A shift to dual-purpose breeds could improve food supply and welfare, says Joanna Blythman

Male calves on British farms are either shot at birth or exported live to the continent. Why? Well, in other countries they would be raised for veal, but not here.

Many British consumers have a blanket objection to eating this meat. This is partly to do with our food culture: we just aren't in the habit of eating veal. Some consumers consider its production method to be cruel - and with some reason: calves taken away from their mothers at birth and reared indoors on formula milk do suffer. But it's also perfectly possible to produce humane 'pink' veal, provided the calves are kept with their mothers, or a wet nurse cow, and allowed to feed outside on grass. 

Now that food security concerns and the recession are making us more sensitive to waste, this glaring profligacy with a potential food source looks positively obscene. There must be a better way.

One solution would be for the government to run a public information campaign to support farmers who try to drum up a market for the meat - the humanely reared sort, obviously. It's white and versatile after all, so a theoretical alternative to ubiquitous chicken. Don't hold your breath though. The blokes at Defra just don't have the vision.

Some enlightened farmers are showing an interest in the French/Swiss Montbeliard breed. It produces both good milk and very edible meat. The other day I met a farmer who was cross-breeding his Holstein/Friesian herd with Montbeliard, not just for the superior meat but also because it was better for the cows.

Montbeliards are a less extreme dairy type than modern, US-inspired Holsteins. Their milk yield is lower, but they live longer and are more fertile. Unlike the high-yielding dairy breeds that are often pushed to their metabolic limits, either 'zero-grazed' or kept mainly indoors stuffed on cereals, Montbeliards take life at a more sedate pace. They thrive in less intensive systems (outdoors for six months of the year) and suffer less from the occupational hazards of the modern 'efficient' dairy cow, such as mastitis.

For decades, dairy farming in Britain has focused on 'productive' breeds and this has been a disaster for dairy cow welfare. Interest in the Montbeliard and traditional British dual-purpose breeds (Shorthorn, British Friesian and Red Poll) could mark a return to sanity.

Joanna Blythman is a food journalist and author of Bad Food Britain.