Food, Farming and Countryside Commission

Farming and health

By Bill Grayson

Morecombe Bay Conservation Grazing Company

Bill Grayson is an organic livestock farmer and conservation grazier, running mainly cattle over an area of about 1,100 hectares, with parcels of land scattered across Cumbria, North Lancashire and North Yorkshire. All of it is designated for its nature conservation value.

We’re all familiar with the phrase, ‘you are what you eat’. I’ve subsequently amended it to say, with regard to livestock, ‘you are what you eat has been eating’. Human health is the basis of what we do. Given the state of the world at the moment, we haven’t as a species done a very good job of managing things. I’m hoping that as we discover more about the relationship between ourselves and our food and the environment, some of those mistakes might begin to rectify themselves. People will become more enlightened and healthier: the two go hand-in-hand.

What we do is called conservation grazing. The grazing regime is geared primarily to delivering nature conservation objectives, so there will inevitably be some constraints on the numbers of animals, the timing of animals going onto the site, and specific times when they are not required. It’s about tailoring the grazing regime to maximise the benefits for whatever the specific wildlife objectives are. But what we do conforms to all the principles of farming: we breed our own cows, rear them, and they go off into the human food chain. I am an ecologist and a farmer: arguably all farmers should be both.

We started by managing grazing for the National Trust, and now do this for a range of other conservation organisations. They are responsible for managing nature reserves for their conservation value, but they don’t farm in their own right, so they need farmers who can deliver the right kind of grazing regimes to achieve their objectives. All this has made a successful business. The current system of farm support has worked well for us and our staff, and for the people we provide this grazing for.

The current argument against livestock farming is a major concern of mine. The Committee on Climate Change recently recommended that between a quarter and a third of all our upland pastures should be afforested to sequester carbon in timber production and reduce methane emissions from extensively grazed livestock. Personally, I feel it is wrong to reduce meat from agroecological systems whilst promoting more intensive forms of production that require greater inputs and cause soil degradation. The kind of system we have is really geared towards producing livestock in conjunction with trees. Many of the sites comprise areas of woodland, scrub and scattered trees. This mosaic of habitats allows us to produce meat and timber while enhancing biodiversity, minimising climate impacts and maximising human health benefits. That’s the model I think is most relevant.

Higher concentrations of omega-3s are probably the most notable example of the health benefits supplied by pasture-fed red meat, but there may be much more to it. When livestock have access to the variety of plants that you see in a semi-natural environment, they select a diet containing ‘nutraceuticals’, secondary compounds that wild plants contain which appear to bring numerous health benefits. Another factor is the soil microbial community, which makes important minerals and trace elements available to the food chain.

When we started, the focus for the business was on delivering ecological benefits, and we were less concerned with the holistic perspective. But as a society we are in a state of transition in our thinking about a lot of things, for example the respective roles of dietary fat and sugar for human health. Another example is glyphosate, which recent independent studies show to be pervasive in the food chain. I remember how, when I began my career in conservation some 30 years ago, I was required to use this chemical to control weeds. The advice then was that glyphosate was completely safe because it was quickly degraded on reaching soil or water and would not be able to accumulate along the food chain. It was a shock to learn that its residues were turning up in a wide range of food products and even in samples of human blood and hair. I can’t predict how it will play out, but I strongly believe that when we have sufficient knowledge we will recognise that there is an underpinning link between our health, the health of the food we eat, and the environment that food was produced in. To think otherwise to me is nonsense. We need to focus on agroecological approaches, the essence of which is that farming remains within the limits that nature sets. Until we reach that point, we will be causing more harm than good.