Researchers from the University of Exeter in the UK set out to measure the benefits of producing meat according to less intense methods on quality, and to measure the market potential for the products.
They looked across the Channel to France, where the ecological quality of land is often linked to the quality of the produce reared on it – and that link is embodied in systems such as the Appelation d’Origin Controlee.
However while France has some 52 protected designations for meat products, the UK has just eight.
While biodiverse pasture-fed animals tend to produce lower volumes (in terms of number of animals and body weight) to intensive meat, the higher selling price that can be leveraged as a result of better quality make for viable farm enterprise – especially when coupled with agricultural payment schemes.
“Ultimately, this research offers a different take on sustainable agricultural production; one that is less about leaving ‘as small a footprint as possible’ on some pre-existing nature, and one that is more about seeing food production and nature production as being mutually constituting,” reported the researchers.
Prof Henry Buller, who led the research, believes that producers and policy-makers in the UK could be leveraging this to a greater extent, and thinking about new ways to label and promote meat reared on biodiverse principals.
The study, which was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, was conducted in two stages.
First the researchers conducted fieldwork at 40 beef, lamb and cheese producing farms at which farmers specifically set out to graze animals on natural grasslands. Their work involved ecological surveys of pastures, interviews with farmers and business surveys.
In some farms the researchers also conducted meat analysis, taste panels, and consumer focus groups.
The team then looked at the final quality of the meat product, and whether this could be related to pasture feed inputs.
Laboratory analysis sought to establish whether or not the meat and dairy from animals on quality biodiverse systems is different to that from intensive systems.
They concluded in the affirmative, and put this difference down to the impact of the plant species on the rumen process. Lamb meat from biodiverse pastures was seen to have a vitamin E than control meat – and this natural antioxidant could improve shelf life. It was also seen to have higher levels of healthy polyunsaturated fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acid than control meat.
Levels of skatole, produced as a result of fermentation in the rumen process, were seen to be lower. Skatole has a negative effect on the taste of meat, especially when it is grilled.
Finally, the researchers saw that some breeds of beef, such as the Longhorn variety of cattle, are better suited to biodiverse pastures. Rearing them in this way generally improves meat quality.
Buller, Henry et al (2007)Eating biodiversity: An investigation of the links between quality food production and biodiversity protection. ESRC End of Award Report, RES-224-25-0041