Farmers could escape supermarket pricing pressures by returning to traditional free-range and slow-maturing ways of producing meat

Arable farmers are sitting pretty. Thanks to drought and flood in key grain-growing areas of the world, and the escalating demand for cereals from the biofuel industry, their output has never been more marketable. Livestock farmers, on the other hand, face lean times. Their feed costs are soaring, and I don't see supermarkets rushing to help them out. 

Logically, meat prices should reflect farmers' raised costs, but the supermarkets have encouraged a 'cheap meat' mindset among consumers, with £2 chickens and the like a key plank in their retail 'offer'. Indeed, one wonders if they have the imagination or vision to build meat sales on any other basis. More likely, they will grudgingly pass on to farmers a few more pennies from slightly elevated retail prices, but nevertheless maintain the iron grip that demands remorselessly low prices and which discourages all but the most extreme forms of intensive production.

One good thing is that this may be the final straw that makes dispirited livestock farmers consider stepping off the treadmill. Cheap meat is predicated on low animal welfare factory farming. Take an obscenely large number of birds/cattle/pigs, pack them into a sordid industrial unit. Stuff them full of cereals and growth promoters so they reach end weight in record time. Then wait for the call from supermarket HQ demanding that you foot the bill for a bogof offer on the next miserable batch.

The skill of traditional farmers is that they know how to produce meat in a more enlightened way by harnessing natural processes. Why fatten up cattle with expensive barley when they could be outside grazing on grass ? Why buy in genetically modifed soya to stuff fast-growing breeds of bird, when you could have them outside in their natural woodland environment, satisfying most, if not all, of their food requirements ?

By choosing to go back to traditional breeds, and guaranteeing them the time-honoured free-range, slow-maturing lives that ensure their welfare, farmers can produce marvellous meat with a fabulous story behind it that will entice thinking consumers. 

More people now understand that it makes good health, taste and environmental sense to eat less meat and better meat. They are prepared to pay a bit more for it too. A perfect opportunity for farmers to look beyond the supermarket straitjacket, and strike up a more direct, and more rewarding relationship with consumers.n

Joanna Blythman is the author

of Bad Food Britain