Signs of good breeding

Reading the papers has been interesting in the last few weeks, writes Nick Joy, but nothing caught my eye so much as several articles discussing trying to bring taste back into food.

Finally the supermarkets, allied to some food producers, are beginning to realise no one wants to eat bland food. In the old days they would have added salt to boost the flavour, but you can’t do that any more.

Taste difference between foods is critical. If everything tastes the same, from pork to lobster, it will result in bulk sales of one cheap source of protein I am not saying we have reached this point but it is a good way of showing where we are, or have been, heading.

It seems to me that we head in one direction only to change our minds. For a long time, agriculture has been heading down the combined targets of bigger sizes and faster growth. Look at the development of Charolais beef. The animals got bigger and bigger, till finally the fillet from one animal was so big that it had to be sliced thin for a single portion. Of course, it tasted of almost nothing.

Now all of the butchers and some of the multiples are pushing for a return to the old breeds, which are smaller, slower growing and have definitive and stronger tastes. What a stunning surprise that people want to know what they are eating through taste!

The problem, as I wrote in my article a long while ago “A car with no reverse gear”, is that modern breeding programs are so sure that they are not making a mistake that they eschew any protection against their own blindness.

Yet it seems to me that these programmes don’t concentrate on what we have but solely on the attributes we want to have. These are only of any use if they add to the current attributes rather than replacing some of them. The lack of willingness to discuss the failures involved in such breeding programmes is part of the fundamental misunderstanding of the meaning of science. Science is not the truth. It is the search for the truth in the physical world and the proposal of current theories about that world. The way to use science is to discuss its failures as much as its successes.

Breeding programmes in agriculture have crowed about achieving speed of growth but they have been utterly complacent and silent about their disasters, from breeding a pre-plucked chicken to legs breaking though fast growth and huge breasts. There have been many incidences in different species, including in aquaculture, but they are not discussed.

The issue least spoken about in our industry was the killing out of almost all of the existing Scottish broodstocks during the 1990s and early 2000s. Colleagues would say to me that these new scientific breeding programmes would solve all of our issues sooner or later and that the stocks would be perfect for farming. I’m not going to criticise anyone or any programme specifically, but is there anyone who thinks our current ones are perfect for farming? Does anyone have any level of regret for the lost broodstocks? A reverse gear is a very useful thing.

So what has caused the development of less than ideal stocks in agriculture? Though there are many causes, I would argue that primarily there are three:

The first is the push for cheaper and cheaper food. Would progress stop if we accepted a higher cost? I doubt it but there would be a much weaker set of excuses for such mistakes and people would be a bit more careful.

The second is linear thinking. Human beings like single lines that can be tested and so we change one thing, investigate it and then assume that all will be well, forgetting that changing one thing can have multiple effects. Changing more than one thing can also result in interaction between the changes. In our industry we know the crossover issues about using two different medicines. In breeding programmes these effects can be subtle but very damaging. I believe that taste is one of these.

Lastly there is the curse of short data sets. Of course my definition of short is not the same as that of a modern scientist in the field. Cattle and sheep stocks were developed over a large number of centuries, while salmon stocks have been developed of a short number of decades. More importantly the mistakes made have been developed over a much shorter period.

Those involved in this field, I am sure, would argue that the pressure to develop is driven by cost and the constant need to compete. Thus always are the worst things done.

I have always said that the animal pays for our mistakes. It will always be so and I don’t decry the need to develop good farming stocks. However I do suggest strongly that we develop a range of stocks which suit a range of markets.

It is ludicrous to suggest that all segments of the market should be supplied by the same product. If you expect the best restaurants in the world to cook and sell the same standard of food as the cheapest then you are living in cloud cuckoo land.