Lamb in full flower

2nd May, 2007 by Anonymous

You want to save a flower meadow? Eat a sheep that’s grazed on it. Gail Vines samples the all-round joys of ‘ecological food’.

Today’s canny shopper scans the shelves in search of ‘organic’ and ‘local’ produce – for all sorts of good reasons. But now there’s a new movement, one that urges us to consider how our food features in the natural landscape too.

“This is the new provenance,” says Owain Jones, research fellow at the University of Exeter. “Not just local – or organic – but ecological.” Even vegetarians, perhaps, can applaud as small-scale livestock farmers fight to re-establish time-honoured connections between wild plants, places and the food we eat.

Across the Channel, lamb grazed on the saltmarshes of Normandy is prized as a delicacy. Its distinctive light and sweet flavour is widely acknowledged to derive from sea-washed meadows, rich in sea lavender, sea purslane, samphire and sparta grass. Farmers actively manage these lands to maintain their biodiversity – not least because agneau pré-salé commands a premium price. Now there are signs that this web of connections between people, produce and places is being re-built in Britain.

“When sheep graze biodiverse pastures, their meat contains significant levels of healthy nutrients previously only identified with oily fish.”

‘Eating biodiversity’ can do everyone a favour, argues the Exeter research team – a multi-disciplinary band of geographers, food scientists and ecologists led by Professor Henry Buller. They have hard evidence that meat and cheese from sheep and cattle grazed on biodiverse pastures are worth paying more for – not only do they taste better, they’re better for you too.

Of course organic food is said to be healthier, kinder to livestock and better for the environment, and often it is – though there’s an urgent need for well-conducted nutritional studies. But the fact remains that an ‘organic’ label is no guarantee of any of those things, as Michael Pollan vividly illustrates in his latest book The Omnivore’s Dilemma. The rise, particularly in the US, of what he calls ‘Big Organic’ – companies supplying supermarkets with highly processed foods – has created an “industrial organic food chain” that can be as energy-greedy as conventional agriculture. When it comes to dairy products, the organic label doesn’t even ensure that the sheep or cows have indeed “spent time outdoors in an actual pasture”.

Full of flavour

By contrast, what’s so striking about ‘eating biodiversity’ is that it ticks all the boxes. You can support natural biodiversity, rural communities and local distinctiveness, and look after your health, all at the same time. Eating has never been so satisfying.

Inspiration for this landmark project came in part from Buller’s research into the production of artisanal French cheese during his 15 years at the Institute of Geography in Paris. In the French Alps, he discovered, local communities jealously guard the traditional alpine pastures where dairy herds graze a sward rich in flowers, herbs and wild grasses. “As a result, cheeses such as Beaufort and Comté are full of flavour and are very distinctive – there are even summer and winter versions,” he says. “The farmers actively manage these grasslands to protect the future of this high-quality food.” Why can’t we replicate that happy situation here, he wondered.

“Right through the food chain, from the mouth of the cow to the mouth of the human.”

Then, two years ago, he got his chance. His research bid won funding from RELU – the Rural Economy and Land Use programme. “We wanted to go right through the food chain, from the mouth of the cow to the mouth of the human,” he says. Eight researchers from four institutions set out to discover whether British sheep, beef cattle and dairy herds grazed on moorland, heaths and saltmarshes, rich in wild plant species, really would produce meat and cheese that is tastier and more nutritious than the conventional fare – from livestock fed on grain-based concentrates and ryegrass.

They reasoned that if botanical surveys, nutritional analysis and tasting panels could all testify to the foods’ quality, then such produce should command a higher price in the marketplace. Socio-economic benefits would flow to producers and rural communities. This financial gain would, in turn, ensure that farmers take steps to protect the biodiversity of their grazing land, just as the French alpine farmers have for many generations. So everyone wins – consumers, farmers, nature. That’s the theory.

Rich in species – and profits

Remarkably, this rosy picture seems to be coming true. Not all the data are in yet, but the lamb investigations are completed, and the results are impressive. The food chain begins with the remarkable biodiversity of the grazing lands, says botanist Dr Rob Dunn of the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research in Devon. On four patches of saltmarsh – in mid-Wales, Somerset Levels, and Morecambe Bay – he found 70 plant species, with an average of 33 per farm. Four moorland farms – on Dartmoor and the Scottish Pentland Hills – boast 100 species (51 per farm on average). The heaths are the most botanically diverse of all, with 121 species in total, and an average of 67 per farm.

Dunn was particularly keen to get involved in this project, he says, because it puts the protection of biodiversity at the heart of the farming enterprise. In farming circles, biodiversity is usually regarded as an add-on, an optional extra. Thus, in conventional agri-environment schemes, farmers are paid to leave field margins unsprayed and to maintain hedges and ponds. “But in this project,” he explains, “the biodiversity feeds the grazing animals, increasing the profitability of farming and so motivating the farmer to safeguard the species-rich habitat.”

For that positive feedback to work, biodiverse pastures must demonstrably improve the nutritional profile of the meat. Proving this was a challenge tackled by farm animal scientist Frances Whittington, working with Professor Jeff Wood at the vet school of the University of Bristol. First of all, she found that the vitamin E content of meat was significantly higher in the heather- and saltmarsh-grazed lambs, and lowest by far in the animals grazed on conventional ryegrass. “Vitamin E is a natural anti-oxidant that is not only good for consumers,” says Whittington, “but also improves the keeping qualities of the meat, maintaining the red colour during retail display.” Furthermore, vitamin E reduces fat oxidation products, a sign of spoilage. As for essential fatty acids, meat from the biodiverse lambs was higher in omega-6 fatty acids – and in the much-prized omega 3s, including the so-called long chain omega 3 fatty acid DHA. “These results show that when sheep graze biodiverse pastures, their meat contains significant levels of healthy nutrients previously only identified with oily fish,” says Wood. Levels of conjugated linoleic acid, CLA, were higher too in biodiverse-fed lambs, compared to conventional controls – another encouraging sign, as studies suggest these compounds may have anti-carcinogenic effects.

What’s more, all the wild-grazed lambs scored higher on flavour than conventionally fed control samples; meat from moorland and saltmarsh lamb scored highest.

Love, not accident

That will come as no surprise to the professional foodie. As Prue Leith puts it: “The best meat from a cook or diner’s point of view is almost always, in my experience, meat that has been lovingly reared by small specialist farmers where the animals eat a natural diet in an ideal environment – pigs in a wood, lamb on saltmarshes, beef from herb-dotted pasture... It’s not an accident. It’s love!”

So do the researchers envisage a new labelling scheme – an ‘eco’ stamp, perhaps? Buller suspects that’s probably not the most effective approach. “The key thing is for farmers to get together,” he says, “and devise a generic, collective scheme to label saltmarsh lambs, for instance, or chalk grassland lambs.” Consumer focus groups suggest that building product ‘identity’ is vital. At the same time, farmers need help with the complex business of direct selling – when even securing a pitch at an oversubscribed farmers’ market can be extremely difficult.

But scattered about the country, innovative farmers are already producing quality meat and cheese, and fostering the biodiversity and local distinctiveness of the places they farm at the same time. On the web you’ll find suppliers of saltmarsh lamb from the Gower, the Somerset Levels and the Holker Estate near Morecambe Bay, while Blackface.co.uk, Heritage Meats and Northumberland Quality Meats offer seasonal “heather-fed lamb”, and Brimpts Beef is selling “Dartmoor raised” meat. The county Wildlife Trusts have also begun marketing lamb grazed on their chalk downland reserves through local butchers. 

“Animals confined to grain are eating a relatively poor diet. So, it turns out, are the people who eat them.”

At the moment the countryside remains dominated by intensive agriculture, with nature conservation dotted round the margins. “We want to get biodiversity out of the field margins into the fields,” says Lynne Kenderdine of Devon Wildlife Trust. Supermarkets such as Waitrose have begun to market their grass-fed beef and lamb, but now the question we ought to be asking, says Lynne, is “what kind of grass?” There’s little doubt that ruminants do better when they’ve some chance of grazing on fresh grass. But animals confined to grains and intensively produced ryegrass are still eating a relatively poor diet in nutritional terms. So, it turns out, are the people who eat them.

Yet there are hopeful signs, says Jones, that even conventional livestock farms are beginning to turn from quantity to quality. “If we were really clever, we could devise seed mixes for modern pastures, spiked with a variety of wild grasses and herbs, that served to produce higher quality meat or milk, and could also bring biodiversity benefits,” he says. As a step in that direction, researchers at the University of Reading have recently seeded fields on the university farm with a mix of six wild flowers. “We’re now waiting to see whether sheep that have grazed on the sward will show higher meat quality,” says Kirsty Kliem of the university’s department of agriculture. Fingers crossed, she says. Britain might just be about to experience a new, but this time eco-friendly, agricultural revolution.         

Gail Vines is a freelance writer and editor specialising in the life sciences.

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