Throughout 2020, various forces shook up our food system. Will that change our attitudes towards meat in 2021 and beyond?
Last year, the British public was introduced to the potential of low-standard meat entering the food chain. In response, more than a million Brits signed an NFU petition urging parliament to ensure all imports were at least on par with domestic regulation. But, with government recently voting against amending the agriculture bill – a move that could have ensured high food safety and animal welfare practices were set in UK law – it now feels no clearer as to the quality of what could end up on our dinner tables.
At least, as the public’s shown, there’s a healthy desire for better food standards. COVID-19 has brought us closer to our farmers – since the outbreak began, a YouGov survey found millions had ordered directly from a farm for the first time. What’s driving that? A concern for our local businesses perhaps; more time to think about what we eat and where we’re getting it; or, simply, that horrible-looking queue outside the local Morrison’s.
Farmers are noticing. Shimpling Park’s John and Alice Pawsey were very happy to see longer than usual lines outside butcher’s shops in their local Bury St Edmunds. ‘People have really gone out to buy from and connect with their local farms,’ Alice says.
For 2021, and beyond, Shimpling Park may be an example to follow. Since the mixed farm went organic 20 years ago, birds, bees, and wildflowers have made a comeback to the area en masse, playing up to the farm’s statement of reviving the land around them.
Alice and John find that, with mother nature, you get as much as you give back. Their New Zealand Romney ewes provide organic fertiliser for their crops, helping create a system where inputs and resources stay in the same loop. Healthy soil is more efficient at trapping carbon, and since the sheep forage on pasture, then recycle it back to the soil out the other end, carbon emissions at the farm are effectively negated.
With climate concerns dominating conversations around farming, ‘carbon zero’ and ‘regenerative agriculture’ have become buzzwords in challenging the thought that farms are out to strip the land of its resources. As for the end product, Shimpling Park’s lamb, hogget, and mutton – fed on nothing but grass, clover, and milk all its life – speaks for itself.
There continue to be obstacles, however, for small farmers aiming to run business ethically. Among the most daunting is the gradual disappearance of small abattoirs nationwide. Alice’s closest abattoir, in a village nearby, has shut down, meaning she takes longer trips to slaughter. ‘Travel can be pretty stressful for the animals – we want to limit that as much as possible.’
Local, high-welfare meat is largely dependent on the survival of small abattoirs. To stem their dwindling numbers, farmers and better farming advocates are calling on government to roll out a provision to protect them. Hopefully, we’ll see this recognised and realised in 2021.
With COVID, supply chains, and climate future all in the balance, it’s even clearer that, this year and next, farmers need our support more than ever.