Progress in Agriculture Doesn’t Have to Mean Leaving the Past Behind

Subjects: Animal welfare, Eating cheaper & healthier, Food sovereignty, Rural economies & communities

If we are to continue being able to feed the world’s rapidly growing population sustainably, innovation and expert knowledge will doubtless be needed. Sadly, all too often progress means forgetting the practices and knowledge of past generations. Real progress looks backwards as well as forwards, as can be seen in the growing number of advocates in the agricultural sector calling for a return to small-scale and low-input farms. Similarly, livestock farmers are starting to look back for clues as to how they will continue to keep livestock in an environment that is changing as a result of climate change; where intensive, grain-fed farming cannot continue without severe repercussions for the physical, social and moral landscape.

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Buttle Farm’s Oxford Sandy and Blacks 

At the end of the Second World War, when there was a need for the UK to maximise the efficiency and yield of food production, the British government passed a bill that recommended that British Pig farmers rear breeds of pigs that suited an intensive system of production in order to produce food quickly and in high volumes. This led to an emphasis on breeds such as the Large White and Welsh Pig that would grow quickly and produce large yields, in turn marginalising and threatening breeds, such as the British Lop and Tamworth, that were slower growing, but produced better quality meat. As a result, 26 native breeds were made extinct, and their unique qualities lost forever. Our needs now are different and the remaining rare breeds, who can thrive on lower quality land, could prove essential to the establishment of a sustainable livestock system.

The Lincolnshire Curly Coat, now extinct, was a strong and robust outdoor pig that flourished in waterlogged fields; it was able to live in deep muddy environments unsuitable for any other kind of productive use. Breeds like the Lincolnshire Curly Coat would allow us to start using land that is currently not being used at all for agricultural activity. A sustainable livestock system is secure in its own right, and does not rely on imported animal feed. It does not use productive land to produce animal feed that could be used to produce food for human consumption, and should be able to produce animals through grazing or foraging, with limited added inputs from the farmer. Our native rare breeds, adapted to local environments, may take longer to mature, but accounting for the reduced cost of inputs, lower impact on the environment and better taste of the meat, their use constitutes a viable model for farmers and consumers alike.

For this system to truly work however, there must be a shift in consumption habits. By consuming less pork, and buying more sustainable, high welfare pork when we do, we can support native rare breeds and the farmers that raise them. Local, native breed pork that is reared outside requires minimal inputs, uses land efficiently and sustainably, and sources inputs locally, benefiting our local agricultural industry and economy. The genetics of our native breeds are adapted to our local environments, and it makes sense to take advantage of these breeds, who can produce a high quality of pork on the bleakest of land, rather than those that can produce pork quickly from expensive and unsustainable farms or animal factories.

The Rare Breed Survival Trust (RBST) is doing incredible work in conserving and protecting the United Kingdom’s rare native breeds of farm animals from extinction, and in educating people of their importance.

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