In January this year, I began working for the Pasture-Fed Livestock Association (PFLA). I took the job because I believe in the values of the organisation and the sustainability of its livestock production. The PFLA’s certification standards, known as ‘Pasture for Life’, advocate a wholly pasture and forage based diet for ruminant livestock, without the use of grain or soya.

I am convinced that the Pasture for Life standards, with the support of the Pasture-Fed Livestock Association, provide for truly sustainable livestock production. I am reassured in this by our PFLA farmers. Since January, my attention has been increasingly drawn to the discussion amongst these farmers on how best to integrate new knowledge about soils, carbon, biodiversity, animal health, nutrition and welfare into the ways that they farm.

However, people are not buying Pasture for Life meat purely because it is from sustainable livestock systems. They are buying it because it is from their local farm shop, because they can identify with the farmer, because of the taste, because they want something different, because they want something special, because they understand the health claims, and for many other reasons. Moreover, I think we are in danger of under-selling our wider sustainability benefits.

There are of course challenges to selling the sustainability benefits of pasture-fed livestock. First, some of the important assumptions that have underpinned global greenhouse gas emission models, used by climate change scientists, do not take full account of all relevant aspects of pastoral farming within the UK. Therefore, we are having to work against the erroneous assumption that extensive ruminant production is necessarily a bad thing. Second, the absence of a formal definition for many farming systems, including pasture-fed and grass-fed, allows for some producers and retailers to label meat as ‘grass-fed’ when it is really no such thing. This undermines the development of extensive, pasture-based, sustainable livestock systems.

In addition, we need to understand the relevance to the UK of arguments made about ruminant production generally and its relationship to global warming. These arguments run, in a rather simplified form, as follows: if we assume that meat consumption by the global population will continue to rise then we need to produce this meat as efficiently as possible, and to be good to the environment that includes using as little land as possible. According to this argument, extensive livestock farming systems, which are seen to use more land per kg of beef production than do intensive systems, are bad for the environment. Applied globally this makes a lot of sense, since none of us want to see pristine forests or grasslands turned over to livestock production. Applied locally these arguments make far less sense. In the developed world, health and environmental campaigners are trying to encourage lower consumption of red meat and in the UK we have large areas of pasture land upon which the most efficient, environmentally sustainable use is not to grow grain for people, pigs, poultry or cattle to eat, but to extensively graze ruminant livestock. This is because a high proportion of UK farmland is simply not suited to crop production. If this land were ploughed we would lose the vitally important nature conservation benefits provided by grassland and grazing ecosystems; as well as losing large amounts of carbon and nitrogen to the atmosphere and increasing soil erosion.

The argument for the sustainable use of land for farming and food is far more nuanced than simply that ‘ruminants are bad because they produce methane and because they require large amounts of land to graze’. Whilst accepting the concerns about the greenhouse gas emissions from cattle, we need to extend the narrative to encompass an understanding of the complex relationship of livestock to the land in pasture-based ecosystems. This includes the role that pasture-based ruminant production can play in building and storing soil carbon.

On labelling, the need is not for better public understanding but rather for pro-active government intervention. There are many opportunities for marketing beef and lamb from extensive grazing systems, as opposed to intensive systems feeding high levels of grain. However, these are undermined by the absence of any sensible legislation on what can and cannot be called ‘grass-fed’ or indeed ‘pasture-fed’. Whether someone is choosing to buy grass-fed beef or lamb for health reasons, or for environmental or animal welfare reasons, the only way they can be assured of the animal’s grass-fed diet is to rely on independent labelling and certification schemes such as Pasture for Life. We know that not everyone is yet aware of our certification mark. Likewise, we know that there are many businesses selling meat which they purport to be ‘grass-fed’ but which in fact has had only limited access to pasture and forage! That they are not breaking the law does not make what they are doing in any way acceptable, but it does place the onus on the government to act. The labelling of egg production systems was defined at EU level and has provided the basis for free-range and barn eggs to become mainstream. A similar approach will be essential for sustainable livestock systems, if they are also to become established in the market.

There is an urgent need for the government to intervene and provide robust definitions for pasture-based livestock production. There is no certainty around which countries the UK will need to negotiate free trade agreements with in the coming years, but these agreements will bring with them the additional risks associated with imported meats from uncertain systems. Only if our own government legislates on livestock system labelling, will consumers be given the choice over how their meat is produced. It is only if UK consumers are given this choice that UK farming will be able to adopt and be paid a fair return for systems that are good for the environment and for animal health and welfare.

We can address the widespread concerns about GHG emissions and place extensive, pasture-fed beef and lamb firmly in the realm of social acceptability. Likewise, we can get the UK government to address, through a simple Statutory Instrument (SI), the accurate labelling of meats with the livestock production system in which they were produced – but what then?

We need to recognise people’s food habits, because what we buy and why we buy it is very much a matter of routine. Ideally, we should be adding ‘sustainability’ to the other qualities that people are already seeking. If someone always buys a 1.5kg roasting joint, vacuum packed from the chill counter at their local supermarket, there is little point asking them to try an alternative joint such as brisket from the farm shop on the edge of town: we need to build sustainability into that 1.5kg roasting joint, in that chill counter, in that shop.

If we cannot do this then we will only cater to the ‘enlightened foodies’, and ‘deep green’ consumers, remarkable and quite wonderful groups of people, but groups which, on their own, will not change the world. The majority of livestock products are sold by the major retailers to regular, less ‘foody,’ less environmentally concerned people, and if our livestock systems are going to make a real change to sustainability, then this is where we will need to be.

Photograph: Steph French