Meat Management Magazine kindly shared one of their recent interviews with Patrick Holden, CEO of the Sustainable Food Trust.

Getting to the root of the climate issue

Intro: Livestock farmer and chief executive of the Sustainable Food Trust (SFT) Patrick Holden has a ‘painful but necessary’ message for the meat industry when it comes to responding to consumer demand and tackling climate issues through food.

Q. What are your views on the current state of the British meat and livestock industry?

I don’t really like to use that term – the livestock industry – only because I think it implies factories, and intensive practices. And these are terms that tend to put people off. I think we are an industry, but we’re also a community.

In practice, the messages that the industry – and I use these words advisedly – have been putting out are increasingly out of tune with what the public’s needs and expectation for the likes of products they eat; and I think that this poses our community enormous challenges, but also equally big opportunities.

We have to grasp the nettles and face things; and in opening up the opportunities, we cannot ignore some of the areas where the public are increasingly disenchanted with us. I think that if we don’t rise to this challenge, we will see a rise in veganism and vegetarianism, especially amongst young people who don’t really understand the issues, let’s be honest.

We need to ask: ‘what even is the vegan thing?’ It’s a kind of protest vote, and young people in particular think there’s a lot of intensive livestock production out there; and they think ‘I don’t want anything to do with that.’ They don’t like the idea of the lives of the animals. They don’t like the slaughter idea, either.

And the situation is further complicated by the so-called “eat better together coalition” and the environmental community now, ironically, joined by the Climate Change committee. Even Sir David Attenborough, who is saying we should eat less meat. And I personally think that that messaging just adds to the confusion.

I think we have to differentiate between the livestock systems which are part of the problem – which will hurt quite a few people in the industry – and those which are part of the solution. Know the difference, tell our customers the difference and move towards the one which is part of the solution.

Now, that is a seismic shift in the whole way in which we produce livestock in the UK, but also throughout the world. We’ve got to face that. And if we don’t, we’re going to lose customers, and face a disenchanted public and a science community that don’t think we’re part of the solution.

Q. What does the SFT define as a ‘sustainable food system’?

We’ve gone a long way down the intensive road and it’s going to be painful to come back up and redesign of our farms and livestock systems. It’s not just the infrastructure, the centralised abattoirs, the centralised meatpacking plants, all of which serve a kind of industrial client, but it’s the farms as well. Farming, especially poultry, pork and even increasingly dairy production have become unbelievably focused on large scale production.

This means that farmers are mostly just platforms for imported nutrients, animal feed, and fertilisers, and they’re no longer operating within the environment of the farm that they occupy. They’re causing massive environmental pollution, and we must face these things. We can’t just tweak the systems; we have to redesign them.

Now, that is a painful message to the industry; and I’m not saying it in some sort of angry way. I’m just saying, it’s the truth. If we are going to avoid irreversible climate change, and massive pollution of our environment, which we are part of, we have to change our farming systems from the ground up; we have to live within planetary boundaries; we have to adhere to the principles of the circular economy; we have to minimise our use of non-renewable inputs and produce healthy food from the ecosystem of the farm which we are managing.

Livestock and meat production have a central role in that system, not a marginal role. So, if you want me to define what sustainable food system is, I would say it goes right back to many of the principles I’ve just mentioned.

Q. What are the impacts of a sustainable food system on those at the start of the supply chain?

If the whole of the United Kingdom transitions to truly sustainable food systems, it’s going to be a very different landscape. Grain production is going to halve or there abouts because, if you move away from chemical to biological farming, you can’t produce the yields or the acreage of grain that we’ve got at the moment.

I think we’re going to have to go back to expensive chicken, and lamb or beef as staples. There’ll be less chicken because we haven’t got enough grain – same with pigs. The feed will hopefully be swill again and arable by-products. So, there’ll be fewer pigs, and pork will be more expensive. It will be very welfare friendly, very delicious and a treat. And that’s not where we are today.

I realise I’m giving a pretty bleak message to all the pig producers that have been suffering so much recently. I feel for them. It’s really horrible what’s happening at the moment.

I think it’s the truth is, is that if we address climate change, a lot of the intensive livestock production is going to have to disappear; and livestock production is going to be much more extensive. And the animals, the staple meats are going to come from mainly grass fed animals.

Q. What about further down the supply chain? What can they expect from a sustainable food system?

Let’s start with abattoirs. The animal’s journey to slaughter should be shorter; and that’s why a lot of people are giving up eating meat, because they don’t like the idea of huge, factory-scale slaughterhouses with long travel distances to get there. That’s the current policy at some supermarkets in the UK. I think they are hoping their customers haven’t noticed; but their customers are noticing that some of the travel distances are very long.

The policy that some retailers have about using a single abattoir for as much as possible per species, that must change. It has to change. When I started farming there was there were 3000 abattoirs or something like that. They’ve shrunk by 90%. The abattoir industry has to rebuild to what it once was.

I believe that retailers ought to make a claim to their customers that no animal whose meat they sell travels more than ‘x amount of miles’. I want to be radical and say 30 miles, but even if it was 100 miles, that would be such a vast improvement on today.

Meat cutting plants should also be decentralised. Since travel is going to get more expensive, I think there’s environmental advantages to that as well. Also, there’s the abattoir waste. A lot of small abattoirs say one of their key costs is processing their waste.

So, we’ve got to start with redesigning the whole system of slaughter and processing. That’s got to be so painful, but it needs to be done; and the industry is in the middle of the sandwich on that obviously, because, you know, we’re slaves to the retailers, but the retailers in turn are slaves to their customers.

Q. How do you think the current industry challenges – widespread labour shortages and price inflation due to Brexit complications, Covid-19 and the Ukraine conflict – are hindering the transition to a more sustainable food system?

In term of labour, what we’ve done – and I’m saying this with massive respect – is we have denigrated working in food factories to an economic underclass, mainly Eastern European workers; and how ironic is that? We’ve created a sort of economic underclass because people don’t want to work in our own food factories, or pack houses, and that has to change. We have to reinstate the social and cultural economic status of working with food. And I think there’s a lot of young people who get that, that’s why these micro-dairies and craft butchers are popping up all over the place.

Ukraine has reminded us about food resilience and the urgency of this. Ask yourself this question: what keeps a population from migration? The answer is secure supplies of local food. So, to become fully sustainable, we need to think about that.

A lot of British farmers are wondering what they’re going to do at the moment without with nitrogen fertiliser at 1000 pounds a tonne. There’s a simple thing they must do: move back to mixed farming. And that means reintroducing a rotation with a fertility building element of probably about 50%. If they bring in great animals, cattle and sheep, they can turn the grass into money; and those same animals will build soil and inoculate it with friendly bacteria.

That’s what has to happen but at scale. Now, to make that happen, we have to harness the power of the consuming public to buy that meat; and that will come from challenging how we educate the public.

Q. What can the meat industry do to tackle misinformation about the sector?

I think it comes down to the fact that we have to work out what our message is to begin with and make it consistent. I think that the tech community [which produce plant-based protein], particularly those with billions of pounds of investment, which have been generated by these investment coaches, they think of the product as a new investment or a marketing opportunity.

Personally, I’m suspicious of these fake meats. I don’t think we [as a country] want to replace farming in harmony with nature with laboratory-produced protein. I also think it may not have such a good environmental footprint as they’re claiming. I think that its carbon footprint may be higher than we think; and I’m not convinced of its nutritional integrity.

You cannot have sustainably produced plant foods without livestock. That is my view. I think livestock form a central part of the sustainable food system, because they alone can come convert the grass or the pastureland.

However, [plant-based protein] is the bandwagon. That’s the train a lot of people today have gotten on, which has left the station. So, we need to think about what our messaging is; and we can’t just say ‘meat is good’. I’m afraid that is not going to cut it anymore.