In praise of Scotch Beef
IT’S A sickener for Scots. Red meat, the food our country is best at producing, is framed as environmentally destructive and unhealthy. We’ve been encouraged to turn our backs on our number one agricultural category – beef and lamb – on both human health and environmental grounds.
Even though sheep and cows have grazed our land for centuries, people who appear to know better have told us that we must eliminate them from our landscape in the name of the common good.
Public health bodies have actively steered us away from red meat towards chicken, even though poultry has never been a strong card in our agricultural suit. Consumption of chicken, usually of the factory farmed sort that has never seen a blade of grass in its life, has soared accordingly.
Independent thought survives though. Many don’t believe that Mother Nature is a psychopath. Why would she create a food that shortens the life expectancy of the population and the planet?
This sentiment runs deep in our national psyche, and it expressed itself quite dramatically during lockdown. Meat sales soared UK-wide. Overall they climbed 26.9 percent on 2019; a particularly spectacular 49% rise in high street butcher shops.
Now a new book from the US, Sacred Cow, provides us with the evidence we’ve needed to show us that in a country like Scotland, eating red meat regularly is a perfectly reasonable, ethical, and natural thing to do. This book is the brainchild of Diana Rodgers, a nutritionist on a Massachusetts farm, who became so frustrated defending pasture-reared beef against reductive anti-meat propagandists, she had to state the case for how well-raised meat is good for both people and the planet.
With Robb Wolf, a former research biochemist, she has given us much needed chapter and verse on why beef in particular, and red meat in general, have been vilified in a crude, generic way that fails to distinguish radically different farming systems.
Rodgers and Wolf pick apart the weak epidemiological science propping up the notion, amplified by Hollywood stars, tech moguls like Bill Gates, ideological groups, and opportunist food companies, that meat eating causes chronic disease. They argue persuasively that humans evolved to eat meat.
Our ancestors were “nutrivores”: they understood that meat was one of the most satiating, and easily digestible foods they could lay their hands on. Meat provides us with micronutrients – vitamin B12, key amino acids – that can’t be found in plants, and protein that we can absorb more easily than from plants.
Perhaps the lockdown upswing in meat sales is an expression of our latent “nutrivore-ism”?
The grotesque ecological and animal welfare excesses of the US’s industrial cattle “feedlot” system should not be used to characterise Scotland, where beef production is grass-based, and where cattle are typically finished on feedstuff that are inedible for us humans.
Happily, our farmers are using, or at least quite close to using traditional “regenerative” farming methods, which look like being one of our best tools for mitigating climate change. Many beef farmers in Scotland already manage their cattle grazing in a way that improves the local ecosystem, by stimulating microbial diversity in the soil, increasing rainfall absorption, encouraging wildlife habitat, and locking carbon in our soil. Perhaps you’d still rather eat the “plantbased” products marketed as a panacea for our environmental problems?
If so, compare prices. Weight for weight, an ultra-processed plant burger, using all the dark arts of the manufacturer to fake a meat-like effect, and failing miserably, often costs more than grass-fed meat.
Excuse the pun, but plant-based meat surrogates are seen by big food as a lucrative gravy train. And they’re mainly made from protein extracted from soy and peas, both crops grown in chemical fertiliser and pesticide-dependent monocultures that create many environmental harms, such as water run-off from compacted soil, and depleted wildlife.
Simplistic memes and soundbites have got in the way of the complex, nuanced
discussion we need to have about meat, but the authors of Sacred Cow move us forward.
“We don’t need people to quit eating meat. We need them to start asking questions about how their food was grown no matter what they may be eating.” Amen to that!
Gary and Angela Christie, with their son Adam, from Midtown of Glass near Huntly who reached the finals of the Beef Farm of the Year competition in 2018