place-based labelling schemes - while France has 52 protected designations for meat products, the UK has only 8.

Professor Buller believes that both producers and policy makers should give serious attention to the way we label and promote local foods in the UK.

"The British notion of local has become far too fixed on distance. Locality should be about the quality of the place and the relationship between the agricultural and ecological landscape," he said.