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It’s no secret that we’re becoming more ethically-minded when it comes to our food. The number of British people identifying as vegan is now more than 3.5 million, according to comparethemarket.com, while a report by ReportLinker showed that people in the UK are eating half the beef and veal they did in 1975. Ethical, environmental and sustainability concerns are turning many people off meat.
But while some see veganism as the answer, what about the ‘inbetweeners’ – those conscious of the ramifications of their love of a rare steak or soft cheese but don’t want to give it up.
Thankfully, a growing number of producers are working to ensure they can enjoy meat, cheese and
dairy products but keep a relatively clear conscience.
“We don’t want to have to choose between doing what’s right and staying in business”
They include David and Wilma Finlay, who have just launched The Ethical Dairy in Dumfries and Galloway after a decade of working to find a new approach to dairy farming. Amid increasing criticism of the dairy industry, they have chosen to keep calves with their mothers to suckle, taking less milk as a result.
The couple, founders of luxury ice cream brand Cream o’Galloway, had already switched to organic farming 20 years ago but wanted to go one step further. For Wilma, taking calves from their mothers within a few hours of birth never sat comfortably. “We wanted to find a way to keep calves with the cows and still have a financially viable farm. We don’t want to have to choose between doing what’s right and staying in business.”
They first tried leaving calves with their mothers in 2005 but the experiment proved a financial disaster. Now, over a decade later they’ve found a way to do it that leaves calves to suckle with their mothers but removed for short periods to allow the couple to still take milk from the cows. “It means we take less milk from each cow but we’re seeing real benefits from this approach,” says David. “Longer living, healthier cows, less antibiotic use, faster growing calves and less purchased feed.”
It hasn’t been an easy journey, David admits. “Many people in the farming industry think we’re completely crazy. Financially it’s been extremely challenging, but the cows and calves just love it.” He says they’ve given themselves three years to break even but 18 months in are already seeing some daylight, plus the cows are living twice as long as those on intensive dairy farms and the calves are growing almost twice as quickly. The Finlays are starting with a focus on artisan cheese, selling their Ethical Dairy brand through independent retailers, specialist cheese outlets and direct through their own website.
The ‘inbetweeners’, who will no doubt make up a large part of their customer base, are people Wilma understands. “I almost fall into the description of the inbetweeners,” she says. “If I go out to a restaurant and don’t know how that meat is produced I’m more likely to choose a vegetarian option. I want to know how my meat is produced. We’ve already had quite a few people saying to us, ‘I have been waiting for so long for this to happen – I wanted something that will allow me to eat dairy conscience-free’.”
“We hope to demonstrate that food from the dairy industry can be produced with compassion for our animals”
The Finlays aren’t alone in trying to change the way dairy cows and calves are farmed, with a new website launched last month (cowcalfdairies.co.uk) listing another seven farms who have adopted the same approach. While David says he has no intention of “demonising” farmers, he wants to “revolutionise the dairy industry” by persuading other farmers of the benefits. “If all goes to plan we hope to demonstrate that food from the dairy industry can be produced with compassion for our animals, for our people and for our environment. We also hope to show that far from being expensive, food produced this way can actually cost us less.”
These cost benefits are something that Jacob Sykes, co-owner of Leicestershire-based Fosse Meadows Farm, can point out. Fosse Meadows Farm grow free-range birds slowly and traditionally at their Leicestershire farm – nearly seven weeks longer than standard commercially-reared birds. The birds have longer legs allowing them to roam further and forage on rich, wildflower pasture that makes for darker, richer meat, and even their bones are stronger. “I think people recognise that one of our chickens will go a lot further than a cheaper chicken in a supermarket because there’s more meat-to-bone ratio,” says Jacob. “So although it appears more expensive, you’re getting more value.”
As people become more focused on the provenance of their food – including its ethical credentials – Jacob says Fosse Meadows Farm, which recently appeared in this year’s 6th annual Observer Food Monthly TOP 50, has seen its customer base grow. “People remember chicken how it used to be before the industrialisation of it.”
And while younger generations may not have the same memories of chicken ‘pre-industrialisation’, the desire to know where food comes from and that it doesn’t come served with accompanying guilt is commonplace. “Our customers are into knowing where their chicken has come from and it’s done properly,” says Jacob. That includes the ‘inbetweeners’ who want to eat chicken without the guilt that comes from worrying about the conditions those birds have been kept in before they make it to our plates. “We also have people who are vegetarian or vegan and are thinking of eating meat,” says Jacob. “They want to make sure the meat they try is high welfare. And then there are mothers who don’t eat meat themselves but think it’s important their children have meat. They want to feed them meat that’s antibiotic-free and high welfare so they come to us.”
“Food as a by-product of conservation”
It’s not just dairy or chicken farms catering for the inbetweeners. Around the country, fellow producers are putting more emphasis on the welfare of their animals, the effect of their farming on the environment, and the sustainability of their product – all concerns highlighted as the negative side of eating meat.
Among them is Rosewood Farm in Yorkshire, which offers UK-wide meat box delivery selling grass-fed Dexter beef, lamb and mutton. The farm’s motto is ‘food as a byproduct of conservation’ and rather than limit descriptions of what it does to ‘organic’ and ‘grassfed’, it lists an array of ethical promises guaranteed to appeal to the growing market of inbetweeners. They include keeping their lambs longer than the usual four to six months, and not de-tailing them, as well as promising never to feed animals on what could have been eaten by humans. The farm doesn’t produce slurry and has vowed never to buy or use pesticides, fungicides or herbicides, and when it comes to the environment, it sources energy from renewables as well as experimenting with alternatives to drive down fuel usage.
“There’s no question that the tide has turned – I don’t think you can start a food business now without an ethical slant to it”
While some producers are changing processes to cater for inbetweeners, others have done something even more unexpected. Chef James Whetlor founded Cabrito – Spanish for ‘young goat’ – after keeping a few goats to solve a land management problem. He was cooking at River Cottage at the time and a few of the goats ended up on the menu.
In Whetlor’s mind, it was a way to ending the slaughter of 40,000 male goats in the UK every year. While female goats can be used for their milk, their male counterparts are euthanised shortly after birth. It’s an animal welfare and food waste issue that Whetlor saw as eminently fixable. “I just thought this is so dumb. Why are these perfectly good animals being euthanised when they can be raised up for meat and put in the food chain. Every time I go through it in my head even after six years I just think it’s so stupid.”
Using his experience as a chef and knowledge of the London food market, Whetlor sold Cabrito’s first kids to Soho’s Quo Vadis in March 2012 and has since grown to supply restaurants, butchers and catering suppliers nationwide using a network of farms. He has even won the support of major dairy Delamere, which invested in Cabrito after seeing its inroads in turning a previously wasted resource into meat people want to eat. “Over the last 30 years British food culture has changed hugely,” says Whetlor. “There’s an awful lot in the zeitgeist about food waste. Hugh [Fearnley-Whittingstall] had ploughed the road of being able to change people’s shopping habits in a really positive way.”
It’s people’s shopping and eating habits that are as much to blame as the dairy industry, says Whetlor. “No one in the dairy industry wanted to euthanise the billy goat. The dairy industry thought, ‘these animals are unwanted, we can’t guarantee that if we sell them on they will have a good life’. They wanted a solution but there wasn’t
market for it.”
Now there is a market, and many of those are people who understand that we shouldn’t be wasting perfectly edible meat. “There’s no question that the tide has turned” says Whetlor. “I don’t think you can start a food business now without an ethical slant to it.” But despite that, he admits it won’t be easy to feed nine billion people worldwide without the ‘efficient’ food production practices that have been used for decades. In his view that requires effort from consumers as well as producers. “The reason so many supply chains have questionable practices in them is because they were efficient. I’m not saying there has to be a balance between ethical production but it will take some redesigning and reimagining of the system. And all of that will be driven by consumers.”