‘Sustainably sourced’ might be an everyday phrase, yet what happens between the field and the kitchen? Megan Perry of the Sustainable Food Trust investigates how the demise of the local slaughterhouse is irrevocably changing the landscape of our food production.
The moral responsibility of a livestock farmer or slaughterman to the animals they raise and kill cannot be understated. From the beginning, you must embrace the idea of the end, and that end is not a responsibility that can be passed on to someone else.
These sentiments were upheld during the Sacred Life, Sacred Death session at the Sustainable Food Trust’s Harmony in Food and Farming conference in 2017. Halal butcher and slaughterman Muhsen Hassanin, and livestock farmers Ruth Tudor of Trealy Farm, Lutfi Radwan of Willowbrook Farm and Rosamund Young of Kites Nest Farm, all spoke from a place of compassion and personal experience about this responsibility and their role as farmers and slaughtermen.
Separation from nature
Dealing so closely with life and death makes the realms of spirituality, morality and nature immediately tangible. As Muslims, both Muhsen and Lutfi spoke of the religious imperatives that govern their approach to farming – both produce ‘halal’ meat. According to Muhsen, human beings were given the responsibility by God to walk the earth gently. He comments that, “You have to be in a state of compassion wherever you go.”
Livestock farmers confront death head on and as a visible and integral part of life. However, we, as consumers, mostly forget the reality of where our food comes from, creating a kind of dissociation from death and ultimately from nature and its natural processes.
This dissociation goes hand in hand with the industrialisation of food production and the proliferation of cheap meat. And in turn, the loss of small abattoirs and the decline of traditional family farms.
Just 10 companies now dominate
In 1985 there were 1,000 abattoirs in the UK. By 2006 this number had fallen drastically to 285. As small abattoirs closed, bigger businesses expanded, and in 2006, the 10 largest companies slaughtered 57% of the cattle, 53% of the sheep and 75% of the pigs in the UK.
There has been a similar trend in the number of butcher shops, with 21,000 shops in 1985 falling to only 6,000 today. Traditionally, many smaller abattoirs were managed alongside butcher shops and supplied the shop directly, often run jointly as a family business.
The intensification and industrialisation of livestock slaughter has arguably created an alienation in the practice of killing that damages a deeper connection to nature and farming systems by decontextualising the role of slaughter from the wider system. Small-scale abattoirs are more deeply rooted in the community which allows the person doing the slaughtering to be directly connected with all parts of the food chain – from the farm where the animal was reared, to the shop where the meat is sold. This provides them with a wider perspective on their personal role in the process of food production and their place in the community.
This localisation and connection to the wider community and the food chain is lacking in large abattoirs. As with many industrialised workplaces, there may also be issues of low pay, workers rights, racism or bullying. This generates a stressful atmosphere, for both humans and animals.
Why the loss of small abattoirs is bad news for everyone
The decline of small abattoirs is an indicator of a more general shift being seen across rural Britain. Small-scale, traditional livelihoods are rapidly being lost in the face of a globalised food sector geared towards cutting costs and maximising profit. Soaring house and land prices, a lack of regulation of who can buy agricultural land and failure to prioritise affordable homes for rural people has created an almost insidious fragmentation of communities. Many villages have become commuter towns or picturesque retreats for the wealthy. And with the loss of rural Britain’s indigenous people, comes the loss of invaluable skills, knowledge and a cultural heritage stretching back hundreds of years.
If we do not reverse this decline, we are jeopardising our future food security and perpetuating a system which treats animal farming as a factory. If livestock farms and abattoirs are no longer rooted in their communities, the gulf between producer and consumer becomes wider. We no longer see ourselves as part of the food system, rooted in the natural world, and we turn away from things that are difficult to look at.
We forget our place at our peril
During his talk, Lutfi quoted from The Trial of the Animals, a book written in Baghdad in the 7thcentury, but profoundly prophetic. It told the story of how the animals called in a judge to hear their testimonies of abuse. The judge found in favour of the animals and in summing up, he said to the humans:
“Should you ere, animals will begin to disappear one by one forever from the face of the earth, and the air in your settlements and fortresses will become dangerous to breathe, the seasons will be reversed and your climates turned on end. The animals that you eat will bring sickness and death upon you and you will no longer rule the earth. This can be reversed, but humans have to realize the extent of their cruelty.”
Rearing animals, killing and eating them is something which gives us power, but it does not give us dominion. We are part of nature, a complex system of perpetual life, and forget this at our peril. Death too, is part of nature, and in ignoring or avoiding it we deny the reality of the world and perhaps even our own mortality. If we abuse animals then the communities of future generations won’t be able to rear them, nor consumers eat them, because eventually, we’ll be repulsed by the reality of factory farming.