What Happens When We Don’t Like the Science?

Recently I’ve seen some criticism relating to Dr. Temple Grandin from a few people who are opposed to her ideas on animal welfare – namely that we need to listen to the consumer and understand what they think and want. It doesn’t seem like rocket science, does it? Ignore your consumers wishes and pretty soon you don’t have a market.

Just show consumers the science, not the emotion…” seems to be the battlecry. “If somebody hasn’t published a peer-reviewed paper on it, they shouldn’t be allowed to say it!” Except it’s not as simple as that, is it? Just look at the furore over LFTB (lean finely-textured beef or so-called “pink slime”). A safe, technologically-sound, scientifically-approved product that, once it was labeled pink slime, was utterly undesirable to the consumer. Never mind that they were still happy to eat Twinkies, Slim-fast (just what is that pink powder?) or kelp juice (green slime?), the perception was out there that LFTB was gross, and no matter how much science was quoted, bang, out of beef products it went.

We can talk about science all we like, but sometimes that just isn’t going to get the message across. I can’t imagine that any consumer who goes into a battery chicken (caged layer) house or sees a photo of a pig in a gestation crate says “Wow, what a beautifully efficient and scientific system!” That response becomes even less likely when all they see is a photo of it on Facebook.

So what happens when the science doesn’t play nicely into our perceptions and beliefs? When about social science papers that show that consumers evaluate foods based on emotion, not science? Or survey data that shows that we can take consumers to a farm and explain agriculture…but that it doesn’t change the preconceived ideas that 75% of them already held?* Do we ignore the inconvenient science because we don’t like the answers? Keep banging the same drum and hope that we can maintain the status quo?

Here’s a thought. Rather than looking at agriculture through your own eyes, try and see it through the eyes of somebody else. Part of Dr. Grandin’s success can be attributed to that fact that, because of her autism, she can empathize with animals in handling systems. Isn’t time we followed her example and tried to think outside the cattle chute?

*SHS Foodthink (2012). Building Trust in What We Eat. Available here: http://shsfoodthink.com/white-papers/

A Christmas Wish – May All Your Cows Be Like Your Best Cow

I love conversations that leave my brain firing on a million cylinders and open my mind to new ideas. I was lucky enough to have three such discussions this past week, one at an organic research farm; another at a 300-cow Jersey operation; and the most recent with three faculty at the University of Oxford with regards to the interactions between animal welfare and livestock sustainability.

Animal welfare is a touchy subject – many people appear to define excellent welfare as only including a narrow range of production systems or practices; and although everybody has their own image of what a “happy” animal looks like, it’s not always easy to identify or describe those systems without anthropomorphizing. Indeed, I’ve become increasingly aware that promoting improved productivity and efficiency as a means to improve sustainability can be misconstrued as encouraging the agricultural equivalent of a owning a Victorian dancing bear or cymbal-playing monkey – a “force the animals to perform, regardless of the cost in terms of animal welfare”-type philosophy (see picture below).



Yet such suggestions entirely miss the point, as any system that is consistently detrimental  to animal welfare is neither productive nor efficient on a long-term basis. We humans don’t perform well if we’re chronically underfed, stressed, sick, or housed in unfavorable environmental conditions – and neither do livestock.

Personally, my agricultural utopia would be one where all livestock operations, regardless of size, location or production system, exhibit both high productivity and excellent animal welfare. Admittedly, this leads to the difficult task of not only defining excellent welfare, but also the metrics and benchmarks by which it can be assessed within each operation. However, there is one overarching metric that can be measured, and improved on any farm or ranch – animal health. By definition, an animal that is chronically sick, lame or in pain cannot be said to be a example of good welfare.

As consumers, we want to know that the animals that provide us with milk, meat and eggs are healthy. Indeed, I imagine that even the most militant vegan opposed to the consumption of animal products would agree that animal health should be paramount. As producers, making sure that livestock are healthy is as ethically important as treating workers well. Plus, healthy animals are easier to manage: they grow faster; they have fewer incidents of  illness or death; and they produce more milk, meat or eggs. These improvements in efficiency and productivity also mean that we need less feed, less land, less water and have a lower carbon footprint per unit of food produced.

Let’s consider lameness in dairy cattle. A major animal welfare issue, it costs between $120 and $216 per incidence (UK costs below)* and is a major cause of cows being culled at or even before the end of their second lactation. Similarly, mastitis has a huge impact on both cow longevity and productivity, and costs the US dairy industry $1.7-2.0 billion per year. If just these two health issues were addressed, how many associated dairy cattle health and welfare issues would be improved; how much could dairy farm profitability be enhanced; and how much would the public image of dairy improve?

Every herd has its best cow – the one who is never lame, doesn’t suffer from mastitis, metritis or ketosis; and gets back in calf easily – all while having a high milk (and components) yield. There is no magic bullet to improve productivity and efficiency –  yet the discussions I’ve had in the past week conclusively demonstrated that that does mean suiting your system to your available resources and, though excellent health, nutrition, breeding and management, allowing every cow to perform like your best cow, every single day. I wish you a Merry Christmas and hope that in 2015, all your cows will be like your best cow.

*Lameness costs £180 pounds per incidence in the UK, or £15,000 per average herd annually. Mastitis costs the UK dairy industry £170 million per year.

Think You’re Brilliant? Don’t Just Say it, Prove it.

Feeding calfI recently had a long and rather tedious conversation with somebody who was trying to convince me that he was brilliant. I say tedious, because the conversation consisted of him telling me how brilliant he was, without actually providing any evidence of his brilliance, save for saying that “Smart people get how brilliant I am”. By definition, if I’m smart, I’m going to get it, right? Aha, he must be brilliant!

Call me picky, but if I am going to believe in somebody’s brilliance, I want examples, proof, something that I can relate to. Otherwise it just seems like a display of arrogant self-aggrandizement – a human peacock flaunting pretty feathers as a proxy for superiority.

Yet today it struck me that we often exhibit the same behaviors when explaining livestock production to the wider world. 98% of the population has no knowledge or understanding of animal agriculture. Does that mean they aren’t smart enough to understand how brilliant we are? After all, some would claim that “…some geek sitting in a cubicle in New York City never will understand animal husbandry and shouldn’t have (a) say (in livestock production)”* – therefore we don’t have to listen to their opinion.

Twitter geek quote
Regardless of whether or not they understand animal production, the consumer has a huge say in what we do every single day. If supermarket X decides they don’t want beef with from animals given implants because some consumers have concerns about hormones, implants could be effectively removed from cattle production in a matter of weeks. If a proposition is put forwards to ban dehorning, castration or tail docking, it could well pass, especially in more urban states. Precedents exist for both of these examples (Merck Animal Health’s voluntary withdrawal of Zilmax, grocery stores sourcing rbST-free milk and proposition 2 in California to ban battery cages for hens) – and once a precedent is set, other examples may follow.

So how does this relate to last week’s tedious conversation? Actions speak louder than words. Thousands of “we care for our livestock” quotes are instantly negated the moment a new animal rights video is released showing a downer cow or battered piglet. Just a single documented incidence of a manure spillage makes the “we care for the environment” quotes look like industry spin.

We have to be ahead of the curve, showing people what we do every single day – not just through words but through pictures and videos. Calving a cow at 3am, bottle-feeding a calf throughout the night, trudging through the snow to give hay to the in-calf heifers, making sure the manure lagoon is leak-free – these are all facets of livestock production that we have to share. If we just keep saying how brilliant we are without backing it up with evidence that resonates with the consumer, we’re talking to a brick wall. Because, as the saying goes, people don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.

*edited for spelling and clarity

Got Ebola? Just Take Some Vitamin C.


It appears that the lunatics are taking over the asylum. This is another post about “things that irritate me” – just a short rant this time about bad science and fear-mongering. The current irritant is the Alliance for Natural Health (ANH; as publicized by the Organic Consumers Association), which claims that Ebola can be prevented and treated naturally, but that these remedies are being (gasp!) “ignored by doctors and the government”.

If you’re really concerned that you may catch Ebola, the easiest way to avoid it is not to have intimate contact with an infected person’s bodily fluids; but never fear, if you do, the ANH have a list of “proven” natural remedies that will stop Ebola dead in its tracks. For example, Ebola is selenium-dependant, making people who’re already selenium-deficient more vulnerable to the disease, so if you just load up with mega-doses of selenium, you’ll be fine. Equally, both silver and vitamin C are antiviral, so add these to your selenium cocktail and you won’t just be fine, you’ll be invincible!

There’s just one problem – none of these miracle remedies have actually been tested against Ebola, which ANH claim is because of government/big drug conspiracies. It’s true that increasing your intake of selenium and vitamins C, D and E should boost your immune system to a degree, but you can’t then have a long smooch with somebody who’s infected with Ebola and expect to be immune. More importantly, given the ANH’s claims of natural “treatment”, there is zero evidence that any of these purported remedies provide a cure.

Most worrying of all is the final tagline: “Alert! Write to both FDA and Congress. Ask them to review natural treatments for Ebola without the lengthy drug approval process“. This lengthy drug approval process exists to ensure that drugs are safe, efficacious and do not cause unexpected or severe side-effects. It costs drug companies millions of dollars to get a single drug to market through this process, which is required for every new drug in order to protect our health. Furthermore, “natural” chemicals are not safe or effective simply because they exist in nature. Arsenic, cyanide and mercury are all inherently natural, as are deadly nightshade and death cap mushrooms. The “action alert” above is an example of bad science and fear-mongering at its worst – a dangerous remedy that will do nothing to halt the spread of the disease – and will probably hasten the patient’s death in the process.

One In Five Children Who Contract Diphtheria Die – Are Anti-Vaccination Activists Dangerous, Or Simply Misinformed?

vaccine1I had the pleasure of speaking in the plenary session at the 2014 AAVLD/USAHA Annual Meeting this week, where, among other topics, we discussed risk. One of the other panelists made the best point that I’ve heard in a long time – activists hate denominators.

Think about the last few scare stories you’ve seen – there’s no doubt that it is frightening to read that 3,000 people die from food poisoning each year, or that, to date, 4,546 people have died from Ebola (one in the USA). Yet if we put this into context, one person out of 315 million in the USA dying from Ebola is a tiny tiny fraction, and a correspondingly tiny risk.

Activists hate denominators because they provide us with context, a way to assess whether we’re really in danger. Statistically speaking, you’re  more likely to die from a traffic accident (one in 71 deaths), flu (one in 1,642 deaths), or syphilis (one in 55,866 deaths) than Ebola (one in 2,515,458 deaths). Which brings me to my current favorite activist, anti-vaccine zealot and proponent of “well-researched” bad science, Modern Alternative Mama (MAM). Thus week, she’s been promoting what she optimistically calls a “risk:benefit analysis” of the DTaP (diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis) vaccine.

Interestingly, she appears to consider all vaccine risks equal: death is no more of a minor inconvenience than redness at an injection site, and she earnestly notes that there is “no known benefit to getting diphtheria“. That sentence alone causes the mind to boggle. On a positive note, she does use valid CDC data, reporting that there were 3,169 adverse effects attributed to DTaP in 2011, which she claims is an underestimate of up to 9-fold.

So let’s run the numbers. Each year, approximately 3.95 million babies are born, of which 82.5% are given the DTaP vaccine. Between birth and 6 years of age, 5 doses of DTaP are recommended, so each year, 5 x 3.95 million x 82.5% = 16,293,750 doses are given (note that babies will have three each in that year, but older children (18 months and 4-6 years) will also receive a dose). Let’s give MAM the benefit of the doubt and assume adverse vaccine events are actually 5x the cited CDC number, at 15,845 events. The CDC classifies 10% of these events as “serious”, which equals 1,585 serious events per year.

So what is your child’s chance of having a serious reaction to the DTaP vaccine? 1,585/16,293,750 = 0.0000973, or one in 10,277 children will have a serious reaction to DTaP.

By contrast, we could take our chances in not vaccinating and hope that our child doesn’t contract diphtheria, which carries a risk of death of up to 20% in children under five years old. That means one in five children who contract diphtheria will die.

Given MAM’s antagonism towards vaccines, it’s not altogether surprising that she concludes “Although diphtheria is serious, it appears that the risk from the vaccine is much greater.” Yet let’s be realistic about this. One in 10,277 children will have a serious reaction to DTaP (serious reactions does not mean death, although that is one possible outcome) versus one in five children who will die after contracting diphtheria.

Admittedly that’s assuming that all unvaccinated children will get diphtheria. They won’t, but even if only 5% do, the risk is still overwhelmingly lower in the vaccine category (one in 10,277 suffering a serious reaction to the vaccine vs. one in 100 dying from diphtheria).

The site carries a disclaimer that writers are neither education professionals nor providing medical advice, yet the suggestion (by the author herself) that this is a well-researched, scientific post will no doubt cause some parents to congratulate themselves on their choice to not vaccinate.

This pseudoscientific scaremongering is dangerous, potentially lethal. All parents are concerned for their children’s health and welfare, but propounding nonsensical “risk:benefit analyses” that do not consider the denominator but simply the total adverse effects does not allow any parent to make a rational and well-considered decision. If my child is the one in 10,277 who suffers a serious DTaP vaccine reaction, I’m unlikely to care whether she is one of few or many, but at least I can make the decision whether or not to vaccinate (my answer is an overwhelming “yes”) based on risk. We all want our babies to grow up healthy and happy – in this case, it’s time to be a mainstream vaccinating Mama, rather than a “modern alternative” one.

Hyperbole, Hysteria, and a Sample Size of One – Where’s the Science?

IMG_9219I often describe this blog as a place where I write about things that irritate me. Today, is a case in point. There’s a new princess of technology paranoia on the block: move over Jenny McCarthy, because Modern Alternative Mama (MAM) is out to smother your crown with homemade liver pills and tweak it off your head. Billed as “a community of supportive people and well-researched information” the site is full of useful hints and tips on how to keep your children healthy – which in this case means unvaccinated, with unbrushed teeth and breast milk squirted up their noses to cure congestion. I wish this were my hyperbole – it’s not.

One of the common themes in the litany of anti-vaccination posts is the fact that vaccine scientists need funding to do experiments  (gasp!) and that such funding comes from companies that manufacture vaccines (gasp!). Obviously these scientists are the epitome of corporate shilldom and would sell their first-born child for a microscope and box of latex gloves. Best not to trust their pesky peer-reviewed science.

Don’t worry though, MAM is here to do the research for you and write about in a balanced and fair way. This translates roughly as: “Science (pesky corporate shills) shows there is no harmful effect of X, but if you allow the dastardly medical profession to force it on your defenseless bundle of joy they have a 756% increased risk of <insert scary disease here>, will be in therapy (blaming YOU) till they’re 45, and will never pass third-grade algebra. Oh, and did we mention that X has been linked to leukemia/childhood obesity/autism/type II diabetes/ADD/teenage pregnancy/atheism/voting Republican (delete as appropriate)“. They helpfully highlight the scary messages on the website in bold, so that you don’t miss them.

As with so many anti-technology sites, science is the enemy…unless it’s happy touchy feely science that backs up whatever theory is being propounded this week. Which is why it’s so funny to see them reporting that Baltic amber necklaces “really work” for preventing teething issues in babies.

One of the bloggers was sent a necklace by an amber company. She put it on her baby at 3 months of age (too early to teethe). 5 months and 5 teeth later  – no loss of sleep, no cranky baby, no teething problems whatsoever. Hooray! It’s a miracle! In her words: “Baltic amber is a win!” For the moment, let’s gloss over the fact that the necklace was provided free of charge and that the blogger was compensated for her post (ahem, Baltic amber shill).

So let me compare this to my experience. My baby is now 8.5 months old and also has 5 teeth. We’ve had no loss of sleep, no crankiness, no problems whatsoever with teething….and no amber necklace! Hooray! It’s a miracle! Wearing stripy Rainbow Brite-style leggings and pointing excitedly at next door’s dog (my daughter’s current favorite activity) are a win! Or maybe it’s the cucumber that she often eats for dinner! Or the fact that she can see the mountains from her crib! Or… some babies just teethe better than others.

Billions of children have been given vaccines that prevent disease with no ill-effects whatsoever, which the anti-vaccination activists appear to consider irrelevant. Yet one child given an amber necklace, with no control group or latin-square experimental design to test it’s efficacy – it’s a win! Baltic amber works! For goodness sake, try and be consistent MAM – you wouldn’t consider a sample size of one (my daughter for example, who has experienced no adverse effects from vaccines to date) to be proof that vaccines are ok – why do it with other issues that affect children’s health and wellbeing?

I’m not suggesting that teething pain is on the same scale of importance as the provision of vaccines, but let’s be realistic. If you’re going to this site (or others like it) for unbiased, sound information about vaccines or child health, just take a look at the other posts and products that are being promoted. Would I take cardiac advice from a surgeon who offered me three leeches and a tincture of wormwood to cure cancer*? No – and neither should you.

*Or eating tumeric and avoiding wearing a bra to avoid getting breast cancer, as MAM suggests

Would Being Vegan Really Solve Climate Change? Not if We Don’t Kill the Cows.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA friend of mine drew my attention to this NPR blogger, who makes the point that being “good” isn’t zero sum (a situation where what is gained by one side or cause, is lost by another). If you’re concerned about the environment, you can both recycle cans and buy a more climate-friendly car. If you are passionate about children’s education, you can volunteer in the classroom and financially support literary projects. In most cases, doing good is not an either/or.

Which made me think a little more about the definition of “good”. To that writer it meant being vegan or vegetarian, in the belief that such a diet would improve animal welfare and environmental impact. Yet this is exactly where the conflict arises for me – if we were all vegan or vegetarian, what would happen to the sheep, the cow, the pig and the chicken?

I posed that question to a vegan on Twitter recently and he, in all sincerity, answered that we, as a vegan population, would care for the animals, but would not enslave or control them. Imagine the beautiful utopia where we all have time to calve a cow or throw some grain to feral pigs before we set off to work, expecting nothing in return. Or in a more realistic scenario, we’d have more meat than we knew what to do with simply through car accidents if we suddenly let loose the USA’s 87.7 million cattle (never mind the 62.1 million pigs, 5.2 millon sheep and 9+ billion chickens).

Anti-animal agriculture activists often purport that a cow can live for 20+ years in her “natural” state compared to a farmed animal – so being a data nerd, I did the maths*. Let’s assume that 1) cows first calve at two years of age and that 90% of cows (38.3 million of them in the US at present) have a calf every year**; 2) 85% of those calves survive (mortality would go up due to predation, assuming we wouldn’t shoot wolves, coyotes etc.); and 3) each cow or bull lives for 20 years. Admittedly that doesn’t account for the cattle that would die from starvation through lack of available grazing in 5, 10 or 20 years time, but being good vegans, we’d feed them, right?

Within five years we’d have 602 million cattle in the USA, within 20 years we’d have 3.7 billion – a 40-fold increase on our current national herd. That’s 40x more cattle belching methane, drinking water and producing waste, every single day, all as a result of our changing our diet in an attempt to reduce environmental impact.

It’s a nice, simplistic, oft-suggested argument that we shouldn’t eat meat or dairy products in order to save the planet, yet the conflict between veganism, animal welfare, and environmental impact is clear. Climate change will be solved by us turning vegan? Not unless we reconcile ourselves to killing animals without eating them.

*I’m British, and as such, cannot use the American term “math” as opposed to the British “maths”
**90% is the US average for cow-calf herds, in which few hormones or other reproductive aids are used

Vegetarians May Preach – But We’re Not All Members of the Choir

Less meatThe  suggestion that we should eat less meat in order to save the planet pops up with monotonous regularity in my twitter feed. Interestingly, those who make this claim are almost always vegetarian, vegan or profess to eat very little meat. This is rather like me asserting that we could mitigate climate change and save resources by eating fewer bananas and curbing our windsurfing habits. I loathe bananas, and if you ever see me windsurfing you’d better be sure that there’s a nearby hospital bed and neck brace with my name on it. As you can imagine, giving up either activity would have little impact on my life.

This is why I find it interesting and rather facile that those who do not eat meat proclaim fleshy abstinence as the way forwards. It’s easy to preach a solution that has no impact on your life – far harder to make a dietary or lifestyle change that actually impacts you.

The “eat less meat” movement would have far more credibility if it was promoted by a hunting, fishing, grilling, hamburger-lover who publicly declared his/her love for meat in all it’s many forms, and bemoaned the fact that they felt they should forgo the steak in favor of the tofu stir-fry. Yet this doesn’t happen. Why? Because the vast majority of us simply don’t feel that an intangible threat (we can’t see or feel climate change, or conceptualize the quantity of oil reserves remaining) is sufficient to make us give up our carnitas burrito. In reality, meat eating is only likely to decline if it becomes too expensive or subject to regulatory sanctions (e.g. rationing similar to that in Britain during WWII). The influx of papers suggesting that we should reduce consumption therefore fall on deaf ears.

So let’s face the facts. Neither the national or global population is likely to reduce meat consumption in the near future, and the rising income per capita in India and China will increase demand for meat still further. Instead of making recommendations based on notional utopias, let’s focus on areas where we can really improve.

Amazing gains in productivity have allowed the beef, dairy, pork and egg industry to considerably reduce resource use and greenhouse gas emissions over the last century. With a culture of continuous improvement and access to technologies that improve productivity, we can feed the future population using even fewer resources.

Let’s make better use of the multifarious by-products from the human food and fiber industry. Ruminants are blessed with the ability to digest fibers and plant materials that we either can’t or won’t eat – using by-product feeds to replace corn and soy refutes the claim that livestock compete with humans for food.

Finally, take a look at your own plate. Globally, 33% of food is wasted. Just think of the reductions in resource use we could achieve (and people we could feed) if all the crops planted, fruit picked, and milk, meat and eggs produced were consumed, rather than just 2/3 of them.

We evoke change by leading by example – I’m off to enjoy a steak, conventionally-raised using 12% less water, 19% less feed and 33% less land than its equivalent in 1977. You’d better believe that if there’s any left, it’s going in a sandwich tomorrow. As my Grandma used to say: Waste not, want not.

Farm Better and Feed the World…. Without Farmers?

Where's the beef...without ranchers?

Where’s the beef…without ranchers?

The New York Times is putting on a “Food for Tomorrow: Farm Better. Eat Better. Feed the World” conference in NY next month. This is a great idea – we all need to think more about our food choices and how we’re going to produce enough food to supply the population in 40 years time, when we’re predicted to have another 2-3 billion mouths to feed.

So just as a debate on the future of healthcare would include presentations from doctors and surgeons; or a discussion about how education could be improved would showcase teachers and lecturers; this conference is going to feature farmers, meat processors and animal and crop scientists, right?

No. Firstly, we have Michael Pollan, author and journalism professor, famous for the suggestion that if you can’t pronounce it, you shouldn’t eat it. Looks like quinoa, gnocchi and beignets are off the lunch menu? When participating in a recent radio panel discussion with Mr. Pollan it was frightening to note how uninformed he appeared to be about the realities of livestock production versus the activist rhetoric (or indeed, the common courtesies of polite conversation).

Secondly, Danielle Nierenberg. I had the pleasure of being on a panel in Washington DC with Ms Nierenberg when she was still on-staff at HSUS. She was vehemently against the use of technology in livestock production and claimed that all housed or confined cattle were kept in filthy disease-ridden conditions. She further claimed that, contrary to the World Health Organization’s information on the topic, bird flu did not exist in small backyard poultry flocks in Asia and that biosecurity in large poultry operations was responsible for its spread.

Thirdly, a spokesman from the Union of Concerned Scientists. A pseudo-scientific organization that is opposed to so-called industrial agriculture, GMOs, antibiotic use in agriculture, agribusiness, the USDA nutrition guidelines…. the list goes on.

Amongst the remaining 14 speakers, there is a self-proclaimed activist, a chef, a politician, 3 reporters, 2 academics, and finally, two representatives from the retail sector – Panera Bread (known most recently for their “EZ-chicken” campaign which was rescinded after outrage amongst agricultural advocates) and Walmart. The sole representative of the farming community is an organic dairy producer with a herd of 85 Ayrshire cows from Wales.

I’m not suggesting that none of these people have valid opinions on how food should be produced – as consumers, we all do. However, the fact that conventional food producers and processors aren’t involved in the discussion makes me wonder whether this is simply an opportunity for those who most often criticize the current food system to shake each other’s hands, nod happily in agreement and make proclamations about how things “should be”, without discussing the practicality or feasibility of these solutions with those who farm the land and raise livestock every single day.

Almost inevitably, the conclusions coming out of this conference will be that you should reduce consumption of processed and conventionally-produced foods, and that if you are going to eat a small amount of meat, it should be organically-raised. That’s a beautiful shiny picture – I wonder what it will mean to the single mother trying to feed four children on a $10,000 salary; or the livestock producer who simply cannot make a living producing organic cattle?

Starvation isn’t sustainable for anybody – to feed the world in 2050 we need real solutions that improve crop and animal performance while reducing resource use. Solutions that are provided by farmers and ranchers working together with geneticists, nutritionists, consultants, veterinarians, crop scientists, soil scientists and meat scientists to improve the productivity of their farm.

To bastardize the old saying: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime; give a man a panel of 17 food “experts” and you’ll feed him for…..?” Cynically, I’d suggest the answer may be less than one meal.

Beef is Killing the Planet…and Elvis is Riding a Rainbow-Belching Unicorn

BurgerMy Twitter feed just exploded. Yet another study has been released claiming that if we all just gave up beef, the planet would be saved, Elvis would come back from the dead, and rainbow-belching unicorns would graze the Northern Great Plains. I may have exaggerated a little with the latter two claims, but the extent of media coverage related to the paper “Land, irrigation water, greenhouse gas and reactive nitrogen burdens of meat, eggs and dairy production in the United States” seems to suggest that the results within are as exciting as seeing Elvis riding one of those unicorns…but they’re also about as believable.

Much as we’d all like to stick our fingers in our ears and sing “La la la la” whenever anybody mentions greenhouse gases or water footprints, we cannot deny that beef has an environmental impact. Yet, here’s the rub – so does every single thing we eat. From apples to zucchini; Twinkies to organically-grown, hand-harvested, polished-by-mountain-virgins, heirloom tomatoes. Some impacts are positive (providing habitat for wildlife and birds), some are negative (nutrient run-off into water courses), but all foods use natural resources (land, water, fossil fuels) and are associated with greenhouse gas emissions.

So is this simply another attack on the beef industry from vegetarian authors out to promote an agenda? Possibly. The inclusion of multiple phrases suggesting that we should replace beef with other protein sources seems to indicate so. But regardless of whether it’s part of the big bad vegan agenda, or simply a paper from a scientist whose dietary choices happen to complement the topic of his scientific papers, the fact remains that it’s been published in a world-renowned journal and should therefore be seen as an example of good science.

Or should it?

I’m the first to rely on scientific, peer-reviewed papers as being the holy grail for facts and figures, but there’s a distressing trend for authors to excuse poor scientific analysis by stating that high-quality data was not available. It’s simple. Just like a recipe – if you put junk in, you get junk out. So if one of the major data inputs to your analysis (in this case, feed efficiency data) is less than reliable, the accuracy of your conclusions is….? Yep. As useful as a chocolate teapot.

Feed efficiency is the cut-and-paste, go-to argument for activist groups opposed to animal agriculture. Claims that beef uses 10, 20 or even 30 lbs of corn per lb of beef are commonly used (as in this paper) as justification for abolishing beef production. However, in this case, the argument falls flat, because, rather than using modern feed efficiency data, the authors employed USDA data, which has not been updated for 30 years. That’s rather like assuming a computer from the early 1980’s (I used to play “donkey” on such a black/green screened behemoth) is as efficient as a modern laptop, or that the original brick-sized “car phones” were equal to modern iPhones. If we look back at the environmental impact of the beef industry 30 years ago, we see that modern beef production uses 30% fewer animals, 19% less feed, 12% less water, 33% less land and has a 16% lower carbon footprint. Given the archaic data used, is it really surprising that this latest paper overestimates beef’s environmental impact?

The authors also seem to assume that feed comes in a big sack labeled “Animal Feed” (from the Roadrunner cartoon ACME Feed Co?) and is fed interchangeably to pigs, poultry and cattle. As I’ve blogged about before, we can’t simply examine feed efficiency as a basis for whether we should choose the steak or the chicken breast for dinner, we also have to examine the potential competition between animal feed and human food. When we look at the proportion of ingredients in livestock diets that are human-edible (e.g. corn, soy) vs. inedible (e.g. grass, other forages, by-products), milk and beef are better choices than pork and poultry due to the heavy reliance of monogastric animals on concentrate feeds. By-product feeds are also completely excluded from the analysis, which makes me wonder precisely what the authors think happens to the millions of tons of cottonseed meal, citrus pulp, distillers grains, sunflower seed meal etc, produced in the USA each year.

Finally, the authors claim that cattle use 28x more land than pigs or poultry – although they acknowledge that cattle are raised on pasture, it’s not included in the calculations, which assume that cattle are fed feedlot diets for the majority of their life. This is a gross error and underlines their complete ignorance of the U.S. beef industry. Without cow-calf operations, the U.S. beef industry simply would not exist – efficient use of rangeland upon which we cannot grow human food crops both provides the foundation for the beef industry and creates and maintains habitats for many rare and endangered species of plants, insects, birds and animals.

Want to know how to reduce the environmental impact of food production overnight? It’s very simple – and it doesn’t involve giving up beef. Globally we waste 30% of food – and in developed countries that’s almost always avoidable at the consumer level. Buy the right amount, don’t leave it in the fridge to go moldy, and learn to use odd bits of food in soups or stews. Our parents and grandparents did it out of necessity – we can do it to reduce resource use and greenhouse gas emissions; and take the wind out of the sails of bean-eating anti-beef activists.