Another week, another argument with vegans. Reading this blog you could suppose that I spend all my time arguing with the no-meat brigade. Thankfully it’s not that common – it’s just that it always seems to inspire another blog post.
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.
A 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
How many of us are motivated by fear every single day? We’d like to think that we’re lucky enough to live in a society where we don’t feel afraid. In contrast to inhabitants of many war-torn regions we are unlikely to be shot as we drive to work; when we’re sick we have the luxury of modern medical attention (Obamacare not withstanding); and we can buy almost any food we fancy, at any time of year and feel safe in our food choices… or can we?
Food safety is an underlying assumption of dietary choice within the USA. We buy food based on three major factors: taste, price and nutrition. Safety isn’t a defining factor in choosing between the cheese quesadilla, the chef’s salad or the T-bone steak because most of us have rarely experienced significant negative health effects as a consequence of food choice (aside from the annual Thanksgiving food coma).
Yet so many food commentators, self-proclaimed experts (I read Michael Pollan therefore I am…) or bloggers appear to exist for the sole purpose of instilling consumer fear. Take this recent article in Salon – 9 reasons why we should fear eating steak – apparently it’s riddled with antibiotics, full of heavy metals and likely to give us all mad cow disease. I’m not going to turn this blog post into a thesis, so today will simply address one of the issues raised in the article, and examine the others in future posts.
I’m a scientist by training. In my career to date, I’ve learned that the more controversial the topic, the more important it is to base claims on sound data that is peer-reviewed and published in order to gain trust. If I present data that challenges perceptions, the first questions are always “Is this published in a peer-reviewed journal? Who funded it? How do I know it’s correct?” That is not to say that science is the only way to communicate – it’s not. Yet when making claims, it’s important to have science, or at least logical and biologically-feasible arguments, to back them up.
Yet, if we’re asking a question, even if it’s a loaded question that may instill fear or doubt into the reader, apparently scientific foundation is redundant. Could combining coffee and bagels in the same meal cause impotence? Is breast cancer caused by the rise in popularity of household pets sleeping on their owners’ beds? Is your tiredness really the result of too little sleep, or could it be all the chemicals that “big food” uses every single day? Hey, I’m just asking! Not making a claim, not saying that X + Y = Z, just throwing the thoughts out there. But having read them, how many of us now are thinking about our sexual performance, the potential ill-effects of Fluffy the cat, or how we really do seem to be more tired nowadays? (note that these really are examples that I have invented, I know of no scientific foundation for any of them).
Possibly the most damaging line in the Salon article contained no data. No scientific foundation. Just a question:
Could Ractopamine, added to the food supply in 1997 with little public awareness1, be contributing to skyrocketing rates of obesity and hyperactivity in children?
The FDA approved the use of Ractopamine in swine in 1999. It’s added to the diet of finishing pigs, improving feed efficiency and partitioning more feed nutrients into lean meat rather than fat (as demanded by today’s consumer). Effectively it allows us to produce more pork using fewer resources, but it has been linked to behavioral changes in pigs.
Most of us are aware that childhood obesity is a huge issue (pardon the pun). Many of us know children that have been diagnosed as having attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). So does Ractopamine cause these? It’s as likely as suggesting that eating alfalfa hay is going to make us lactate like dairy cows.
Maximum residue limits (MRLs) exist to make sure that there are no human physiological effects of veterinary drugs in meat, milk or eggs from treated animals. Regulatory bodies including CODEX assess potential human effects of a drug residue in animal products by multiplying the average residue level in food by the average intake. For example, if the residue level is 2 micrograms per 100 grams and the average person eats 300 grams of that food each day, the intake would be 6 micrograms. This intake is then compared to the acceptable daily intake (ADI) – the quantity that could be eaten every day for a lifetime without human health risk. This is usually the intake that would have a physiological effect, divided by a safety factor of one hundred. The MRL for Ractopamine in meat is 0.25 parts per million (0.00000025 grams per gram) with an ADI of 1.25 micrograms per kg of bodyweight per day.
If we examine the average pork intake for a 10 year old child in the USA (detailed calculation below) we see that they’d have to eat 13.3x more pork than the daily average to even equal the ADI – remember that’s the intake at which we would expect no physiological effect. For Ractopamine to have a physiological effect, the ADI would have to be increased one-hundred-fold. So the average 10-year old child would have to eat 1,330x more than the average child’s intake of pork, equivalent to 35 lbs of pork per day, every single day (the average adult only eats 48 lbs of pork in a year), for Ractopamine to have a health effect. My little nieces adore pork sausages, but they are pushed to eat two (approx 2 oz) in a day, let alone 35 lbs worth!
Still think that we can link Ractopamine use to obesity and ADHD? We can’t prove a negative, but it’s as tenuous a link as suggesting that we could drown in a single drop of water. So why are public health “experts” like Martha Rosenberg using fear tactics to scare us rather than extolling the positive contributions that high-quality animal proteins make to the human diet? Surely there’s no agenda there….is there?
1Note that all the data relating to this is freely-available on the internet – the “little public awareness” line is simply more fear-mongering.
Details of Ractopamine calculation
Let’s examine an average child’s intake. The average 10-year-old boy in the USA weighs 32 kg (71 lbs) and needs 34 grams of protein each day. In the USA, meat contributes about 40% of protein intake and about 21% of that comes from pork. That means, on average, a 10-year-old boy would eat about 12 g of pork per day (2.9 g protein).
If Taylor eats 12 g of pork each day at the maximum residue limit of Ractopamine (note that this would be unusually high), he’s consuming 12 g x 0.25/1,000,000 = 0.000003 g Ractopamine. His ADI = 1.25 micrograms x 32 kg bodyweight = 40 micrograms, or 0.00004 grams. That’s 13.3x higher than his intake. So a child could eat 13.3x more pork than average, every single day, and not be expected to have any physiological effects. For ingested Ractopamine to have a physiological effect he would have to eat 100 times that amount – 16 kg, or 35 lbs of pork per day. To put that into context, the average adult eats 48 lbs of pork in a year.
Beta agonists have been a hotly debated topic in the media recently, after it was suggested that the use of Zilmax™ might be related to welfare issues in supplemented cattle (see note 1), and Tyson announced that they would not purchase cattle produced using the feed supplement.
As the global population increases and consumer interest in food production sustainability continues to grow, we know that to maintain the continuous improvements in beef sustainability that we’ve seen over the past half-century, we need to ensure that economic viability, environmental responsibility and social acceptability are all in place. All cattle producers obviously have the choice as to what tools and practices are used within their operation, but what are the big picture environmental and economic implications of removing technology use from beef production? Let’s look at two tools – beta agonists and implants (see note 2 below for an explanation of these tools).
In a traditional beef production system using both tools, we’d need 85 million total cattle (see note 3) to maintain the U.S. annual production of 26 billion lbs of beef (see note 4). If we removed beta-agonists from U.S. beef production we’d need an extra 3.5 million total cattle to support beef production; losing access to implants would require an extra 9.9 million cattle; and removing both tools would increase total cattle numbers to 100 million (a 15 million head increase) to maintain the current beef supply (see note 5).
If we need more cattle to maintain beef supply, we use more resources and have a greater carbon footprint.
If we removed beta-agonists, we would need more natural resources to maintain U.S. beef production:
- More water, equivalent to supplying 1.9 million U.S. households annually (195 billion gallons)
- More land, equivalent to an area just bigger than Maryland (14.0 thousand sq-miles)
- More fossil fuels, equivalent to heating 38 thousand U.S. households for a year (3,123 billion BTU)
If we removed implants, we would need more natural resources to maintain U.S. beef production:
- More water, equivalent to supplying 4.5 million U.S. households annually (457 billion gallons)
- More land, equivalent to the area of South Carolina (31.6 thousand sq-miles)
- More fossil fuels, equivalent to heating 45 thousand U.S. households for a year (3,703 billion BTU)
If we removed both beta-agonists and implants, we would need more natural resources to maintain U.S. beef production:
- More water, equivalent to supplying 7.3 million U.S. households annually (741 billion gallons)
- More land, equivalent to the area of Louisiana (51.9 thousand sq-miles)
- More fossil fuels, equivalent to heating 98 thousand U.S. households for a year (8,047 billion BTU)
Beef production costs would also increase if these tools weren’t used. Feed costs would increase by 4.0% without beta-agonists, 8.1% without implants and 11.0% without both tools. These costs ultimately would be passed on through every segment of the beef supply chain (including the retailer or food service segment) and ultimately onto the consumer, making beef a less-affordable protein choice.
In a world where one in seven children currently do not have enough food, keeping food affordable is key to improving their health and well-being. If we use productivity-enhancing tools in one single animal, the extra beef produced is sufficient to supply seven schoolchildren with their beef-containing school meals for an entire year. Is that a social sustainability advantage that we can afford to lose?
Although animal welfare is paramount for all beef production stakeholders from the cow-calf operator to the retailer, it is possible that the consumer perception of productivity-enhancing tools may be harmed by negative comments on media articles relating to Zilmax™. There is no doubt that we will need to use technologies within food production in order to feed the growing global population, yet we need consumer acceptance of both the technologies that we use, and the reasons why we use them, in order to continue to secure market access for U.S. beef.
Consumer acceptance therefore needs to be a key component of our mission to continuously improve beef sustainability. That does not mean giving in to the uninformed whims of those who blithely assert that we could feed the world by returning to the production systems of the 1940’s or ’50s, but does offer an opportunity to reach out, listen to and engage in a dialogue with our friends, family, customers and colleagues about the advantages that technology offers. We have a bright future ahead, but only if we keep the torch alight.
To read more conversation about the use of technologies within beef production (including the real-life experiences of feedyard operators who use these tools) and for facts and figures relating to beef production, please check out the following websites: Feedyard Foodie, Ask a Farmer, Facts About Beef, and the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance.
1) Merck Animal Health have since pledged to conduct a thorough investigation into the issue and have temporarily suspended Zilmax™ sales in the U.S. and Canada.
2) Beta agonists are animal feed ingredients that help cattle maintain their natural muscle-building ability and add about 20-30 pounds of additional lean muscle instead of fat. Implants (sometimes called growth promotants or growth hormones), are placed into the ear and release hormones slowly, helping cattle maintain natural muscle-building ability while also decreasing the amount of fat gained.
3) Includes beef cows, calves, bulls, replacement animals, stockers and feedlot cattle plus calves and cull cows from the dairy system.
4) Although this is a considerable amount of beef, it’s still not enough to fulfill current demand for beef in the USA and overseas.
5) This work was presented as a poster at the Joint Annual Meeting of the American Dairy Science Association and American Society of Animal Science in Indianapolis, IN in July 2013. The poster is available for download here.
Stanford researchers are trying to answer this question by putting people on their hands-and-knees and giving them a virtual reality helmet so that they see themselves as a cow on her way to slaughter, then documenting whether their meat consumption changes over the following week.
I am no psychology scholar, but surely the short-term response to such an ill-conceived experiment would be “heck yeah!” providing that the participant didn’t have a psychopathic-level lack of empathy? As humans, we are well-equipped to understand short- and long-term consequences, we know that the interaction between a cull cow and a captive bolt is unlikely to end happily, and just the atmosphere of a slaughterhouse would be enough to turn many people’s stomachs.
So, is this research addressing a crucial knowledge gap? After all, many of us want to know more about the food that we eat each day – perhaps being able to empathize with a cow would help us make better choices? I suspect that if all those who routinely buy grass-fed dairy or beef “experienced” life as a pasture-fed dairy cow on a rainy February day in upstate New York might change their mind about the relative welfare benefits of housing vs. pasture.
Alas no, this is less about animal-human interactions, and more about reducing the perceived environmental impact of our dietary choices. The head researcher states that: “In this case, empathy toward the animal also coincides with an environmental benefit, which is that [not eating] animals consumes less energy.”
Here’s a thought. Let’s all embrace our inner cows and reduce our meat consumption accordingly – we could make it yet another rationale for adopting Meatless Mondays! We’ll cut the US’s national greenhouse gas emissions by less than one-third of one percent but it’ll make us feel better about ourselves as we tuck into our salad sandwich.
Just one thing though – the wheat harvested to produce that bread caused the death of 25x more animals than are killed to produce a lb of meat. Time to don the virtual reality helmet again and see yourself as a fieldmouse with a combine harvester bearing down on you… I’ll take the captive bolt over the combine harvester blades every time thanks.
*Many thanks to Dr. Jennifer Thomson for bringing this article to my attention.
Over the past few years, certain words have evolved to invoke an involuntary shudder that I cannot suppress. “Sustainability” is first on the list (painfully ironic given that it’s the focus of my entire professional output), as it has so many definitions that it has become almost meaningless. Second place is reserved for “humane” when applied to livestock systems as a marketing term.
Raising animals humanely is an excellent concept; indeed it’s so important that it is already a key focus of the entire beef industry, not simply a niche market of accredited suppliers. National programs such as Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) exist to demonstrate to consumers that cattle are managed correctly. Indeed, recent surveys show that although the majority of large producers are familiar with BQA, even those that aren’t consider the various management practices involved to be important. When I asked a rancher friend how he defined “humanely-raised animals”, he emailed back with:
“To me, humanely-raised animals are provided adequate, balanced nutrition, water, veterinary care and shelter from extreme weather.”
So, we’re all on the same page…right?
Apparently not. In apparent despair at the “self-regulation” performed by the beef industry, Bon Appetit have announced that they will only buy “humanely-raised” meat; sourcing all their loose ground beef and beef patties from suppliers who meet strict animal welfare standards. So who’s defining “humanely-raised” for Bon Appetit? Four independent animal welfare organizations: Animal Welfare Approved (AWA), Food Alliance (FA, my abbreviation), Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC, my abbreviation) and Global Animal Partnership (GAP). Bon Appetit’s CEO Fedele Bauccio is cited as wanting to change conventional and/or large-scale beef production practices, yet representatives from conventional beef production are missing from the Board of Directors of all four organizations. Instead, Bon Appetit has a seat on the board of both FA and HFAC, and both GAP and HFAC have representatives from the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) on their boards*.
Without wanting to elevate the omnipotent fear of circling black helicopters still further, independent is an interesting descriptor for these groups as none of them could be considered agenda-free with regards to conventional beef production. Their management standards** certainly lead to some interesting welfare considerations. For example, producers on stage 5 of GAP’s program for beef must not castrate, disbud or brand their animals. I imagine the presumed welfare advantages of not performing these physical alterations will be of great comfort to those trying to corral intact, horned 1,300 lb bulls if they escape from their pasture onto the road. Feedlots are prohibited by AWA’s standards – indeed, AWA are such a friend of conventional production that they even find time to try to debunk the science regarding corn-fed and grass-fed beef production with “we all know…” claims.
Perhaps most alarming are the various attitudes towards pharmaceutical products. AWA states that homeopathic, herbal or other non-antibiotic alternatives are preferred for the treatment of disease, although with the caveat that should they not prove effective, antibiotics may be used. If effective non-antibiotic treatments existed, given the tight margins in beef production, wouldn’t we already be using them? Furthermore, for how long should we try and treat a dehydrated, diarrhea-coated, coccidiosis-infected calf with fairy dust and rainbows before we use an anticoccidial drug? FA states that an animal cannot be sold under the accreditation program if it has received antibiotics within 100 days of slaughter (farewell accreditation premium!) and GAP prohibits therapeutic use of antibiotics, ionophores, or sulfa drugs for market animals. If disease occurs, the producer is economically penalized either way – by removing the animal from the program or by having an untreated sick animal picked out by the buyer. It appears that philosophical ideals and marketing hyperbole may triumph over management practices that are humane by any standards – providing appropriate, effective care to a sick animal.
If Bon Appetit’s aim is to change (improve?) practices throughout the beef industry, the logical strategy would be to listen to and work directly with the farmers and ranchers who produce the majority of the nation’s beef, by interacting with the check-off programs. By catering to production systems that prohibit management practices that enable us to raise safe, affordable, environmentally-sustainable beef, and discourage effective veterinary treatment of sick animals, “humane raising” is anything but.