The Future’s Bright; The Future’s…Meaty? A Response to Breakthrough’s Essay on Meat Production

jims-charolais-in-feedyardThis week I was asked to respond to an excellent Breakthrough article on the environmental impacts of beef production. As ever, I hope the comments below provide food for thought (pardon the pun) and I urge you to read the full Breakthrough article as well as the other comments by Jayson Lusk, Maureen Ogle and Alison van Eenennaam.

Every food has an environmental impact, whether it’s cheeseburgers or tofu, coffee or corn.

That shouldn’t come as a surprise to any of us and, as a scientist, sustainability consultant and parent, I don’t have a problem with food production being one of the biggest contributors to global environmental impacts. Why? Because food production is one of the few industries that are absolutely essential for human life. However, it’s clear that we need to take steps to reduce environmental impacts from human activity, and as such, the livestock industry is often criticised for both resource use and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Although meat production is predicted to increase from now until at least 2050, it should be noted that the trends for improved productivity and efficiency within global livestock industries also reduce environmental impacts. As described in Marian Swain’s essay on meat production, the US beef industry cut resource use and greenhouse emissions considerably between 1977 and 2007. Meanwhile, the rise of modern feedlot-finishing systems cuts land use, water use, and emissions per unit of beef compared to grass-finished meat.

These findings may seem intuitively incorrect as we’re constantly exposed to marketing and media messages suggesting that only grass-fed meats are environmentally sustainable, and that intensive livestock systems are undesirable. The data speak for themselves however—the majority of extensive systems finish cattle at lighter weights (thus requiring more total animals to maintain beef supply), have lower growth rates (so cattle take longer to grow to their finish weight) and often have lower reproductive performance in female cattle.

All these factors combine to increase environmental impacts. But when I presented this data to a group of French Masters-level Livestock Engineering students earlier this month, they were (in their own words) shocked. Even among experts and students, there remains a great deal of misunderstandings when it comes to meat production.

Does this mean that every beef producer worldwide should embrace feedlot-finishing and reduce pasture use? Absolutely not. One of the major benefits of cattle compared to swine and poultry is that they digest and use human-inedible forages, such that dairy and grass-fed beef cattle actually produce more human-edible protein in the form of milk and meat than they consume; and feedlot-finished beef cattle have a ratio of human-edible feed intake to human-edible protein output similar to that of swine, despite their greater overall land use. In keeping with the themes discussed in the Swain’s essay, there is no magic bullet—it is essential to fit production systems to the cattle, climate, market, and culture within each region and to improve productivity within each and every system.

So rather than reducing animal protein consumption as we move towards 2050, we might ponder keeping total consumption relatively stable, with a more equitable distribution across the globe? This would allow for a decrease in over-consumption in high-income regions, while providing a greater quantity of milk, meat, and eggs to those who have dire need for adequate animal proteins to maintain health and to promote adequate child growth and development. While the environmental impact of beef production is a key concern, we also have to examine the role of livestock in economic and social sustainability.  For billions of small-scale farmers, cattle provideeconomic viability, improved nutrition, social status and a means to diversify agricultural production as well as tangible benefits in terms of fertilizer, hides and other by-products.

Should we insist that global beef production is abandoned in favour of increased legumes, nuts or lab-created proteins? No. We simply need to give producers worldwide the education, tools and technologies to make the best and most efficient use of their resources. Only then will we have a truly sustainable (environmentally responsible, economically viable and socially acceptable) global meat industry.

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Having Your Beef and Spending It? Don’t Let Moral Indignation Overcome Common Sense.

My Twitter feed has lit up like a firework this week with the news that cows are being murdered to produce the new plastic British £5 notes. Or, to correct the sensationalism with science, the notes contain a trace of tallow in the polymer that’s used to make them. Tallow is a by-product of beef production – it’s effectively the fat on the animal that we don’t want to eat, and has been used for centuries in a myriad of products.

Let’s be very clear here. No cows are being slaughtered (murdered!) to make £5 notes. Cattle are either slaughtered for meat or euthanised due to illness – there are no Bank of England-sanctioned posses stringing up helpless cattle as a license to print money (literally). Fortunately, we are able to use the portion of the animal’s carcass that we can’t (or won’t) eat to manufacture products that would otherwise rely on synthetic chemicals.

Not surprisingly, the majority of the outcry has come from vegetarians and vegans. While I will defend the right of anybody to choose what they eat or wear (note that I am not criticising or denouncing anybody’s religious beliefs here), the current protests seem to be slanted towards choosing to be offended by a minor point, rather than any semblance of logic.

According to a rather nifty (yet accurate) calculation by the guys at Vice, it would take 23 kg of tallow to make all the new £5 notes that will be in circulation by the time the old ones are phased out. The total tallow yield per animal is ~40 kg, so it would take just over half of one animal (23/40 = 0.58) to produce all the tallow for the UK’s total £5 note requirements.

5-noteMany of those who are protesting are vegetarian (as opposed to vegan), thus still consume milk, eggs, honey and other non-meat animal products. Given that 20% or more of the cattle slaughtered in the UK are adult cows and bulls (i.e. they have reached the end of their productive life in the dairy or beef herd rather than being specifically reared for meat), it makes sense to utilise whatever components of their carcasses are suitable for industrial purposes rather than diverting them into landfill or incinerators. If dairy consumption is acceptable to vegetarians, can it really be claimed that bank notes containing a fraction of the spent dairy cow’s carcass as tallow are not?

by-products-from-animal-agAs I have mentioned in previous blog posts, myriad everyday products contain by-products from cattle. Given the current outcry, once can only assume that those who shun the new £5 notes also refuse to travel in cars, buses or on bicycles (as (t(as tyres contain stearic acid, again from tallow); do not drink from bone china mugs; or disavow beer filtered through isinglass. Or, as with so many other issues, is it an opportunity for a small minority to protest and promote their personal dietary choices behind the guise of population-wide offence?

The online petition against the new £5 notes currently has >129,000 signatures. Obviously we all have the right to protest against issues that alarm, anger or offend us, and social media gives those opinions far greater weight than we had in the past. Yet is this really an issue that is more important (as judged by media coverage) than 11-year-old girls being forced into marriage? Or livestock being slaughtered without first being stunned? Or asylum seekers being refused entry? Perhaps in this case, the moral minority need to examine the bigger picture, and consider the issues that really matter.