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Horse burgers and Headless Chickens by John Webster

We are pleased to present a new Earthscan from Routledge blog post: written by John Webster, author of Animal Husbandry Regained: The Place of Farm Animals in Sustainable Agriculture.

With a new entry every fortnight, blog posts written by various Earthscan from Routledge authors will be displayed both on the Routledge website and on our Facebook page here. Each post within Facebook will be open to comments so please feel free to join in with the conversation.

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BY JOHN WEBSTER, author of Animal Husbandry Regained: The Place of Farm Animals in Sustainable Agriculture

Our latest food scandal, the discovery of horsemeat in processed foods ranging from burgers to lasagne, has stirred up a media storm; a melange of justified anger and irrational fear, cries for effective action and the hunt for sacrificial scapegoats. The essentials are as follows. It is legal in Europe to shoot and butcher horses for human consumption, although not if they have been treated with certain drugs, including phenylbutazone (“Bute”). There are standards for what may and may not be included in processed foods like sausages and burgers. In the UK this does not include horsemeat - on grounds of culture rather than public health: the horse is our friend. Moreover we have the right to know what we are eating. The illicit substitution of horse for beef in processed meat products is international fraud on a massive scale, the guilty parties should be punished and the strongest measures taken to minimize future risk. The multinational trade in industrialised meat products has undoubtedly increased these risks, which greatly strengthens the case for buying from your local butcher who can guarantee the provenance of his meat. However improved surveillance methods (e.g. DNA-based analysis) have greatly increased our chances of catching the criminals. Many of us will, in the past, have enjoyed a variety of tasty meat dishes in blissful ignorance that they contained remnants of horse.

All this may be taken as read. My concern is with the shriller and sillier suggestions now riding the wave of media concern, These range from advice to eat only “whole” meat, like joints and steaks, to the command that we should all become vegetarian. Viewed in terms of Earthscan or planet husbandry, both are emotional outbursts that shout down reason. The farming of animals for food in the form of meat and dairy products (and clothing and traction and fuel) did not evolve in the last 50 years to provide luxuries for a niche market but has always been an essential element of sustainable mixed agriculture. Traditionally the grazing animals harvested food (like grass) the farmer could not digest from land he did not own, the pigs and chickens scavenged food his family dropped or threw away. The aim was self-sufficiency and sustainability based on the best use of all resources and minimizing waste. Modern industrialised agriculture has become unsustainable because of its profligate use of water and fossil fuels and its destruction of soils. Intensive livestock farming, especially the intensive fattening of beef cattle on grain and soya, is the worst example of wasting land, food and other resources that could be put to better purposes. However, food from animals does not have to be wasteful if the animals of today, like the animals of the past, are given food that we choose not to eat or cannot digest: food that is complementary rather than competitive. In Somerset, where I live, dairy cows in pastoral systems receive over 70% of their rations in the form of complementary food and produce about 50% more food directly available for human consumption as milk, cheese (etc) than they consume. This makes them very valuable creatures indeed (although seriously overworked).

The suggestion that we should avoid processed meats is wrong-headed because it is profligate. Meat processing, done properly, is a good thing because it minimises waste. Dishes ranging from sausages to faggots and haggis, from known and trusted sources, should contribute to the diet of all ethical omnivores. The traditional cottager made the worthy claim to harvest every bit of the pig but the squeak.

The cry that we should all become vegetarians is equally unsustainable in terms of planet husbandry. Each individual has the right to be vegetarian and nearly all affluent omnivores should eat less of food of animal origin, both for our own health and for that of the planet. However the call to abolish animal farming altogether ignores the fact that grazing lands make up about 70% of the world’s agricultural area. Well managed, this land is vital to the sustainability of the planet, in terms of water management, carbon sequestration, biodiversity and amenity. The husbandry of animals to provide food and other resources is essential to the husbandry of this land. It is however a big mistake to assume that this land can be sustained simply from the sale of meat. The other big mistake is to deny those who manage the land the right to obtain income from their animals. Food production from animals is an integral part of sustainable agriculture (it is an essential element of organic farming). The trick is to reward the sustainable management of land in a way that recognises the importance of the food animals but not in such a way that income from the sale of food comes to dominate everything else.

Of course, to achieve this, we should all eat less meat.