Not all cows are the same

Redwood Comment
Published:  02 December, 2020
Dr Mike Redwood

As Britain leaves the EU, a big discussion has been initiated about farming. Many in Britain have long disliked the EU Common Agricultural Policy - a farming subsidy system largely based on cash handouts related to the area of farming land owned. How it is to be replaced is proving contentious and not helped by the fact that today consumers pay about 25% of the price for food compared to when Britain first joined the EU. 

With an ambition to return the land to the levels of biodiversity and environmental health that we had in those times yet still be able to compete on equal terms with farmers from the U.S. and the rest of the world who farm with different constraints, a workable approach is hard to find.

To understand how all this plays out on the ground for a traditional small farmer in the hills of England’s famous Lake District, readers should arrange to be given a copy of James Rebanks’ story of family, farming, animals and the environment in his new book, English Pastoral. He sits in the camp of what we now call regenerative agriculture but explains simply, and through direct family experience, how other approaches have come to exist.

Some of the background issues are also laid out in the newly produced film “The Sacred Cow”, in which Rebanks is briefly interviewed. It was available for preview for a few registered interested parties and sponsors from the 25th to the 30th November and should shortly be more widely available. Diana Rogers, who led the production and promotion of the film, and has written an accompanying book, is pushing us to eat ‘better’ meat and to actively support ‘regenerative’ farming to improve our soils and biodiversity. While there is a strong lobby for us to have no cows (or sheep, or other animal-based foods), the film explains why not all cows are the same.

This enters an area which the leather industry has until now mostly avoided; namely, should we have a view about the intensive farming of animals for food and dairy products as compared to the less intensive regenerative approach? In Britain, over the last twenty years, Rebanks tells us that the number of dairy cows has halved, but the milk produced is the same. Even more startling figures come from the U.S.. This increase in productivity means fewer cows, so less methane, and similar approaches to beef with faster fattening and shorter lives have obtained greater beef outputs from far fewer animals in less time.

Separating farming animals from farming crops
This battle for productivity has separated farming crops from farming animals and created monocultures with greater use of fertiliser, antibiotics and the change from hay to silage (hay is grass that's cut and dried to use as animal fodder; silage is grass cut, fermented and stored in a silo before being used as food). Hay is cut once a year from traditional meadows, or long-term grassland, whereas sileage is often cut a number of times from heavily fertilised grass. With silage ground nesting birds are displaced as they do not have time to breed and the seeded grass does not contain the herbs and other plants with deeper roots that make long term grass and meadows resilient to drought and floods and better for insects and wildlife.

This long-term grassland is excellent at sequestering carbon dioxide and appropriate rotated grazing creates high quality soil that is naturally fertilised, and this creates the dilemma that has started in the leather industry as tanneries start discussing how they define sustainability in leather production.

Farming systems have always varied around the world, and husbandry varies with climate, terrain, tradition and technology. Many of the “intensive” formats are, in fact, hybrids, and some relate to movements necessitated by the closure of small regional abattoirs often. It is complicated ground, even for farmers. Rebanks says his farming friends split into three – the more “ecologically minded”, the “open to change” but trapped by debt in quite intensive systems, and the “business oriented”, producing the cheap commodity food consumers demand. Most countries have a mix of farming methods that might be anywhere from the ancient pastoral to the most modern monocultures producing cash crops.

Given the everyday situation that intelligent, well-intentioned people still see livestock as loaded with emissions and the tanning processes as environmentally harmful - see the interview with Sandra Sandor of Nanushka quoting the Kering Environment Profit and Loss Study in a recent Financial Times article in which she argues a polyurethane coated polyester is better than leather - we know that tanners have bigger issues to worry about than approaches to farming. Nevertheless, as we run up to COP 26 in Glasgow in a year’s time, we will be hearing more about these subjects and will increasingly find tanners using regenerative agriculture as the basis of their sustainability positioning; quietly pretending more intensive approaches do not exist.

It is an area that produces strong feelings, not all based on facts. We need to recognise that we have different methods of husbandry supplying us our raw material, and to be a global industry, we will have to be able to address all of them. A good start would be if all the relevant bodies could lay out the facts as they exist around the world. Sustainability does, after all, start with transparency.

Mike Redwood
December 2, 2020

mike@internationalleathermaker.com

Follow Dr Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood

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