A fascinating article by the Guardian recently shone a light on the ‘£3 chicken’. Quite rightly, it sparked a debate about whether we should be paying less for a chicken than a latte, and what factors are in play to drive down the cost of meat so much that it has such little value in our society. Our whole organic chickens in their smallest size are £14.20. When compared to the same size bird in Tesco which is £2.66, it does feel like a big jump and understandably consumers want to know what they are getting for their money. It might seem like we are expensive, but in reality, the competition is simply too cheap.
Our strong belief is that there is no such thing as cheap meat. The true, hidden costs of intensive, industrial farming are felt by the health of animals, farmers, consumers and the environment, all of which suffer because of factory-style production. We have grown accustomed to cheap meat and only spend 8% of our income on the food shop, compared to a third of our income in the 1950s.
Why Is Meat So Cheap?
There are several factors at play that explain why meat can be produced so cheaply. Akin to making efficiencies in a factory, farming animals for meat has turned into a rapacious business model, with focus on profits above all else. The majority of cheap meat is imported and can only be produced at such low costs by disregarding animal welfare, over-using antibiotics and polluting air and water. As Farms Not Factories explain, “53% of our pork [in the UK] is now imported from the EU, and 70% of those imports have been produced in conditions that would be illegal in the UK. This means that UK farmers are feeling the competitive pressure from these low cost, low welfare imports, so are increasingly forced to either intensify (and lower welfare standards), work to contract, or simply shut down.”
Basic economies of scale have slashed prices so the more animals you can pack into a single shed, the more money you can make. It certainly sounds efficient, but high density comes at a huge cost for animal welfare. Take chickens for example, it is stipulated that chicken sheds can house no more than 39kg of bird per square meter. By the time they’re ready for processing, that’s the equivalent of ‘about 16 fat chickens on a beach towel’ (The Guardian). Not only are these animals denied the space to freely roam, they cannot indulge their natural behaviours of pecking and perching, and their faeces can cause lesions and ammonia burns on feet and legs.
A similarly shocking story can be found in industrial pig production, a system has been designed to produce as much yield and profit as possible. Pigs are kept in barren, overcrowded sheds which denies them any opportunity to express their natural behaviours of playing, rooting, running or wallowing. Pregnant pigs are confined to sow stalls – small, individual metal cages – for up to a month at a time. The sow is unable to turn around, lying on a concrete slatted floor and deprived of any straw of bedding material for comfort. In this UK, this type of crate is banned, but in most European countries (where over 50% of the pork sold in the UK comes from) sow stalls are permitted for four weeks in each gestation period, which can amount to ten weeks of each year. The confined quarters of sow stalls result in pressure sores and ulcers from not being able to move.
Raising animals in confined spaces is not only cruel, it creates a breeding ground for disease. In overcrowded poultry and pig sheds, animals are dosed on antibiotics simply to keep them alive and this is creating a lot of concern about antibiotic resistance. The Soil Association launched the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics last year, a campaign to push UK supermarkets towards more responsible antibiotic policies. Farm animals consume one-third of all antibiotics in the UK and it is intensive farming systems that use drugs at unnecessary high levels.
They have issued a stark warning about the impact of antibiotic overuse, “The more that antibiotics are used, the less effective they become. Many of the antibiotics you might get prescribed from the doctor are the same as those given to animals, and they are becoming less and less effective. The routine use of antibiotics in intensive farming systems is driving this problem. Drugs are given to animals as a preventative measure - before they show signs of illness - to compensate for animals being housed in cramped, unsanitary conditions where infections spread fast. Globally, it is predicted that 10 million could die every year from infections that were once easily treated by antibiotics. We face returning to a past era before antibiotics and our food system is driving this; we need an alternative”.
It is also important to consider what the hidden costs of cheap meat are for the planet. As outlined in ‘What role for livestock in climate-friendly farming?’, a briefing by the Sustainable Food Trust explains, industrial livestock systems contribute to climate change and biodiversity decline. “Systems that feed animals on crops that humans could otherwise eat, contribute to deforestation, soil degradation and add carbon to the atmosphere. Indoor-housed pigs and poultry, large-scale intensive dairy, as well as beef and sheep systems that rely on high use of concentrate feeds, substantial amounts of nitrogen fertiliser and antibiotics, plus those that degrade grasslands and biodiversity, are clearly all part of the problem. In countries like the United States, Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), where thousands of animals are confined indoors or in feedlots and fed grain and soya are particularly problematic.”
Concerningly, in the aftermath of Brexit, new trade deals with Brazil, Australia and the US could have enormous impacts on the meat we eat in this country. The carbon footprint of Brazilian beef from former rainforest land is about 30 times higher than that average for beef produced in the UK. Given that we know that meat imports from outside of the UK are also driving down animal welfare standards and driving up the use of antibiotics, there has never been a more important time to buy British and support small-scale, sustainable farming.
There Is A Better Way...
Because we rear less animals, to higher standards, to longer ages of maturity, we need to charge more for our meat. But when you buy organic meat, you're supporting farmers who care about the quality of their animals and products, as well as the environmental impact of their farming methods.
We certainly don’t need to eat meat every day. As a nation, the amount of meat we eat has steadily increased, and for many, has moved from what was seen as luxury to an everyday staple. Britons consume twice as much protein as we need, and this has fuelled the rise of industrial farming to meet such demand. Such intensive systems compromise animal welfare and can have detrimental effects on the environment. But they will remain in place for as long as the demand for cheap meat does, which is why it’s so important to be mindful of the decisions being made with your wallet. For a truly balanced diet, some meals might use meat, but others can be focused around sustainable fish, organic pulses and seasonal vegetables.
Buying less meat means that you can choose to spend a little more, allowing you to instead focus on better quality meat, that has been sustainably sourced. Buying organic meat means that the animals have been reared at the speed nature intended, on totally chemical-free diets, and farmed in a system that boosts biodiversity, improving soil health along the way. Not only that, but there is huge reward to be had in terms of the flavour found in meat from slow-grown and well cared for animals.