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Minutes of the 361st  meeting held at 10.00 in Stokesley Town Hall on     Tuesday 16th January 2018:

Speaker Paul Toplis: Can we afford to eat meat?

Paul Toplis is a pig nutritionist who has worked in the industry for more than 40 years and says he is now trying to retire! He joined RHM Agriculture when he graduated. In 1989, he joined SCA Nutrition to promote exports. In 1994 the company became and remains the only livestock feed manufacturer ever to win the Queen’s Award for Export Achievement. In 1996, he and 3 other directors left to form Primary Diets. Paul gave a very enlightening talk on the benefits and drawbacks of meat production for human consumption.

He considered the disadvantages of eating meat:

 Environmental Impact  particularly global warming

 Food security

 Welfare issues – is factory farming cruel?

However, for some people, there is another insuperable problem. Meat is from animals. Because this is not an issue for everybody, if we put this to one side, we can see that the British pig industry has a proud history. In churches, there are many carvings and stained glass windows featuring pigs. At the entrance to the National Gallery is a mosaic in the floor featuring a pig being washed representing farming as one of the Labours of Life.

Pigs grow very quickly. At birth, a piglet weighs about 1.5kg. 10 weeks later it will be about 30kg. In Britain, 11 million pigs are grown and killed annually but 25 million are consumed. Although UK breeding methods have been adopted around the world, while global pig production has been increasing, domestic production has declined.

We consume 25kg of pork per person per year. By comparison, France eats 35kg, Germany 45kg, Australia and the USA 120kg. The figure for China is 49kg. Paul remarked that as the world becomes wealthier, the new middle classes want to eat more meat. What we do in Britain has very limited consequences for the planet compared with what will happen in China. Growing demand for meat for human consumption is inevitable.

The environmental impact of meat production is difficult to assess. There is a famous quote: ‘Some problems are so complex that you have to be highly intelligent and well informed just to be undecided about them.’ The efficiency of food production is one such. Beef production is very inefficient when looked at in terms of total feed, but efficient when the human edible feed is used for the calculation. Pigs and poultry are not as good as beef from a food security standpoint. They are more vulnerable to disease. It can be said that ruminants have a negative effect on the environment, but are positive for food security. Another important issue is that animal production creates a living for many of the world’s poor. Overall, probably the most helpful approach for the human race is for us to eat less meat.

Paul said that organic farming leads to a big increase in greenhouse gas (GHG) production per animal and a lower yield. The issue of local food production is very complicated. It can cause a big increase in GHG. New Zealand lamb and Spanish tomato production is very efficient because of their environments. The 40% of UK pig production outside is inefficient and produces a lot more GHG than a factory system, which is much more efficient and sustainable. In 1999, sow stalls were banned, leading to increased costs and reduced productivity. The EU competition continued to use the stalls until 2013. Consumers said that animal welfare was of high importance. Because they continued to buy on price, the UK pig industry was decimated. By contrast, France and Germany are still self sufficient.

In Britain today, the top 10 percent of producers provide 35 percent of all pigs. The top 4 producers provide 24 per cent. The majority of pigs are kept in East Anglia nd Yorkshire, close to the arable farms where their feed is produced. Precision nutrition is under development which will enable very good control of lean and fat and also of the rate of growth.

Paul said that small but powerful animal rights groups consistently misrepresent what goes on in the livestock industry. Only about 1 in 5 claims has some basis in fact. Vegetarian and organic farming groups are also very vocal. The truth is that while there is some bad practice, stockpeople choose to work with animals despite this being a 7 day week job in an environment which many would shun. They love animals. It needs to be said that big and indoors does not mean bad.

Antibiotic resistance is an important matter. Pigs are unusual in that they can be infected by swine, bird and human influenza. In the 1918 bird flu pandemic there were between 50 and 100 million human deaths. Pigs were infected by humans! Antibiotics do promote resistance and strains of salmonella and E coli which are resistant can be passed to humans. These antimicrobial organisms are a threat to public health and much effort is going into countering them. As with humans, a very important measure is to reduce the use of these drugs.

In reply to questions, Paul said that the he was not sure what the consequences of Brexit would be, but that his company thought it prudent to buy a company in Poland. The government’s policy is still unclear. The number of people employed by Defra had been falling for a long time, but it has now increasing. The Department has lost skills over the years.

He was asked about the taste of pork which some people think is not as good as it used to be. Paul said that most countries castrate pigs, but we do not. This is believed to affect the taste, but it is not easy to analyse. Similarly, the scientific measurement of tenderness and succulence is very difficult. What can be said with confidence, is that these days, meat is frequently not hung for long enough. Profit margins are very thin and this encourages speeding up of throughput. Lack of consistency is another problem. Waitrose is the best in this aspect, but their meat is expensive. Supermarkets do sell on price and often buy meat from abroad. If this is then cut in Britain, the shop is allowed to sell it as British. If the consumer wants the best quality at a reasonable price, the good local butcher is the best source.

Another questioner asked about the risk of serving pork pink as recommended on some cookery programmes. Paul said that the practice of cooking pork to ensure that there was no risk of tapeworms was no longer necessary. There have been no tapeworms in pork for 50 years. To achieve the best results in cooking meat, a thermometer might be a good investment.