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18 Oct, 2019 15:41

What’s the beef? British farmers rail against Tesco’s VEGAN advert, but supermarkets have been squeezing them for years

What’s the beef? British farmers rail against Tesco’s VEGAN advert, but supermarkets have been squeezing them for years

A new pro-vegan advertisement from UK retail giant Tesco has British farmers up in arms. But changing trends, falling profits, and supermarkets themselves have been threatening the industry for years.

“Daddy, I don’t want to eat animals anymore,” says a schoolgirl in Tesco’s new advertisement, entitled ‘Carl’s All-Change Casserole’. Being the loving father that he is, Carl swaps the sausages in his signature dish for plant-based substitutes, and the family is happy again, thanks to Tesco’s ‘Plant Chef Range’.

The National Farmers’ Union has objected to the ad, claiming it is “demonizing meat as a food group.” Meat, they say, is naturally rich in protein and “a good source of iron, zinc and essential vitamins.” 

“For farmers whose livelihoods are at risk due to the demonisation of meat, the mawkishness and subtle-as-a-brick sermonising came as yet another kick,” dairy farmer Noreen Wainwright wrote in a Telegraph column afterwards.

Changing trends have indeed dealt the UK’s farmers a series of kicks in recent years. A 2018 survey estimated that seven percent of Britons were vegan, while 14 percent were vegetarian. Red meat consumption has dropped around 10 percent in the last decade, with demand for certain beef products falling by seven percent last year alone. The dairy industry too is threatened, with milk consumption falling by a third since the 1970s, and one in five customers now opting for substitutes like soy or oat milk.

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Humans are omnivores and can live healthily on a plant-based or meat-based diet, though vegans need to supplement essential nutrients only found in meat. But dietary preferences aside, economic factors have placed British farmers in a situation where even a small shift away from meat consumption could spell disaster.

Most British beef farmers operate at a loss, and depend on subsidies from Brussels to break even, a lifeline that could soon be pulled away following the country’s exit from the European Union. On global markets, British beef farmers have to compete with the industrial operations common in North America, where cattle are pumped full of growth hormones, medicated with antibiotics, then slaughtered and sold at bargain-basement prices.

As a result, the UK’s beef herd population has been steadily declining in recent years, while over a dozen ‘megafarms’ have cropped up to replace the bucolic rural pastures so often depicted on milk cartons and meat packages. Using sheer economy of scale to turn a profit, these American-style feedlots house herds of up to 3,000 cattle, with many kept for extended periods in grassless pens or yards.

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Hundreds of similar operations housing over a million chickens or more than 20,000 pigs apiece have also become commonplace throughout the British countryside.

British supermarkets have played a key role in driving the small farmer out of business too, long before they ran feelgood vegan advertisements. Shoppers in the UK demand the high welfare standards and environmental protections associated with British beef, at a reasonable price. Supermarkets provide this, while paying farmers below the cost of production and using the threat of imports to keep costs down, Felicity Lawrence, author of ‘Not on the Label’, wrote in the Guardian.

Sourcing beef from ‘megafarms’ allows supermarkets to further “drive down the retail price of beef below the price at which more traditional farmers can produce it,”said Richard Young, Policy Director at the Sustainable Food Trust. “As a result they go out of business.”

Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons, and Asda all source meat from these industrial farms.

Britain’s farmers therefore find themselves beset on all sides. From the vegans claiming their produce is murder and the environmentalists who blame their livelihood for the destruction of mother earth; to the supermarkets squeezing more product out of them for less money, Britain’s farmers have every right to feel threatened. 

One innocent advertisement may not seem like a big deal, but to an industry already on life support, the claim that it has caused “significant distress” to farmers might not be an exaggeration.

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