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Livestock farmers feel 'under siege' amid climate change and vegan debates

Norfolk cattle farmers feel 'under siege' from a barrage of negative messages about meat. Picture: Ian Burt

Norfolk cattle farmers feel 'under siege' from a barrage of negative messages about meat. Picture: Ian Burt

Archant 2018

Livestock farmers feel "under siege" from a barrage of negativity over climate change, agricultural emissions, healthy diets and veganism - and they urged a more balanced discussion about sustainable meat production.

North Norfolk cattle farmer Tony Bambridge. Picture: NFUNorth Norfolk cattle farmer Tony Bambridge. Picture: NFU

In recent months, the under-fire industry has been highlighted as a key component of agriculture's greenhouse gas emissions, sparking discussions on the global impact of farm animals on the environment, and debates about whether meat-free diets could be part of the solution to global warming.

It added to the ethical arguments of a vocal vegan movement, endorsed by influential celebrities like Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton, who recently sparked controversy by saying adopting a vegan diet is the "only way to truly save our planet".

Some schools and universities have taken red meat off their menus to cut carbon emissions, and last month a Tesco TV advert further outraged farmers by depicting a child saying: "Daddy I don't want to eat animals any more". The National Farmers' Union said it "demonised" meat, and that food and nutrition must be looked at as a whole, while the supermarket responded by saying the aim was to offer choice and that it remains "absolutely committed to working in partnership" with UK farmers.

Norfolk producers said the mounting pressures have contributed to falling demand and a slump in prices which could threaten the viability of livestock businesses.

Pasture-fed beef cattle grazing near Aylsham. Picture: Chris HillPasture-fed beef cattle grazing near Aylsham. Picture: Chris Hill

They defended their high quality and welfare standards, the nutritional value of protein-rich red meat, and the sustainability of their pasture-fed animals, with emissions offset by the environmental benefits of grazing on grassland which is unable to sustain other food crops.

Tony Bambridge, Norfolk council delegate for the NFU, keeps a small herd of beef cattle, grazing on water meadows in north Norfolk.

He said: "In your darker moments as a livestock producer, you do feel under siege and threatened by these comments. It is not helpful. Let's be clear, everyone has a choice of what to eat, and we have got to be ethical and think very hard about looking after the planet.

"But I think the concern most farmers would have is that when you get these statements and soundbites coming across in the news and social media, it is about whether they are really balanced and based on fact. What is clear is that very good ethically-produced meat is part of a balanced diet which is good for your health.

West Norfolk pig and cattle farmer Ed Lankfer. Picture: Matthew UsherWest Norfolk pig and cattle farmer Ed Lankfer. Picture: Matthew Usher

"Most British meat is pasture-fed and it is wrapped up in our environment because it is grazing on marshes or grassland. Ruminants are vegans, and they digest food we can't eat and convert it into protein that we can utilise. Grown responsibly, it is a pretty good system. The feedlot system you get from South America is an entirely different product.

"My animals are grazing water meadows that create some of the wonderful landscape we have in Norfolk. I couldn't grow crops on there, but cattle have been grazing on those meadows for 500 years or more, so the biodiversity has grown up and thrived because of the environment that pastoral grazing has provided."

Ed Lankfer, who farms near Downham Market, has 2,000 pigs and a small herd of Simmental beef cattle, and is a regional representative on the NFU's livestock board.

"Everything we seem to do is getting criticised," he said. "We seem to be the scapegoat for all the ills of the world - they say we're destroying the environment and climate change is all our fault. Something has got to change.

"Every farmer in the UK, whether it is arable, beef, sheep, pigs or whatever, does their best for the environment and I believe we produce the best product in the world.

"We have banned a lot of chemicals and drugs so that the animals are more pure. That puts us on the back foot against Argentinian producers, for example, who are using growth promoters and hormones - we can never compete with that.

"But some people seem to want to ban us and import that meat instead. Whether you are a vegan, a vegetarian or a meat-eater, we have all got to eat, so it is not good getting rid of the great products we make in this country and then importing lower grade products from somewhere else. We have got to be proud of what we do, but we need a bit of support.

"We have got to have a better price for our products. At the moment beef is about 25p per kilo less than the five-year average, and I cannot make that pay.

"I was told last week there are seven big cattle finishers in the county who, when they get rid of all their beef, are not having any more cattle. If that happens you will see all the grass ripped up and put into arable or it will be neglected."

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