Putting Ourselves in the Cow’s Hooves?

Angus heiferIf you could walk like a cow, look like a cow, experience what it’s like for a cow to go to slaughter, would you eat less meat*?

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.

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Forget Widgets and Factory Farms – Beef Production is the Circle of Life

The Chipotle short film “Back to the Start” which was featured in a commercial break during the GRAMMY awards on Sunday has been one of the most discussed topics on Facebook and Twitter in the past week.

It is incredibly powerful film. Beautifully animated and featuring Willie Nelson singing Coldplay’s “The Scientist”, the cartoon pigs are pink and symmetrical; the dairy cattle graze green grass (before their incarceration in a barn) and antibiotics come in cute little capsules. It’s even more potent because it represents a classic human theme – a mistake followed by redemption. Walking alone in the cold winter night, the farmer realizes his mistake in intensifying his production system, tears down his barns and lets his animals roam free. Who doesn’t love a classic redemption film?

Many of my agricultural friends have responded to this film with the entirely valid argument that Chipotle lack integrity by producing this film as they only source natural or local-produced meat where available. This marketing strategy therefore condemns a significant proportion of their suppliers who produce conventional meat and dairy. However, the average consumer, who only sees the film because they’re waiting to watch Adele’s latest GRAMMY acceptance speech, don’t read about the integrity conflict, and if they do, may assume it’s a reactive response by the ‘inherently biased’ animal agriculture industry.

The question then becomes, how do we overcome this powerful, yet discriminatory message with the fact that all systems have a valid place in food production? Bill Donald (Immediate Past President of NCBA) attended the World Food Prize in Des Moines this week and told me that the hot topic was the concept of future farms with ‘circular economies’. This means taking the ‘reduce, reuse, recycle‘ concept of a circular economy and incorporating it into agriculture, so that the consumer can see that every stage within the process reduces waste, saves resources and produces both nutritious food and useful by-products. It’s a huge hit with consumers in China who are becoming more concerned about environmental issues.

Ironically, this is nothing new – it’s the basis upon which beef production is founded. We take a human-inedible product such as grass, feed it to animals that provide us with meat, leather, pharmaceuticals and other by-products, use their manure to fertilize and grow the grass, produce more beef… It’s a closed and continuous circle of life that has used fewer resources and emitted less greenhouse gases year on year. Yet that’s a very different image to the intensive, inefficient system portrayed by the Chipotle film.

Agriculture is not and never has been a collection of factories pumping in antibiotics, churning out identical widget animals and releasing toxic green waste into rivers. The challenge ahead of us is to be proactive and to demonstrate beef’s circle of life to consumers – not only the 3 R’s (reduce, reuse, recycle), but the 4 F’s – food, fertilizer and fuel for the future.

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

Does He Who Pays the Piper Really Call the Tune?

I love Forbes.com. Not because they put out a nice article on our previous work a couple of years ago (although it did make a refreshing change) but because of the following quote in a Forbes blog post by Trevor Butterworth:

Yes, the topic of industry funding of scientific research is tantalizing for journalists because it implies corruption, but the reality is that most universities depend on their science departments to bring in research grants from private as well as government sources (35 percent or more is taken by the university as “overhead”). Grants for research on Shakespeare do not, a university’s upkeep, pay for. More to the point, scientific research is good if it is done well, not simply because the researchers doing it are independent.

Picture the scene, just as it has occurred so many times. I’m at the end of a conversation with a journalist, during which the interviewer seems to genuinely “get” that improving productivity and efficiency in livestock systems has beneficial environmental and economic effects, just as it does in any other industry.

Just one last question,” says the interviewer, in a casual tone, “Where do you get your funding?”

Why, the livestock industry.” I answer.

Stunned silence. I can almost hear the crackling and hissing as the interviewer’s hair spontaneously combusts. Surely that simple 2+2=4 math that we just discussed is now biased! Flawed! Bought and paid for! This “impartial” University researcher is nothing but a pawn of big ag! An industry zombie!

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not claiming that my research is flawless. Any mathematical modeling work is only as good as the data that goes into it and our models are evolving all the time. However, I am really tired of the old adage that industry dictates the results of scientific, peer-reviewed research. If anyone has a bright idea as to who will fund applied livestock research aside from industry, send me a link to the call for proposals and if mine gets funded I’ll laud you to the heavens in the acknowledgements section.