White Park cow at Danefold Farms certified Pasture for Life
Walking into a supermarket, you’d be forgiven for not knowing which foods are best to buy for our health, let alone which are best for the health of the environment. The food system has evolved so much to the point that the gap between producer and customer is so vast, untraceable and unclear that vital aspects like source, modes of production, the true cost accounting (i.e. the true/hidden costs of food production, many which have damaging results on the environment, animal welfare and our health, seldom accounted for and not paid for by either the producer or by the customer at the checkout) and nutrient density is anyone’s guess.
Understanding these complexities in our food system can be truly overwhelming, this system being intrinsically linked to the farming system, which, could take another lifetime to understand. So, how can we start to understand where our food comes from? And which foods are best for the health of people and planet?
There are organisations and individuals that have spent decades researching and experimenting the best foodstuff to eat for the health of ourselves and more recently for the planet. But even then, when we do find those that can point us in the right direction as to what ‘eating better’ really looks like, opinions can differ greatly between organisations and individuals due to politics, beliefs, various findings and of course, incentives. We only have to look at recent history to see the power of market forces inducing citizens towards sugar products and condemning nutritional fats in the late twentieth century, and more recently, siloed arguments like ‘meat-eater vs vegan’ and ‘dairy milk vs plant-based alternatives’ – just to name a couple.
For the examples above, whichever side you fall on the argument, there are positives we can take from them like a shared value to eat healthily and effectively save what we have left of the planet’s health, we just need to work together to find solutions and stop halting progress with unresearched arguments.
Limden Brook Organic is both organic and Pasture for Life certified
Thankfully, there is help at hand and it’s not all doom and gloom. There are indeed a good handful of food organisations and individuals out there suggesting which healthy diets to follow, and there many farming organisations that are suggesting the best ways to transition to more sustainable farming systems. Yet, few cross the boundaries of both food and farming. Such organisations and individuals as these, are the voices we should be listening to especially, those that understand that food is indeed connected to farming and vice versa, they are one and the same.
Individuals like Tim Spector, Professor in Epidemiology at King's College London, and Dr Michael Antoniou, leading Molecular Geneticist and Head of the Gene Expression and Therapy Group at King’s College London, are two informative sources for knowing what and what not to eat and how foodstuffs are connected to farming.
One fantastic example of an organisation trying to bridge the gap between the food and farming systems and reveal its true facts of production and processes that are so often hidden or misunderstood is Pasture for Life. Pasture for Life is an organisation that promotes the benefits of 100% pasture-fed products. Not only do they certify 100% pasture-fed enterprises, but they also encourage and provide farmer-to-farmer education opportunities, support academic research, whilst develop pasture-fed supply chains.
Romshed Farm is both organic and Pasture for Life certified
What does ‘pasture-fed’ mean? How does it connect to what we’re eating?
To understand the significance of what ‘pasture-fed’ means, and how it connects to what we are eating, it is helpful to compare it to the term ‘grass-fed’. You can be forgiven for thinking both terms mean the same, but in fact, when referenced in the food and farming system, they are two very different things, one diverse and the other rather ambiguous. You may have ordered a ‘grass-fed steak’ in a restaurant or bought a tray of ‘grass-fed minced beef’ from a supermarket; these products, according to Defra, can be labelled ‘grass-fed’ if the processed animal had consumed ‘a majority’ of grass in its lifetime (i.e. >51%). So, what’s the other 49% you ask?
You may be surprised that the majority of cattle and sheep in Britain and Ireland are not raised entirely on grass but finished (fed towards the end of their lives) on grains (spent brewer’s grain, maize, barley) and sugar beet, chosen for their high-calorific composites that can fatter an animal quickly and cheaply – the current framework for selling farm animals is based on size and weight, not nutritional values or animal welfare standards. Although it’s not the end of the world to feed grain to a ruminant animal, it is not natural for their ruminating stomachs. Plus, growing cereals to feed ruminant animals is clearly an unsustainable use of land, farmland that should be used to sustainably grow food for humans.
Next, let’s define the two habitats of ‘grass’ and ‘pasture’. Grass can (and often will) refer to a monoculture, whereas pasture is a biodiverse habitat made of multiple species (several types of grasses, herbs, legumes, wildflowers and hedgerow flora) all playing different roles in an ecosystem, supporting different species of insects and birds throughout the year.
So, what’s ‘100% pasture-fed’ mean? Right, so we know the ambiguity of the term ‘grass-fed’ (which could mean only 51% grass and the rest probably cereal), we also know what ‘pasture’ means (a diverse ecosystem), so ‘100% pasture-fed’ refers to produce sourced from animals that have been raised solely on pasture, aka eating a wholly natural diet in a diverse ecosystem.
Pasture-fed produce is also superior in nutritional values. It’s clear to understand that whatever we feed our animals will eventually impact the nutritional quality of meat and milk. Pasture-fed produce is much higher in omega-3 fats, vitamins and minerals, as well as on animal welfare - pasture being the natural diet for cows and sheep after all!
Talking of animal welfare, pasture-fed animals are given the freedom to express their normal behaviours and often live in family groups. They feed on a natural diet of pasture and forage such as hay in winter and they are less likely to suffer from disease and require little veterinary attention or antibiotics.
Those following 100% pasture-fed practices also see dramatic environmental improvements, such as increased biodiversity, soil health and carbon storage. They have a fantastic series called Biodiversity Case Studies that showcase their pasture-fed member farmers working alongside nature, producing nutrient-dense food while improving the level of their local biodiversity.
Butcher Simon Maynard passionate about organic, pasture-fed produce
So, in conclusion, the term ‘grass-fed’ can cause a general lack of clarity and product information, understandably misleading citizens, causing mistrust and confusion as to what they’re buying. In addition, it’s important to note that whatever the animal eats, we will eventually consume in one way or another.
Certifications like Pasture for Life, certifying 100% pasture-fed produce can give the citizen confidence and enjoyment in what they are buying. By picking up a product -meat or dairy - with the 'Pasture for Life' Certification Mark, you can be mindful of the fact that you’re consuming nutrient-rich foods, sourced from happy animals, and farmed in a way that looks to improve soil health, carob sequestration and the level of biodiversity on the land. If you are both Pasture for Life certified and Organic certified, I think that’s pretty much the closest thing we have to perfection - at the moment anyway!
Further research on the nutritional benefits of pasture-fed produce:
Sustainability | Free Full-Text | Evidence That Forage-Fed Cows Can Enhance Milk Quality (mdpi.com)