When a lab-grown ‘beef burger’ was unveiled to the world last month it divided opinion: animal lovers and environmentalists rejoiced foodies and ‘Frankenfood’ haters mourned. I sat firmly in the mourning camp.
The artificial meat was created as an antidote to unsustainable farming practices adopted principally to satisfy our seemingly insatiable appetite for meat. It’s not just a PR stunt: experts believe meat grown from stem cells could appear on supermarket shelves in the next decade.
While the argument for a more sustainable food source is valid, surely we shouldn’t be happy that artificial protein is being heralded as the start of a food revolution. Meat does not need to be cultivated in a petri dish in order to be sustainable.
Sadly, UK farming practices have become so intensive, industrialised and far removed from traditional livestock farming that the nation’s perception of the quality and price of meat is warped. Add to this the prevalence of cheap meat imports and you begin to understand the scale of the problem.
“Meat does not need to be cultivated in a petri dish in order to be sustainable”
You can currently buy a beef burger in Tesco for 13p. When meat can be bought that cheaply, it is little wonder consumers baulk at paying more for higher-welfare, sustainably produced meat. If retailers paid a fair price for meat, farmers would be able to farm in a more sustainable manner, but at the moment this concept seems even more far-fetched than the ‘Frankenburger’.
It’s not just the retailers at fault. The government has also played a role in devaluing British-produced meat. The processing and production requirements surrounding the UK meat industry require huge investment and these costs have to be passed on to the consumer as higher prices.
But the government has failed to enforce these requirements for imported produce. The British pig farming industry is a case in point - a flood of cheaper imports from countries such as Denmark where farming standards are much lower have led to the demise of UK pig farming.
It’s not that quality, sustainable meat isn’t produced or isn’t a financially viable way of farming: visit any fine food shop or farmers’ market - or the Speciality & Fine Food Fair, where we are exhibiting this weekend - and you can see farmers who are passionate about their livestock and implement sustainable practices.
If the government were to introduce regulation that meant all meat sold in the UK was subject to the same farming standards and fees paid by UK farmers and abattoirs, it would help our sustainable farmers to compete.
Sustainability is also a question of Health. A lab-grown burger may be a feat of scientific ingenuity, but where is the evidence it won’t have an adverse impact on health? Sustainably produced meat has been shown time and time again to be leaner and more nutrient-rich than intensively farmed meat.
Better regulation of imported meats, as well as less bureaucracy for UK producers, would enable the British meat industry to concentrate on sustainability rather than paper-pushing, making the ‘Frankenburger’ redundant.
Jody Scheckter is the founder of Laverstoke Park Farm