Biodiverse pastures make for tastier meat

14 January 2009 by Tom Marshall

Raising animals on natural pastures like moorland and salt marsh doesn't just help maintain biodiversity - it also produces healthier and tastier meat, according to new research.

Grazing sheep

This means farming on traditional unimproved grassland could be good for consumers and producers as well as for the environment - but it needs political support if it is to fulfil its potential.

The work is part of the Rural Economy & Land Use (RELU) programme, a collaborative effort between the Biotechnology & Biological Sciences Research Council, the Economic & Social Research Council and NERC.

Researchers analysed the nutritional qualities of plants growing in natural grassland on 39 farms across Britain, finding they give grazing animals a richer and more varied diet than the improved pastures used for more intensive farming. This made for tastier cows and sheep.

The work was inspired by an earlier study of French farmers, who have a long tradition of linking the biodiversity of land with the quality of food it produces.

"Many French farmers actively maintain the biodiversity of their grasslands in order to protect the future of the high quality food produced from it," says Professor Henry Buller, a rural geographer at Exeter University and leader of the research team. "We wanted to know if this approach could provide a model for more sustainable farming in the UK," he adds.

The research suggests the answer is yes. "We ought to be doing much better in the UK," Buller says. "We have such diverse conditions for agriculture, and such a rich tradition of husbandry - we should be able to compete with France and Italy." But despite public enthusiasm for locally-produced foods, British regional products are badly outnumbered on supermarket shelves.

Farming for biodiversity is likely to be more relevant to farming on areas of land that are marginal from the perspective of intensive farming. Farmers on lowland grassland, which is well-suited to modern intensive methods, may not be willing to make the switch.

"We aren't suggesting this is the way forward for all British livestock farming," Buller says. "It is probably not worth it for farmers in lowland areas that are already very productive. But we do think it could be worthwhile for farmers on more marginal land where the possibilities for intensive production are less strong. Some of the farmers we spoke to said that if they hadn't gone into this market they would have had to give up."

Farmers on less productive lands like moorland, heather-covered uplands or salt marsh could reap the benefits, though; they can't complete with their lowland rivals in density of stock, but they may be able to charge a premium for their animals because of their superior taste and environmental credentials.

Branding biodiversity

A step towards this could be to expand place-based labelling schemes, like France's Appellation d'Origine Controlée system or more recently the European Union's Protected Food Names legislation, which applies to famous regional foods like Stilton cheese or Parma ham.

The RELU researchers conducted focus groups on consumers' willingness to pay extra for meat raised with an eye on biodiversity and branded with its place of origin; they found clear evidence that farmers could charge a premium for food that was clearly labelled to explain its distinctive characteristics and place of origin. But at present Britain has just eight protected designations for meat products, while France has 52.

"There are already ways for farmers to charge premium prices," argues Buller, noting that some have reached agreements to supply restaurants and pubs directly. "But it tends to be badly-organised and individualistic; in too many cases individual farmers have to negotiate with individual buyers. I would like to see more collective organisation."

For example, farmers in a particular upland area could band together and create a local label that would raise awareness of their produce and its unique qualities as well as giving them more bargaining power in negotiating with buyers.

Taste panels conducted blind tests on meat raised under different conditions. Made up of trained meat-tasters, they found that animals raised on biodiverse pasture was more tender and flavoursome than those raised intensively, which spent more of their lives indoors and were fed on silage and commercial feeds for much of the year.

This was particularly true for traditional breeds like Longhorn cattle, which are especially well-suited to grazing on unimproved grassland.

Balancing conservation with farming

Chemical analysis showed that animals from these pastures produce healthier meat as well. Lambs grazed on unimproved land, particularly those that ate heather, had higher levels of vitamin E than those from improved pastures.

Their meat also contained higher levels of healthy fatty acids including DHA, a long-chain omega 3 fatty acid that is thought to help protect against heart disease and to play an important role in brain development.

Likewise, lambs raised on moorland and Longhorn cattle from unimproved pastures contained more conjugated linoleic acid, which is known to help prevent cancer.

Buller says that while protecting marginal ecosystems like moorlands and salt marshes is important, farmers' needs should be taken into account as well. "With any production system there's a risk of overgrazing, and in the past this has been a problem on marginal land," he says, noting that this was typically caused by subsidies paid per head of livestock under the European Union's Common Agricultural Policy.

These payments have now ended, and he argues that marginal land's lower ability to support grazing should help prevent overstocking and ecological damage. On some types of land, such as salt marsh, research suggests that grazing can even help maintain biodiversity, by preventing any one species becoming too dominant.

"In this country we've often tended to take an approach that conservation always comes first and farming has to adapt," Buller argues. "But during our work in the uplands of south-east France we saw much more negotiation between the needs of farmers and the interest of conservationists and national park authorities to plan a level of grazing that is sustainable both for the farmers and for the environment."

The £24m RELU programme aims to draw together research across different disciplines to understand the social, economic, environmental and technological challenges that rural areas face.