Although the overall risk of developing colorectal cancer is small, headlines citing an 18% increase in colorectal cancer risk from consuming one 50 g serving of processed meat per day (approximately one hotdog) have led to consumer concern – including the (incorrect) assumption that eating 5 portions of processed meat would therefore lead to a 90% certainty of developing colorectal cancer.
The fact that we face this challenge makes me really irritated when celebrity chefs who could make a huge difference, bow instead to popular rhetoric. In his latest blog post, mockney chef and food pundit Jamie Oliver proclaims that “…organic food is natural food, where nature has been allowed to do its thing, and I’m sure most of us will agree that putting natural ingredients into our bodies is only going to be a positive thing.”
If we ignore the nonsensical claim that natural ingredients produce positive results (Really? Let’s examine puffer fish, solanaceae poisoning, dangerous fungi, absinthe, the many consequences of obesity…), let’s simply look at his claim that organic food is natural. Except, well, it’s not. Agriculture first developed ~12,000 years ago, and ever since then farmers have been doing their best to breed crops and animals that are best suited to their farming system, whether it’s organic or conventional. Want dairy cows that produce high-quality milk from grazing pasture; leaner pork chops; or strawberries that can survive supermarket handling? You’ve got it. All achieved through traditional breeding techniques (otherwise known as “nature doing its thing”): noting that plant or animal A has desirable characteristics and breeding it with plant or animal B to (hopefully) produce better offspring. No scary chemicals, scientists with syringes or genes in test-tubes. Every farm in the world is founded on “nature doing its thing” – not just the organic farms. We can argue whether GMO crops are natural (breeding techniques are simply more refined and specific) or not (scientists playing god…) but that argument becomes redundant in the EU and many other regions, where GMO crops are not approved.
Can organic producers use pesticides? Yes, if they’re compounds approved for organic production (e.g. highly-toxic copper-based fungicides). Can they use antibiotics and wormers? Again yes, if a proven disease problem exists (note that rules differ slightly between the UK and USA). Are organic farmers just merrily sitting back and letting their crops cross-pollinate and reseed, and their bulls run around happily “doing their thing” to whichever cow they come across? No. It’s a beautiful bucolic image to suggest that organic farmers are happily working with Mother Nature whereas conventional farmers have an evil scientist sitting on one shoulder and a big agribusiness corporation on the other, but its simply not true.
According to Mr Oliver, “…the simple fact is that often we don’t actually have to interfere with nature.” The idea of a world where we could feed over 7 billion people without having to actually invest any research dollars into improving food production is lovely, but it’s smoke and mirrors. At the most basic level, what happens if we don’t “interfere” by controlling weeds (whether by chemicals, mechanical tillage or human labour)? Crop yields are reduced, food production goes down and we feed and clothe fewer people. What happens if a cow has problems giving birth? In nature, she dies. On a farm (whether organic or conventional) both she and the calf are saved, providing milk and meat for us to eat. According to the World Organisation for Animal Health, 20% of global animal protein losses are due to diseases for which treatments already exist – we simply need to make them available to every farmer worldwide. Just think how many more people we could feed if we interfered with nature in that way?
Huge amounts of research monies are invested each year to find ways to improve food production on both organic and conventional farms worldwide. Some are highly technical, others are simple, but all are contributing to the goal of feeding the world. Unfortunately, when food pundits jump on the “let’s promote system X” bandwagon as Mr Oliver has done with organic production, using persuasive but false arguments, we lose traction in fulfilling the real goal. Rather than arguing about which foods we can/should be buying, we need to accept that there’s a place for all systems; examine the ways in which all systems can improve soil fertility, animal health and environmental impacts; and make faster progress towards feeding the world while still enjoying our food choices.
So here’s the question: who has been out to eat with friends, family or work colleagues, ordered what’s perceived as a virtuous (low-fat, high-fibre, gluten-free or vegetarian) meal in a restaurant, and then grabbed a Snickers bar on the way home? Or, when completing a survey, stated that you are highly concerned about animal welfare or environmental issues, then gone to the grocery store and chosen food simply based on price, taste and convenience?
I’d suggest that this is a situation common to most of us – the behaviours and image that we present to the world (including our carefully-posed selfies) do not always reveal our real personality. Which brings me to the paradox of the roasted vegetable sandwich.
Yesterday, a friend complained that as a consequence of being last in the lunch line at a conference, all that was left was a “soggy veggie sandwich.” Now I attend a lot of meetings and conferences, many of which serve sandwiches, and despite being a voracious meat eater, I’ll almost always choose the vegetarian sandwich. I love egg, hummus or roasted vegetables and really hate slimy catering mayonnaise tainting the deliciousness of roast beef or ham. Luckily for me, in my experience any sandwiches left after the initial rush are inevitably vegetarian or vegan.
Obviously my view may be biased in that I attend far more meetings with a farmer or agricultural industry audience than those attended by, say, Hollywood actors or animal rights activists. But given the number of untouched meatless sandwiches, are caterers overcatering for vegetarians and vegans in an attempt to be sensitive to diverse dietary requirements; or do survey results indicating that people intend to cut meat consumption vastly overestimate the extent to which this is actually happening? Do many people who claim to be vegetarian or vegan actually eat mostly plant-based foods (Hello Beyoncé!) with the occasional hamburger?
We are inundated with messages suggesting that meat is a socially-irresponsible choice. That Meatless Mondays are wildly popular and an increasing number of people are turning to vegetarian and vegan diets to improve their health, animal welfare or environmental impact. Indeed, one UK study of the sandwiches available in grocery stores and fast food restaurants showed that less than 3% were plant-based, and suggested that this was a significant problem for the (alleged) 35% of people who are willing to cut their meat consumption. Yet if over a third of the population were really determined to cut meat intake, wouldn’t that demand have filtered back to sandwich retailers?
Despite stated consumer interest in buying earth-friendly or high-welfare products, interest seldom translates into real-life buying behaviours. Those opposed to livestock farming often state that we could feed the world (political, social and infrastructural barriers not withstanding) if we all adopted a vegetarian or vegan diet, but it seems that we simply don’t want to.
Could we give up growing crops for animal feed and feed more people with tofu and Quorn? Absolutely. Yet there’s a huge gap between philosophical ideology and real world behaviour. Rather than bewailing the allegation that one-third of global grain crops are fed to livestock (ignoring the fact that a high proportion consists of human-inedible byproducts from cereal crops grown for human use), perhaps it’s time to celebrate the fact that two-thirds of global cereals are used to feed people, without being made to feel guilty for enjoying a roast beef sandwich (no mayo please).
Media articles relating to agriculture appear to fall into two groups. Those relating to small-scale agriculture are glowing accounts of farmers wearing overalls and straw hats; lovingly taking care of the land and animals according to holistic principles; and selling their produce at the local farmers’ market. By contrast, commentary upon large-scale agriculture invokes images of corporate-controlled factory farms with blatant disregard for animal welfare and local community issues; blithely pumping animal manure into water courses.
To consumers, the majority of whom do not understand agriculture, but have questions about how their food is produced, the choice (as presented by the media) is clear. Small farms must be better for the environment, the economy and the local community. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), we need to sustainably intensify food production over the coming years in order to feed the increasing global population. For many however, the concept of intensification and high-efficiency production systems appears to be contrary to the holistic, small-farm philosophy.
I will be presenting at the “World Congress on Controversies and Consensus in Bovine Health, Industry & Economics” in Berlin later this week, and have been asked to debate the question “Are hyper-intensive, mega farms more efficient?” If we examine the science, the results are unequivocal.
To use the U.S. dairy industry as an example: over three-quarters (76.7%) of dairy farms have small herds (less than 100 cows) and only 4.2% are large, with more than 500 cows in the herd. Yet the contribution to total milk supply is disproportionate – those 76.7% of herds containing <100 cows produce only 13.7% of U.S. milk, whereas the 4.2% of farms with >500 cows produce 63.0% of U.S. milk. A 17% increase in milk yield per cow is exhibited in large herds compared to small herds – does this mean that so-called mega farms are more efficient? Yes. They have a higher output of milk per unit of input. Data from the FAO also shows that as milk yield increases, the carbon footprint (and other resource use impacts) per unit of dairy is reduced.
Does this mean that large herds are better? Not necessarily. There’s no measure of animal health, worker conditions, or community support in these data. Yet these issues are size-independent. It’s possible to have poor animal health or worker conditions on a small farm, just as it is on a large farm. I’ve seen some great small operations, but also visited amazing large farms, including a 1,200 cow dairy in SE England where I was extremely impressed to see that they had a hospital pen to segregate sick cows from the rest of the herd, and that it only contained 12 cows. A 1% morbidity rate. How would that compare to the average human workplace, school or city?
Is there an ideal farm or herd size? A blueprint to lead the global dairy industry during the current crisis? No. Dairy farms vary considerably – it would be foolish to suggest that there is only one sustainable way to produce milk (although this approach is often taken by certain NGO groups). However, one thing is clear. As we approach a global population of 9.5+ billion people in 2015, we need to stop vilifying large farms and worshipping small farms, and instead promote efficient, well-managed, productive farms that can survive the crisis, regardless of size. As the saying goes – it’s not size that matters, it’s what you do with it that counts.
Shameless self-promotion, but very excited to have an essay published in The Wall St Journal today defending conventional beef production.
Given my blog subtitle, I thought I should link to it! Would love to read your comments. Article here: http://www.wsj.com/articles/is-feedlot-beef-bad-for-the-environment-1436757037
Food transportation. It’s the curse of the modern world. Just think how much brighter and sunnier the planet would be if we all shopped locally, tootling along on our bicycles to pick up freshly-baked bread and a dozen eggs just as our grandparents would have done. A brave new world unemcumbered by gas pumps and trucks. Except…. Well, no. It’s not that simple.
Sheep’s head broth, brains in parsley sauce optional. Nostalgic foodies in happy-heirloom-beet-utopia claim that we shouldn’t eat anything that our Great-Great Grandmother wouldn’t recognise as food – yet it works both ways. Follow the soup with a fish custard and a jam pudding and you have the perfect 1950’s meal – in line with the dietary recommendations of the day – 1/6 of your diet as fat, 1/6 protein and 2/3 carbs. Yummy!
Am I missing something, or have words ceased to have any meaning? Take the phrase “nut cheese”. Seriously. Now stop giggling like a 12-year old and actually think about it. Would you buy some nut cheese for your grilled cheese sandwich? Fancy some nut cheese on your pizza? Actually, purely from a practical point of view, no, you wouldn’t. Nut cheeses don’t really melt, they are better for spreading on crackers. But, leaving the double entendres aside, why would we give Edam (sorry…) about nut cheese? Apparently it’s a product that’s made exactly like cheese, if you ignore the fact that (dairy)* milk doesn’t have to be ground with water to separate the solids before the cheesemaking begins. Oh, and the fact that nut cheese made from nuts. Which means that despite the name, it’s not actually cheese.
The recent report by the advisory committee to the USDA dietary guidelines has certainly caused a media stir in the past week or so. There’s a lot of nutritional common sense in the report – eat more fruit, veg, and dairy, reduce carbs and sweetened drinks/snacks, and moderate alcohol intake. Yet there’s a kicker – from both a health and a sustainability perspective, Americans should apparently be guided to consume less animal-based foods.