Beware the amateur scientist

Consumer trust. It’s paramount. It’s possibly the only way to ensure sustainability (by which I mean the balance of economic viability, environmental responsibility and social acceptability) of any agricultural practice, system or industry.

Yet there’s an inherent issue with consumer trust – no matter how many times I’m reassured that the consumer trusts science, trusts academics, trusts farmers, there’s one group that they’ll trust above all others – the amateur scientist.

You know the one – they did a back of an envelope calculation based on some data from Wikipedia and a couple of those statistics that “everybody knows” (but nobody can source….). They published it on Twitter, it got picked up in a couple of media articles and now it’s FACT. They have a degree in liberal arts with a minor in German organ music from a small school out East and they’ve read everything ever published with “sustainable” in the title. Next thing you know they’ll have their own slot on Food Network and be touring the “sustainable” speaking circuit. After all, they eat food – so they must be an expert!

Everybody knows amateur scientists aren’t biased and have no agenda, because they’re just an enquiring mind – and enquiring minds want to know. They’re more dangerous than an activist with a ready supply of dynamite and as many balaclavas as their Grandma can knit.

(Inspired by this excellent article in the Irish Times)

Beware the amateur scientist…I mean Judderman…when the moon is fat

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Taking the pledge – Meat as the new Mephistopheles?

Post-prohibition, is meat the new devil?

My Grandpa, a strict Methodist, took the pledge to abstain from alcohol back in the 1940’s when the church was endorsing Prohibition via the Temperance movement in the UK. It was an entirely personal choice for him, one that he felt was right for his lifestyle and a cause that he didn’t try to recruit other people to join. Admittedly it filtered down to his children and even had some influence on his grandchildren, although for my brothers, cousins and me the effect is now somewhat akin to adding a single ice-cube to a tumbler of whiskey.

In 1889, George Sim described slum areas where drinking was commonplace thus:

The gin-palace is heaven to them compared to the hell of their pestilent homes… The drink dulls every sense of shame, takes the sharp edge from sorrow, and leaves the drinker for awhile in a fools’ paradise… It is not only crime and vice and disorder flourish luxuriantly in these colonies, through the dirt and discomfort bred of intemperance of the inhabitants, but the effect upon the children is terrible. The offspring of drunken fathers and mothers inherit not only a tendency to vice, but they come into the world physically and mentally unfit to conquer in life’s battle. The wretched, stunted, misshapen child-object one comes upon in these localities is the most painful part of our explorers’ experience. The country asylums are crowded with pauper idiots and lunatics, who owe their wretched condition of the sin of the parents, and the rates are heavily burdened with the maintenance of the idiot offspring of drunkenness.

Given such strong words, it’s not surprising that alcohol was considered by many to be the root of all evil. In this modern world, where a myriad of organizations exist to help us with our addictions to the more insidiously hedonistic pleasures in life*, surely we are beyond taking the pledge?

Alas no, the Environmental Working Group is at it again, this time with a pledge that they aim to get 100,000 supporters to sign. That’s right, you can save the planet by simply clicking a button on the internet stating that:

I pledge to skip meat one day a week and to include more healthy fruits and vegetables in my diet. Not only will I be doing something good for my body, I’ll also be doing something good for the environment.

So, let’s assume 100,000 people sign up for this. That will cut the USA’s carbon footprint by 0.00014% (it would only be 0.44% if the entire population took the pledge *and* actually stuck to it). Hardly a significant environmental effect.

What would you replace meat with? Jack-in-a-Box Jalapeno poppers? A couple of Twinkies? A 1/2 lb soy burger? It’s rational to assume that giving up meat for one day a week will not suddenly cause everybody to have more time to cook, or to prepare fresh exotic salads from scratch – the basic food preferences will stay the same, simply without meat.

So the chicken breast, hamburger or pork chop is replaced by a vegetarian burrito – one from Chipotle no less, which has made a big play of not using rbST and other hormones. According to USDA’s nutrient database, the calorie content of an 8 oz steak is 581 calories with 35 grams of fat.  An 8 oz pork chop has 524 calories with 38 grams of fat. The vegetarian burrito? Chipotle lists nutritional information by ingredient, luckily the handy dandy My Fitness Pal website has put together all those ingredients –  750 calories with 27 grams of fat. Hardly a short-cut to becoming a lean, mean fitness machine.

Life is all about choices, and all dietary choices have environmental and health consequences. The Temperance movement believed abstaining from alcohol made for a better life and (via Methodism) a promise of a better afterlife. Can the same really said of abstaining from meat for one day per week? Should meat be renamed Mephistopheles – or is abstention simply another short-term panacea by which we can feel better about our health, environment and karma via bad science and vegetarian spin?

*Personally, I need a “Cinnabon Lovers Anonymous” help-group

Meatless Mondays don’t amount to a hill of beans – or do they?

Eat alfalfa, save the planet?

Today’s Thursday, so presumably we can all enjoy a hamburger without being made to feel guilty by the virtuous soy-eaters who are saving the planet (thanks Environmental Working Group). But what happens when the weekend is over, Monday morning appears in all it’s miserable beginning-of-the-week glory and we’re choosing lunch? According to many schools, universities, hospitals, retirement complexes and workplaces, Monday is the day when you can make a difference!

Simply by replacing that ham and cheese with a nice alfalfa and hummus wrap, we can all sleep safely knowing that our hummer driving and air-conditioning set at 65 degrees isn’t harming the environment – after all, we went meatless today! So what’s the real impact of Meatless Mondays?

If you believe the hyperbolic text of the EWG’s recently released report, animal agriculture is the root of all environmental evil. Yet buried on page 21 is the admission that animal agriculture only accounts for 4.5% of the US’s carbon footprint. The EPA has a somewhat smaller, but similar figure at 3.1% of total emissions. The original Meatless Mondays claim appears to have been derived from a paper from Carnegie Mellon that concludes:

Shifting less than one day per week’s worth of calories from red meat and dairy products to chicken, fish, eggs, or a vegetable-based diet achieves more GHG reduction than buying all locally sourced food.

So let’s do the math. Removing poultry and horses from the EPA’s animal agriculture total of 3.1% gives a red meat/dairy impact of 3.05%. Divide that by 7, and the impact of one meatless day per week is equal to 0.44% of the US carbon footprint – and that’s assuming that the US population of 311 million people all adopt this lifestyle change.

0.44% is minuscule. A tiny fraction of the impact that we could make on the carbon footprint. But if we put it in consumer-friendly numbers, it’s like taking 5.7 million cars off the road each year, or planting 4.5 billion trees. Sounds far more compelling now doesn’t it? But how does that compare to the impact of powering the MacBook upon which I’m currently writing this post during a 3 hour cross-country airplane flight, followed by a 90 minute drive home? Not to mention all the other environmentally-damaging actions I’ll execute before the day is out.

In a world where we have a wildly tenuous grasp on the immediate or long-term environmental consequences of the majority of our actions, we really need to assess the environmental impact of simply existing as a human. Forget demonizing specific foods, or pretending that one single action can save the planet – we need to understand and quantify how all our choices have consequences – and act accordingly.

Environmental Working Group Proves that “You Can’t Fix Stupid” Proverb is Entirely True.

Would you replace your hamburger with a soy burger?

Ah, the power of a report from an earnest non-governmental organization, out to save the consumer from themselves. Destined to be selectively quoted for the next 20 years and to prove once and for all that, as the comedian Ron White would say: “You can’t fix stupid”.

Released this week, the Environmental Working Group’s report, claimed not only that everybody should eat less meat, but that “Meat, eggs and dairy products that are certified organic, humane and/or grass-fed are generally the least environmentally damaging…Overall, these products are the least harmful, most ethical choices.” This is a surprisingly intuitive conclusion in that it utterly contradicts the body of scientific knowledge to date, and as the report doesn’t contain any data on anything other than conventional production systems, let alone ethics.

The requisite environmental activist components are there: stylized pastoral scene on the cover and such a liberal sprinkling of emotive words such as “confined” and “polluting” it seems like an ice-cream sundae assembled by a small child with a sugar addiction. It’s even been peer-reviewed by “experts” (as you may have gathered, when reading this post, words in quote marks should be accompanied by an ironic raised eyebrow).

So who are the experts? An RN who teaches “culinary skills and management”, an Assistant Scientist interested in “access to sustainably produced and healthy food”, another whose program aims to “address the environmental and public health impacts of industrial agriculture and promote more sustainable alternatives”. Methodology reviewers were the aforementioned Assistant Scientist, an expert in tropical forests and the daughter of the founder of the Small Planet Institute. What’s the link here? An interest in “sustainability” – which in this case means community-supported agriculture, local food, and nutrition. Where are the experts in livestock production? Who checked with animal and meat scientists, industry professionals, extension agents, nutritionists or processors who can verify that the assumptions made within the report are correct?

It’s a bona-fide report with colorful graphs, acknowledgements, a whole separate report on the methodology (which guarantees nobody will read it) and data! As we all know, data is powerful. According to their “calculations”, lamb has the greatest impact, generating 39.3 kg (86.4 lbs) of carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e) for each kilo eaten, and beef has the second-highest emissions, generating 27.1 kilos (59.6 lbs) of CO2e per kilo consumed. Cheese generates the third-highest emissions, 13.5 kilos (29.7 lbs) of CO2e per kilo eaten. Everybody knows that data doesn’t lie. Cold hard numbers are based on science. Yet just as I can replace ground beef with tofu and make something that looks like a burger, yet tastes like… soy, so has the EWG have used poor-quality data and erroneous assumptions to create a vegetarian ideology that is a poor substitute for real science.

They claim that if everyone in the U.S. chose a vegetarian diet, it would reduce US carbon emissions by 4.5%.  This is an impressive achievement since the Environmental Protection Agency cites livestock production (including dairy, eggs and horses) in the US as accounting for 3.12% of total emissions. Who knows where that extra 1.4 percent comes from?

The animal component of the report shows a lamentable lack of basic livestock production knowledge. In the beef example, the cow-calf and stocker operations are based on a lot feeding system in Nebraska rather than rangeland production and by-product/forage feeding. All the animals raised are steers (what on earth happens to the heifers?) and there appear to be no bulls in the system, not to mention the lack of dairy calves entering the feedlot and cull beef or dairy cows entering the production chain. Crucially there is no data on herd dynamics, bodyweights, growth rates, and total time required for animals to reach slaughter weight – the most important factors that affect the carbon footprint of a unit of beef.

The lamb system does contain rams as well as ewes, but there is no data relating to the flock, and most crucially, to the lambing rate. US farm flocks average 1.5 to 2.5 lambs per ewe per year whereas range flocks average 1.0-1.5 lambs per ewe. If we compare this to the US average for beef according to the most recent USDA/NAHMS report of 87% of cows producing a live calf, that means we need roughly twice as many beef cows to produce offspring as we do ewes, even considering the fact that lamb produce slightly less meat per carcass on a percentage basis (for a more realistic estimate of meat yields than those quoted in the EWG report, the University of KY have a nice extension publication on the subject).

So here it is, the issue that every single life cycle assessment involving animals and executed by LCA engineers to date misses – the fact that for every day an animal is alive, it needs a certain amount of energy and protein (and therefore feed, land, fertilizers, fossil fuels etc) simply to stay alive. This is called the maintenance requirement and it’s exactly the same principle that leads to that nifty “The average woman requires 2,000 calories, the average man requires 2,500 calories” credo that’s on almost every nutritional label. It doesn’t take a giant deductive leap to realize that if a certain amount of feed is needed to maintain an animal, there’s going to be a certain amount of waste too – which means manure and greenhouse gases. Breeding animals in meat production are the biggest contributors to the total carbon footprint precisely because they consume resources and emit greenhouse gases each day, yet only end up in the human food chain after a number of years, if at all.

If I’m making a bun for my tofu burger, it’s more efficient to cook it in an oven that can produce two or three buns rather than one. Exactly the same analogy applies to breeding herds – a larger breeding herd with reduced reproductive efficiency (i.e. fewer offspring per female), means more resources and a greater carbon footprint per unit of milk or meat. Lamb’s carbon footprint would be expected to be approximately half to two-thirds that of beef given the greater reproductive efficiency, yet the EWG’s estimation has lamb at 44% higher – a clear reflection of the invalidity of their results.

Comparing the carbon footprint of different meat products is an elegantly futile competition in which nobody wins. According to their “data” beef is a better choice than lamb, chicken is better than pork. Yet who fancies chicken Wellington for dinner? Or egg pot pie? Or a pea McMuffin? The idea that we should be happy, saving the world on a diet of tofu and lentils is somewhat ironic given their propensity to produce increased methane from the human gastro-intestinal tract.

Are all 311 million people in the US going to rush to the grocery store and fulfill the EWG’s somewhat desperate cry for Meatless Mondays? Until all human activity can be put into context and the effect of driving to work vs. buying French wine vs. eating an 18-oz T-bone vs. having a third child can be compared objectively, this report is simply another one-week-wonder, destined to be quoted in every vegetarian manifesto and vegan twitter post (presumably vegans don’t tweet, as that would be exploiting birds?) but forgotten as soon as Katherine Middleton wears a new dress on a royal visit or yet another politician demonstrates their indirect support for the pork industry by increasing Google searches for “wiener”.

For a little light relief, here’s Ron White’s take on “Stupid” (please do not watch if easily offended)