In the last 70 years, industrial farming has polluted water, impoverished soils, caused suffering to animals, damaged biodiversity, destroyed forests, all to produce – mostly poor quality – meat and milk. Today, our environmental and social bills are through the roof.
Yet, many small-scale agroecological farmers across Europe have turned their backs on industrial meat production and have developed nature-friendly alternatives to raise their animals. These animals are allowed to live outside and graze, generating lower emissions than industrial farms, and compensating those they do produce by planting trees or letting natural grasslands that contribute to storing carbon in the soil grow undisturbed. On these extensive farms, the animals live longer, are not mutilated, rarely get ill and most importantly are free to live according to their natural needs, without undergoing unnecessary suffering and stress.
Words from a Herald of Grass-Based Beef Production
Jacopo Goracci, the coordinator of Slow Food Razza Maremmana Presidium in Tuscany, Italy, is one of these guardians of nature and biodiversity. In the most remote part of the Tuscan Maremma, he raises pigs and cows on Mediterranean planes and bushes. “I believe that a farmer who wants to create a farm linked to the territory must base his/her choice of species and breed on the ecosystem present in their farm. In our case, the environment is made up by more than 70% of woods […] and the presence of a local cattle breed that was very well adapted to live in forests helped us in our response. We needed independent animals, who knew how to look for the best environment in the available biodiversity, who knew how to graze, how to walk for miles in search of water and pastures, who had a strong maternal attitude etc. The “Grossetana” Maremmana sturdy breed was a winner for us”, Jacopo comments.
Last year, the EIP-AGRI Focus Group on sustainable beef production, set up by the European Commission, called for applications from experts, researchers, farmers and NGOs, to get their input on how to help the grass-based beef sector to address the current challenges and become more economically, environmentally and socially sustainable. Jacopo Goracci applied and was selected to be part of the focus group. As their final report was published last month, we seized that opportunity to ask some questions to this passionate farmer, actively engaged in the transition towards sustainable farming.
What do you think are the key elements for a transition to sustainable animal farming?
I believe that restoring contact with the soil, the link between the animal and the ecosystem in which it is raised, is the fundamental base for transitioning to sustainable systems. Everything starts from soil (even in the most intensive farms, the feed is necessarily cultivated, using soil).
Another key element for the transition would be to restore the link between meat producers and consumers. Intensive farming has removed, even visually, the process of meat production [which mostly happens behind the walls of factory farms], saying that it is to maintain an optimal microclimate for their animals, while actually, it is because they are fragile breeds designed for intensive practices, and can only survive in artificial conditions. It results in a complete separation of animals from nature. It is important to re-introduce them into the cycle of nature and supplement when nature fails to do so.
“A farmer who wants to create a farm linked to the territory must base his/her choice of species and breeds on the ecosystem – or ecosystems – present in their farm.”
The complex interactions between animals and their agroecosystem needs to be studied in detail. You have to plan carefully how to reinsert them into nature, you can’t simply turn them loose and see what happens. You also need collaborators, technicians, advisors, because you can’t do that alone, and you have to be patient because it takes years to transition to agroforestry.
Lastly, I would add that we need consistency across the entire supply chain: from nature and soil to slaughter. Ideally, farmers should not externalize any fundamental steps to others, for animal welfare reasons and for the quality of the meat. For example, we are working on making slaughter on the farm possible, which is now extremely hard due to legislation, but if implemented would greatly reduce animal suffering.
What can the EU do to better support the transition to sustainable meat production?
We can always do more, but the European Union is already doing a lot. We, as farmers, are the ones who are not able to exploit all the potential of initiatives supported by the European Union. It takes a lot of time investment, but in return, it brings resources, knowledge, network, data collection, that help us understand the impact of our actions in terms of animal welfare, absorption of carbon dioxide etc.
“It is fundamental to be able to explain in a simple way to consumers the difference between sustainable and conventional farming.”
The EU must support a transition to better meat production (and consumption), and that transition should be promoted to consumers. The free market does not have any ethics, but the consumer does. We can see that consumption is shifting towards more sustainable products and foods – if you show this to other producers, maybe it can be a driver as they see the economic potential. Not everyone wants to be green, but maybe changing consumption habits and increasing demand for sustainable products can push other farmers in that direction. It is fundamental to be able to explain in a simple way to consumers the difference between sustainable and conventional farming and encourage them to pay the right price for their meat – one that rewards those who produce good and healthy meat in a sustainable way. The consumer can push the market, which in turn can create economic opportunities for farmers to transition to sustainable meat production.
Key Takeaways from the Report
In its conclusions, the EIP-AGRI Focus Group’s report on sustainable beef production paints a realistic but hopeful picture of the present and future of the beef sector in Europe. The authors underline the significant environmental and social benefits of grass-based beef production systems, such as water quality conservation, biodiversity conservation, carbon sequestration, and the maintenance of vital rural areas. Yet, their economic profitability is low, and the presence of grass-based beef products on mainstream markets is scarce. In a nutshell, the report encourages authorities at all levels to help develop supply chains at a local level, to raise consumer awareness about the qualities of grass-based beef, to support young farmers to ensure knowledge transfer, and to strengthen current certification and labelling systems specific to grass-based beef, while preventing green- and grass-washing and misinformation of consumers. Lastly, the authors recommend a change in the sustainability assessment approach for financial support systems, taking into account the numerous ecosystem services and public goods that grass-beef production systems deliver instead of focusing mainly on productivity per animal, in order to grasp the multiple values beyond the mere production of meat. “The good news is that it is possible to address the sector’s downsides and reach long term sustainability”, concludes the report.
Thanks to its wide root-based network across Europe, Slow Food also spotted the significant need for the EU to show farmers how to access all the opportunities and tools available to them. A considerable number of farmers are not aware of what the EU can do to help them to learn and invest in improvements, and they often do not get enough help from local authorities in navigating the European bureaucratic maze.
The Fight for Slow Meat Continues!
As an organisation that has been working around meat consumption and animal welfare for years, Slow Food hopes that Jacopo’s participation in the EIP-Agri Focus Group will help ensure that the Slow Meat philosophy becomes a guiding principle for policy development in the animal farming sector.
We also believe that another very important step on the path towards more sustainable animal farming will be to put an end to the use of cages. Therefore, together with 14 other civil society organizations, we have signed an open letter, to remind the EU institutions that 1.4 million European citizens signed the ECI “End the Cage Age” because they want this practice to stop.
Watch the replay of the Terra Madre forum on Slow Meat, that brought together farmers from all over the world, united by the desire to exchange experiences, learn, share a vision and demonstrate that it is possible to breed sustainably.
For more information on sustainable meat, check out the Slow Meat campaign website. Slow Food started the Slow Meat campaign to raise awareness about better, cleaner, fairer consumption habits, to encourage a reduction of industrial meat consumption and to promote the work of small- and medium-scale producers who respect animal welfare. Slow Food has also introduced sustainable livestock farms which follow strict production rules and they inform consumers that by buying meat from these farms they are contributing to biodiversity preservation and animal welfare. The campaign also uses farmer stories to create a direct link with consumers.
 EIP-AGRI Focus Groups are temporary groups of selected experts focusing on a specific subject, sharing knowledge and experience. Each group explores practical innovative solutions to problems or opportunities in the field and draws on experience derived from related useful projects.
 “beef produced based on the agroecological principles of environmental, economic and social sustainability; and for cattle which is predominantly grass-fed and grazed on pastures where possible given the soil and climate conditions.” https://ec.europa.eu/eip/agriculture/sites/default/files/eip-agri_fg_sustainable_beef_final_report_2021_en.pdf