WWF calls for collaboration on meat
Published:  03 February, 2014

The meat industry needs to stop rejecting criticism and work with campaigners for a more sustainable future, according to World Wildlife Fund (WWF) food policy advisor Duncan Williamson.

Commenting on Eblex’s response to the publication of Farmageddon, a book that claims to expose the “true costs of cheap meat”, which pointed out that the book’s global look at livestock production bore little reality to UK systems, Williamson tweeted: “UK meat leaders once again reject criticism, like a kid humming and saying they can’t hear you #Farmageddon.”

He went on to tell Meat Trades Journal: “It is increasingly frustrating that whenever someone or an organisation says we need to eat less meat, or we need to look at our meat, the industry rejects the comment or uses deflection instead of engaging in a meaningful dialogue. It would be great if there was an a proper nuanced discussion, when we could explore the different production systems and acknowledge the benefits and the issues – very much what we tried to do with the livestock dialogues. I feel this is sadly lacking on both sides and is a huge part of the problem.

“The evidence has moved on, the debate has not. This is not going to help us meet environmental challenges in the future or enable us to move to a food-secure future that meets the requirements of the FAO’s 4 pillars:
•    Access – refers to the ability to produce one’s own food or buy it, which implies having the purchasing power to do so;
•    Availability — still a problem in areas where food production does not meet population needs, thus raising the question — does our planet have the capacity to feed the growing millions whose consumption habits are on the rise?;
•    Food quality — from a nutritional, sanitary, sensory and socio-cultural point of view. Food security integrates the notion of food safety;
•    Stability – in terms of availability, accessibility and quality.

“Unfortunately too many people seem to think food security means produce more and nothing else.”

He said there needed to be a recognition that the true cost of food was not being paid. “Farmers don’t get a proper price and people expect to pay too little for their food. Prices do not reflect the cost of growing feed, and all the inputs. I have a feeling that, if and when we start paying more realistic costs, farming systems that are based on utilising natural environments, such as pasture-based livestock, are going to be seen as the affordable and responsible option.”

He added that extensive systems, such as the UK method, are often highlighted by the WWF as best practice: “As you know, we support extensively reared beef and lamb and often use the UK extensive beef and lamb system as an example of what needs to be replicated and as the best in the world. We would not show the same support for feed lots for example. We also do not say ‘eat less beef or lamb’, we say ‘eat in line with nutritional advice – and don’t go beyond this’.”

However, Eblex has responded to Williamson’s comments, pointing out that “sweeping generalisations” on global production methods did little to help inform consumers about UK production. James Wilde, communication manager said: “Sweeping generalisations on red meat and production methods in other parts of the world do little to usefully inform consumers on farming or food production in the UK. Reports and research pop up increasingly regularly talking about practices elsewhere, yet are presented to a UK audience with nothing by way of a pointer that, in actual fact, this bears little resemblance to what happens here. This leads to unchallenged, unscientific media coverage that becomes the assumed publicly held view when, in actual fact, it is just the view of certain campaign groups on things like environmental issues, on health issues, and on grounds of scale, among other things.

“The debate needs to be balanced and must be put in the context of what is happening here — yet when we try and point this out, we are dismissed with a ‘well, they would say that’. And that leaves us in a difficult position.

“When asked to comment on stories, we can only do so from a factual, science-based, domestic industry viewpoint. We cannot, and should not, comment on what happens elsewhere in the world. We are here to support English beef and sheep farmers, as well as those in the wider UK.

“Yes, we are part of a global industry and we heed the big picture. Part of that picture is that we produce red meat efficiently and sustainably, making best use of natural resources. We utilise an extensive, rain-fed, pasture system, thanks to our climate and geography, without a reliance on vast quantities of additional feed, produced for that purpose. Most beef farms in this country are relatively small in scale. We help manage the UK countryside and maintain swathes of land as an effective carbon sink. The fact is it is one of the most sustainable places on the planet to produce meat — and so we should continue to do so. We still have much more we can do to improve animal husbandry, further reduce emissions and aid efficient production, but we could be part of the solution rather than being blamed for creating the problem.

“The most sustainable way to farm is, surely, to match production of specific foodstuffs to places in the world where they can be produced most efficiently and sustainably. Don’t toil over mango-growing in Cumbria or banana production in Wales. It is unlikely to be as efficient or as good a use of resource as in other, sunnier, climes. However, put hardy sheep on the uplands in those regions to graze naturally occurring grassland, fed by our natural rainfall, and you have a very efficient way of producing protein to feed a growing population.

“This is the detail that is missing in the debate so often. A global look at meat production, when presented to a UK audience, should make this fact clear to ensure the public are properly informed. We would welcome an open debate where these points are acknowledged and we can move forward, playing to the strengths of this country.

“‘Less but better’ is an interesting concept, for instance, but as we flagged up before, this phrase was put out in the public domain, we need to define what the ‘better’ bit is first, otherwise people will simply seize on the ‘less’ bit. We were ignored and that is exactly what has happened. For UK consumers, less but better may actually be consuming more quality-assured, domestic product and steering away from imported products where we have less information about how they have been produced. So it is not necessarily producing or consuming less, just choosing better.

“We are eager to engage in the debate fully and add our expertise to the search for solutions, but it needs to be focused on production and consumption the UK and how it contributes positively to the wider picture, instead of us being seen as a subset of global production, and proposed engagement with us simply a box-ticking exercise.”