The way we think about meat is beginning to change, both in terms of quantity and quality. Yet when we talk about which meat to eat the conversation barely goes beyond our supermarket shelves.
Animal welfare frequently comes to mind when meat is discussed: what’s the difference between outdoor reared, outdoor bred, organic and free range?
Another factor that may play on the mind of the ethical meat eater is locality: is this meat local and British, or has it been imported?
All of these questions are important but even when the ultimate piece of meat is dished up there is one final question that is commonly neglected and that is about how the animal has been fed.
You are what your meat eats…
Currently 37 percent of the global harvest is fed to livestock, who in turn give back around a third of the calories they consume in meat, dairy products and eggs, resulting in a net loss of over a quarter of all the food we produce. Almost all of the world’s soya ends up in animal troughs, as does around two thirds of the maize we grow. Deforestation, biodiversity loss and greenhouse gas emissions are all increasing as a result of the way we feed animals as we continue to destroy vulnerable ecosystems like the Amazon rainforest and Cerrado grasslands.
We are also using a large sum of pesticides and fertilizers to grow this food. If we add these chemicals to the fuel needed to transport these goods, we begin to realise that when we eat meat we’re not just eating vast amounts of crops, we’re also consuming gallons of oil. As we can see, the food miles associated with meat production extend beyond the ‘farm to fork’ journey and in fact stretch around the world causing widespread damage along the way.
Suddenly those locally produced, high-welfare, rare breed pig’s trotters you are about to tuck into don’t seem so sustainable anymore.
Yet where there’s swill there’s a way!
For thousands of years pigs were domesticated not only to produce a variety of pork-based goods but also to clean up our scraps and leftovers, creating a virtuous cycle that kept food in the food chain. However, in 2001 the feeding of catering waste to pigs was hastily banned by the British government as a response to the outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD). It was tentatively concluded that the FMD outbreak originated on a farm that was illegally feeding its pigs unprocessed restaurant waste and in 2002 the ban was extended across the European Union.
Prior to the ban, catering waste, or swill, could be legally fed to pigs so long as it had been properly heat-treated to remove the risk of spreading harmful pathogens. Across the world this practice continues and in places such as Japan, South Korea, and the United States, industries have emerged to produce animal feed from food waste that has been properly screened and heat-treated, rendering it completely safe to give to pigs. In some places pork that has been reared on food waste is sold on the very shelves the food has come from as a premium eco-pork product.
What was once a traditional food waste solution is now of global importance. Revising the ban on the feeding of catering waste to pigs to allow for the establishment of a robustly monitored and secure ‘eco-feed’ industry would ensure that food is kept in the food chain, filling pig bellies instead of bins.
Here in the UK, The Pig Idea is aiming to get food waste back on the menu for pigs and in doing so spent seven months rearing eight rare breed pigs on a diet of food that would have otherwise been wasted. The pigs were reared outdoors on London’s very own Stepney City Farm and on the 21st November this year the entirety of each pig was served at a huge public feast in Trafalgar Square – only 5 miles down the road. Having been fattened on a diet of whey, brewer’s grains, okara (a tofu by-product), and off cuts from a vegetable supplier these pigs saved 21.5 tonnes of food from being thrown away – that’s 2.7 tonnes a pig. In turn thousands of people were fed on this pork to demonstrate the environmental and economic benefits of this traditional practice.
All of this food can be fed completely legally to pigs as it is not catering waste, nor has it had any risk of having been in contact with any meat products. This should be an industry standard and The Pig Idea campaign is calling on supermarkets and other food retailers to start diverting more food that is unfit for human consumption to the feeding of animals. Already some food that is unfit for human consumption is being diverted to the feeding of animals, yet there is a great deal more to be done.
We all need to reduce the amount of meat we eat, and likewise we need to make sure that what we do eat comes from the right kinds of farms. However, in order to truly improve the sustainability of our livestock industry the most important step that needs to be taken is in the way we feed our animals. As our eight pigs have shown, there is a great deal of food that can already be fed to animals that is instead being sent to landfill, compost or anaerobic digestion. This practice needs to be encouraged but beyond this we need a change in law to allow the reintroduction of swill – let them eat waste!