The recent BBC programme “Meat: A Threat to Our Planet?” has prompted some strong reactions.  I will freely admit that I only heard of the programme a few days after it was originally aired and it took a few more days before finding the time to watch it.

In some ways I wished I had not seen it.  I grew up on an arable and beef farm and loved working with the suckler herd.  There can be nothing better than on a warm late spring evening walking through the cattle peacefully grazing and perhaps hearing the village charge bells in the distance.  The knowledge that the animals are content, in the right environment, and producing really excellent beef, was an important part of production.  Admittedly, at the time there was less knowledge about the extent of carbon emissions but, despite being considerably more knowledgeable about such matters, we know that pasture-fed beef and sheep are, in reality, more environmentally friendly than people first thought.

The BBC programme focused on how beef is farmed in the Americas.  A world apart from the UK but at no point was this made clear.  Although the programme only referred to north and south American beef farming, it did not explicitly say that that beef farming in other parts of the world, particularly the UK, was very different. This may have left many viewers with the impression that beef farming, the world over, was conducted in a similar way with the accompanying environmental cost.  

However, at the same time I am glad I did watch it.  It provides a backdrop for UK agriculture to differentiate itself from the rest of the world. (You have seen how the rest do it; now see how the best do it).   The programme highlighted the issue of carbon emissions and particularly deforestation of the amazon rainforest.  For anyone who enjoys meat - as well as their vegetables – programmes like this should convince them of the need to buy good quality, British meat

Where, I believe, the programme failed, was by giving the impression that the consumer just has to buy whatever food the farmer chooses to produce. The opposite is true.   Agriculture responds to what the consumer wants.  The consumer wants cheap, safe food which is environmentally sustainable.  Unfortunately, cost seems to trump the other two requirements which is why supermarkets compete on price rather than provenance. 

Understandably, the UK beef industry has complained to the BBC about what they consider to be the anti-meat rhetoric of the programme with the potentially damaging effects on consumer confidence.  On reflection, I think the programme actually hands an opportunity to the industry to reiterate how different UK farming practices are from the environmentally-damaging industrial farming portrayed on our screens. The industry needs to shout loudly about our high welfare standards and why we care about our animals as much as we do, and the environment in which they are raised.  Everyone in the industry must do their part.  

And it can be done. Another BBC programme ‘This is Farming’ has done a wonderful job in showcasing a range of farming operations across the UK. All the farms featured demonstrate how much they care about their livestock, the environment and the criticality of determining the provenance of the food we eat. Farmers need to show that the industry has nothing to hide by installing webcams in barns and in pastures, opening the farm on Open Farm Sunday, and use social media.   Lobbying groups do a lot for the industry but the real impact comes from consumers feeling connected with individual farmers. By combining forces, the industry will stand stronger together and has lots to boast about: British beef is among the best in the world and is raised under exemplary conditions.  

So, this year make a New Year’s resolution that will make a real change by connecting with consumers.  After all, your industry needs you.  

About the author

Joel Woolf Partner

Joel advises estates and farmers in relation to strategic business planning including business continuity and succession issues.