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Reassessing efficiency in our food system.

Updated: May 25, 2021

I recall a time when indulging in luxuriously rich desserts, cakes and similar treats were referred to as a ‘guilty pleasure’. But it seems today we can hardly put anything in our mouths without a pang of guilt, thanks to a stream of media reports that haunt us with the thought that something, somewhere in the world, suffers every time we take a bite.

How has the simple activity of survival and nourishment of our bodies become so complex and fraught with concerns about our dietary choices? Not only do we now need to think about whether we like the taste of something and whether it is good for us, we are also having to consider the impact of our choices on others.

Red meat is a prime example. No other food is on the planet is receiving more critical attention right now. Why is the consumption of a staple British food like beef that was once consumed without sin, now increasingly regarded as one of the most damaging activities undertaken by the human race?

Most of us have read or heard reports about beef (and dairy) production driving climate change, causing animal suffering and damaging our health. Their may be grains of truth (sorry, plant-based pun) in some of these claims, but please understand foods of animal origin are not inherently bad for us, farm animals, or the planet. To use a short phrase which I attribute to Patrick Holden, founding director of The Sustainable Food Trust, “it’s not the cow, it’s the how”.

Yes, cows do produce Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions. Methane is produced by ruminant animals in the process of enteric fermentation, where microbes decompose and ferment plant materials, such as celluloses, fibre, starches, and sugars, in their digestive tract or rumen (Source: FAO). But whilst Methane is undeniably a potent GHG, after ten years it is broken down in a process called hydroxyl oxidation into CO2, entering a carbon cycle which sees the gas absorbed by plants, converted into cellulose, and eaten by livestock.

A stable population of grazing cows will not increase levels of Methane in the atmosphere. It is the farming activity involved in rearing them, fattening them and milking them and our management of the land that feeds them, which determines emissions. This is why it’s not the cow, it's the how that determines the impact of beef cattle and dairy cows on the environment. This also applies to the taste of meat, milk and dairy products, their nutritional quality and the life of the animals that produce them.

Farming has changed a great deal over the years, in response to changing market demands. If we wind the clock back 50 years, farming in the UK was very different to how it looks now. Our landscape was a tapestry of small, mixed farms grazing livestock and growing crops. Meat produced from these farms came from cattle and sheep sold through local markets, slaughtered at local abattoirs and was sold through independent butchers in nearby towns and villages. Milk from the multitude of dairy herds on the western side of the country was pasteurised and bottled by family-owned processors and delivered directly to the doorsteps of local households and to nearby shops.

Today, we have a very different supply chain model, based on unrelenting consolidation of production, processing, delivery and retailing. A model founded on the principles of economies of scale and streamlined logisitics, to drive efficiency, provide a consistent supply of cheap food and return big profits to all who handle it between leaving the farm gate and being placed in our shopping baskets.

Hurrah for efficiency! Efficiency is progress and ergo, efficiency is good. But is it? Well, in my opinion, it depends on how we measure efficiency. Throughout so much of my farming life, efficiency at farm level has been measured in very simple terms – the volume of output derived from the inputs used. For example, how many kilograms of meat or litres of milk are produced from each kilogram of feed given to an animal.

Margin over Concentrates (MOC) was recognised as the key indicator of efficiency on dairy farms. This is the additional milk revenue received in relation to the cost of purchased feed given to the cows. MOC was keenly promoted by those in the business of selling feed to dairy farmers and supplemented the kudos attached to high milk yields. Little consideration was given to the wider costs of production and running a simple, traditional system of producing milk was dismissed as outdated and inefficient by those eager to sell inputs and advice to farmers.

This pursuit of higher output has played an integral role in supplying the consolidated, modern-day grocery supply chain I have described above. Relentless pressure on suppliers, from big retailers, has fuelled this output-driven efficiency and farmers have been unwittingly dragged into a race to the bottom. In an attempt to stay in the game, many have turned to increasingly intensive farming methods, keeping more animals and farming more acres, as exhausted neighbours quit the race.

Meanwhile, the people that farmers feed are waking up to some real issues that threaten the quality of their own lives and survival of future generations. Issues that many are now blaming on farmers and their cattle. It may be true that these issues have, in part, been caused by over-simplistic assessment of efficiency on farms. However, farmers and cows are not to blame for the challenges we now face. These stem from the recently exposed vulnerability and inefficiency of our food system - inefficiency that is driving industrial-scale factory farming, creating animal welfare issues, polluting waterways, fuelling climate change, whilst feeding us an ultra-processed diet that is making us sick.

We urgently need to reassess how we define efficiency in our food system today. Because the perceived supply chain efficiency that strives to deliver more for less is actually costing us the earth. A system built to deliver profit to big food business leads farmers to focus on output which, in turn, drives the use of fossil fuels and imported feeds and we now urgently need to switch our focus to sustainability. Efficiency should encompass benefits to nature and our environment, enrichment of our communities, reduced GHG emissions, the contribution to our health and wellbeing, food security and a variety of 'public goods'.

I believe forging direct connections between farmers and consumers is key to developing and promoting new metrics for efficiency in food and farming. Producers selling direct from their farms can tell the full story of their food and empower responsible food citizens to make informed choices about the real value of the food they buy.

Understandably, many will say it is impossible for an unconnected network of farmers, spread around our countryside, to feed an increasingly urbanised population from the farm gate and that is probably true. But, if you take a look at the 400 plus pins already on our website map, you will see there is an opportunity for a lot of us to begin making a transition towards sourcing some of our food more locally and making those better choices. From this I hope we can build connections not just between farmers and their local communities, but with fellow producers in their area. It is time for the primary producers to take back control, engage with the people they feed and win the recognition and reward they deserve, for what is undeniably one of the most important roles in our society today.

Farmers you will find on the Produce & Provide website are breaking the mould and thinking differently. Tired of the fruitless pursuit of producing food for commodity markets, they are examining how they can realise the true value of their land, their livestock and their labours. It is encouraging to find so many producers now reclaiming the intrinsic value in their farms and food that has, for far too long, been stripped out by increasingly long and convoluted supply chains.

Instead of letting others make up stories about the way they farm, they are now telling the real story about themselves, their families, their fields and animals. They are building brands founded on where and how they farm – brands that are relevant to your needs today. That’s why you will find so many going back to native breed cattle, pigs and sheep that flourish in their local landscape. It’s also why they are adopting regenerative farming practices, growing more of what they feed to their animals on farm, building biodiversity and reducing their use of fossil fuel derived inputs.

We might be forced to accept that we will all have to reduce our consumption of meat and dairy over the next ten years. However, we don’t need to substitute great tasting, real food for synthetic substitutes made in laboratories and factories. Instead, we can choose to eat less but eat better. Grazing is amazing and grass is one of our most precious natural resources in the UK and there is no more efficient way to utilise it than feed it to ruminants.

Take a look at our website and connect with directly with producers of some of the finest and most sustainable food produced in the world today. Long live real food!


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