Some days, being a conscious consumer can be a very confusing pastime. Just when you feel like you’ve got it nailed and are buying organic beef and local lamb, another food labelling system comes along and throws the cat amongst the free-range pigeons.

The new term to watch out for is “pasture-fed”, and it’s a guarantee that the meat you’re about to eat has been fed on pasture (grasses, herbs and legumes) not grain. Why should you care? Well, the benefits of pasture-fed animals on everything from the environment to your health, are now well documented. When it comes to what meat to eat, “pasture-fed” ticks most of the boxes:  it’s better for the planet, better for the animals and better for you.

There are 18 farms across the UK that sell certified “pasture-fed” beef and lamb, which are approved supplier members of the Pasture-Fed Livestock Association (PFLA). Sheepdrove Organic and Fordhall Farm are two of the better-known members, selling their meat through their own butcher’s shops, selected retail outlets or direct to the customer. You can find a farm near you on www.pasturefed.org.

Meat which is “pasture-fed” doesn’t have to be organic – in-fact membership of the PFLA is split evenly between conventional and organic farmers. But the livestock do need to have spent most of their lives outside eating grass and legumes like clover, and conserved pasture in the winter.

Russ Carrington (27) is the young farmer now leading the team that’s taking the PFLA’s message out to the wider world. He explains how pasture-fed animals maintain a nutrient cycle that is sustainable. “Two-thirds of the UK is grassland and it’s a resource that is under utilised. Pasture uses solar power and nutrients from the air to grow. When you feed cattle and sheep on pasture, they harvest it and efficiently turn it into human food. The manure they leave behind helps build up soil fertility for future years.”

It all makes so much sense that it’s difficult for an urbanite like me to understand why farming doesn’t always operate like this.  Russ explains that grain feeding became the norm after the Second World War, when we ploughed up our fertile grasslands to quickly grow food for the war effort. When the war ended, alternative uses were found for the grain supply (which provided an easy cash crop for farmers) and we started to feed cattle on grain rather than natural grasslands. The impact of this was two-fold; we lost the knowledge of how to feed cattle on pasture and the fertility of the soil dwindled.

Today it is estimated that half of the world’s grain is now fed inefficiently to animals, rather than using this land to grow crops directly for human consumption. Most cattle and sheep in Britain are fattened up with grain, usually indoors, to “finish them off” before slaughter.

For some farmers feeding animals this way has given them a greater a degree of control over the rearing and finishing process. But when pasture is managed well the same can be achieved. A good grassland manager can allocate grazing the same way a farmer who feeds grain might measure it out into a trough.

Luckily, a market which recognises the qualities of pasture-fed livestock is now emerging, as people look for fully traceable meat that is healthy to eat.

The PFLA has developed a set of standards that guarantee exactly that. By scanning a QR code at the point of sale using a Smartphone app, or entering a unique code on the PFLA website, they can trace the meat back to the farm of origin and find out how it was raised.

Recent studies have shown that grass-fed meat has up to four times more Omega 3 oils (the “good fats” found in seafood) than grain-fed meat. It also has a higher vitamin content – particularly Vitamin E – and higher mineral levels. As such, it is in high demand from sports people who especially require nutrient-dense protein in their diets.

There are environmental benefits too. Low input farming with herbs and clover can reduce the need for artificial fertilisers, and improve the water holding capacity of soils, which is good news in times of drought. Importantly they also help to build fertility back into soils, no small matter given that we are currently eroding our fertile top-soils at an astonishing rate.

Despite its well-documented benefits, the PFLA is not pushing to introduce “pasture-fed” onto the refrigerated shelves of the major supermarkets. Instead, the members have decided to focus their energies on developing new markets, and demonstrating the alternative to the high tech, intensive approach many farmers have been encouraged to follow.

Grain production is very dependent on fossil fuels, and as the price of both continues to increase, the economics of raising pasture-fed animals are starting to appeal to a larger numbers of farmers. This is good news, as it means there will be greater supplies of wholesome meat that delivers on both animal welfare and environmental standards. The Pasture-fed Livestock program will also lead to better utilisation of energy and resources, increased diversity on farms, and less long distance hauling of food – which will ultimately lead to a better food system for us all.

For more information check out www.pasturefed.org or email Russ at info@pfla.org.uk

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