The meat market and cruel reality

On the eve of a meeting scheduled between minister of environmental affairs Marthinus van Schalkwyk and stakeholders in the red meat industry, Farmer’s Weekly correspondent and livestock farmer Roelof Bezuidenhout pleads for a more realistic outlook in the debate around humane meat production and animal welfare.
Issue date : 08 August 2008

- Advertisement -

By this time most SA commercial meat producers should know the major retail chains are jockeying for top spot in the race to become the country’s most environmentally friendly food outlet. However, statements to the media are so carefully worded that it’s not easy to figure out exactly what South Africa’s big retailers mean when they oppose cruel farming methods.

For example, Dr Bool Smuts, director of the Landmark Foundation, has asserted that Woolworths could soon launch a predator-friendly meat brand. When asked to comment Justin Smith, Woolworths good business journey manager, had this to say: “Woolworths is working closely with its supply base, universities, the Department of Agriculture’s research farms and a number of other experts in the field to investigate humane predator-control measures.

 But, while Woolworths is firmly against production processes that cause harm or pain to animals, it has no immediate plans for a special brand of product linked to these efforts.” Still, Woolworths has already funded a practical livestock farmer’s manual for what it terms are non-lethal, holistic and ecologically acceptable farming practices. According to Ian Crook of Pick ‘n Pay’s meat division, that retailer has begun selling meat with Landmark Foundation stickers.

- Advertisement -

“The main idea is to help the foundation educate the public about the need to conserve wildlife, particularly predators, and to highlight the fact that Pick ‘n Pay supports and is involved with such nature conservation organisations and their efforts to find alternative, humane methods to control predators,” said Crook. H owever, Dr Smuts, a medical doctor turned animal rights activist, said the Pick ‘n Pay Landmark meat label does not ensure the product’s suppliers don’t engage in activities that threaten predators.

Crook said Pick ‘n Pay has done a lot of work with the Landmark Foundation, sponsoring leopard tracking collars and protective wire mesh collars for livestock, and making public statements in support of the foundation which is heavily engaged in persuading consumers to pressurise supermarkets to carry only predator-friendly meat. “We will support any alternative humane method for the control of predators,” said Crook. “For us, this is a process involving educating both farmers and consumers on the need for and desirability of predator-friendly meat production, and we wholeheartedly support the foundation’s endeavours in this regard.” rook noted that Pick ‘n Pay’s protocol and audit systems require that suppliers and producers adopt humane animal husbandry, affecting both domestic and wild animals. “They are audited on this requirement and we take immediate action should any discrepancies be found,” he added.

 “However, so far this year no cases of inhumane treatment of predators by suppliers or producers have been brought to Pick ‘n Pay’s attention and thus no agreements have been terminated.” At this relatively early stage the market for “green” meat is not altogether driven by consumer demand – top management in these companies are doing their bit to push such products, even if they don’t always sell all that well, because they believe it’s the right thing to do. And not all farmers or consumers are ready for the market.

 Many farmers charge that claims about eco-friendly meat are a farce and consumers are being horribly misled. Some even joke that the only true “natural lamb” carcass is one that’s been throttled by a predator. At the same time many shoppers simply can’t afford special products and walk past them to the cheaper counters. Eventually, of course, green meat and other organic food will become the standard and sell for the same price as conventionally-produced fare, as happens elsewhere in the world. So, farmers won’t always be getting a premium for organic products.

Instead, they’re likely to be penalised if they can’t supply what big supermarkets want, so it’s almost certain they’ll have to produce under ever-stricter demands and constraints. No informed farmer can seriously argue against the need to produce healthy, safe food or object to the humane treatment of animals – whether in managing predation or transporting fat lambs to the abattoir. The real problem is that organised agriculture isn’t doing enough to educate animal rightists and supermarket chains about the unique farming conditions in “wild” SA.

There are as yet, despite all the hype, no practical, effective, permanent and proven non-lethal methods of handling predation, particularly in districts where predator numbers are out of control. The truth is that in parks such as Serengeti, lions take 50% of the annual buffalo crop. That’s the same figure farmers in extensive areas lose to black-backed jackal and caracal if they don’t watch their goat or sheep numbers very carefully. Add losses due to stock theft, drought and bad weather and it’s easy to see how simple economics will force many farmers off their land if they try to farm according to the whims of armchair conservationists.

 What’s urgently needed is recognition from government, activists and retailers that the losses farmers suffer due to predation are financially unsustainable; counts of predator populations in “red” districts to establish if numbers are in line with the biological carrying capacity of the land; more money for research to find new, really effective and humane control measures and to investigate how such measures will affect the behaviour and population dynamics of the major predators; and more responsible, honest promotion campaigns about animal welfare.