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Britain Turns to Juicy US Steaks

26 January 2009

UK - British tastes are changing away from traditional roast beef and towards big juicy steaks - a shift that could cause major problems for the environment, according to new research.

Dr Evan Fraser of the Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy at the University of Leeds, explained that there are two quite different methods of beef cattle rearing in the UK and the US. In the UK, cows have traditionally been fed on grass, and allowed to roam freely in green pastures such as the Yorkshire Dales. In the US, cattle are predominantly kept in sheds and fed on maize and grain, which increases the yield, both in terms of beef and milk, but requires much more intensive farming.

Dr Fraser said British farmers now face huge commercial pressure to switch to the American model. “The two methods produce very different meat,” he said. “The typical American steak is juicier, with better marbling than the tougher – but arguably tastier – steaks and roast beef joints typically produced by UK grass-fed cattle.

“The problem is that British tastes are changing towards the juicier Aberdeen Angus steaks favoured by Americans,” said Dr Fraser. “This, plus the mantra of economic efficiency, is putting pressure on British farmers to switch to this more intensive method of production.”

But he warns that the American method is much more vulnerable to climate change for three key reasons:

Since growing maize demands a great deal more water than grass pasture, any shift to this system is reliant on a good water supply – something which may be harder to guarantee as the climate changes. In some areas of the US, notably in Kansas and Texas, mass irrigation to enable the shift to maize production has already left the region vulnerable to drought.

The American cattle’s metabolism is geared towards growth, boosted by this high-fat feed and growth hormones – and making them vulnerable to fluctuations in temperature. Put simply, high-yield dairy cows have no tolerance for heat and need to be kept in climate controlled conditions. Traditional British breeds are much hardier, and less vulnerable to changes in the climate – “Basically, they’re happy and productive eating grass on wet windy hillsides,” said Dr Fraser.

Maize is increasingly in demand as a fuel crop to create bio-ethanol. This has already driven the price in feed markets sharply upwards.

Said Dr Fraser: “The green, rolling countryside of places like Herefordshire and the Dales is sustained by beef, dairy and sheep farming. The landscape would change dramatically if Britain were to follow the American model where cattle are kept confined in pens or barns and fed grain.

“Recent scares have given British beef a bad name – and put farmers under significant pressures. But traditional British farmers have some reason to feel smug. Unlike their American colleagues, their product has less impact on water use, is less vulnerable to rising feed prices, makes less use of environmentally-damaging aircon systems – and maintains the beautiful British countryside.”

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