How Now, Old Cow? Do “Slaughter-Free” Dairy Farms Come at an Unsustainable Cost?

As consumers, we’re more like sheep than we’d like to admit – that is, if sheep were tempted to buy food based on “free from” marketing. Gluten-free, fat-free, lactose-free, dairy-free and GMO-free labels are already firmly stamped on many of the foods we buy in shops and restaurants, and are associated with an invisible yet potent, virtuous halo. After all, if a slice of cake is gluten-free, it must be positively healthy.

The latest marketing wheeze appears to be “slaughter-free” dairy production – a 30 cow herd in Rutland, described as a bovine spiritual utopia, where calves are not weaned but run with cows as “grazing partners”; male calves (renamed as ”oxen”) are used for draught power rather than reared as beef; and once cows retire from milking, they are literally put out to pasture rather than being culled.

There’s no doubt that this ticks an entire list of ethical boxes – who doesn’t want to imagine that cows live a happy life browsing the buttercups once they’re too old to produce milk? Yet, given the critical need to produce food sustainably (in terms of economic viability, environmental responsibility and social acceptability), it also leads to a number of questions.

While there may well be a niche market of consumers who are prepared to pay £4.50 per litre for slaughter-free milk; in an era when we primarily choose foods based on price, is this endeavour going to achieve long-term economic sustainability?

Food purchases for EU consumers

The environmental impact of dairy production increases with the proportion of non-producing (dry cows, growing heifers or “retired” cows) in the population – keeping retired cows out on pasture would be expected to add a huge quantity of greenhouse gases to the carbon footprint per litre of milk produced. Carbon footprint and resource use per litre is also negatively correlated with milk production – the low yields associated with this type of hand-milking operation would further add to its environmental impact. How do we, as consumers, balance the relative values of animal welfare and planetary health?

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In a system where no cattle are slaughtered, but where cows need to have a calf on a regular basis to produce milk, the herd size will increase exponentially over time. In two, five or ten years time, how will the owners reconcile philosophical arguments against slaughter with the difficulty of supplying enough feed to fulfil the requirements of an ever-expanding herd using a fixed quantity of pasture?

Finally, and most importantly, animal welfare should be the cornerstone of any dairy farm. Euthanasia is upsetting, yet is the only option when animals are too sick or injured to survive. As consumers, we need to take responsibility for the fact that slaughter of both healthy animals (for meat) and sick animals (for humane reasons) is an unavoidable, if unpalatable truth. Just as the recent ban on cattle slaughter for beef in India is going to have negative impacts on food security, economic sustainability and environmental impacts, it’s time that we faced up to the reality of food production and stop thinking that we can have our slaughter-free dairy and eat it!

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We’re Off to Eat at Chipotle, the Chipotle Burrito of Oz

Chipotle 1Another day, another jalapeño in the salsa of Food With Integrity spin from Chipotle. After their recent decision to source grass-fed beef from Australia, citing a lack of supply from US ranchers; Texas Agriculture Commissioner Staples yesterday praised Chipotle for their willingness to discuss the matter. Yet in a world where companies can be made or broken by PR, the likelihood of Chipotle Chairman Steve Ells responding to Staples’ queries regarding their beef choices with “Our mind is made up, we’re not prepared to discuss it further.” was highly unlikely. Instead, their defensive response to Staples simply stated that they were happy to engage in dialogue.

Dialogue is great, but note that it doesn’t actually mean that any decisions will change. After all, I’m happy to dialogue with opponents of GMO crops and vaccines, but have any of those discussions made me change my stance on the safety, efficacy and importance of these technologies? No.

Rather than being applauded for their willingness to debate, Chipotle should instead be questioned about the apparent incompatibility between their Food With Integrity slogan, and their beef choices. As stated in the response to Staples, Chipotle only uses 23% of the beef on a carcass, relying on other buyers to provide a market for the remainder. Yet as we strive to feed an ever-increasing population using fewer resources and with less waste, wouldn’t it be more sustainable for Chipotle aim to use as much of each carcass as possible? After all, authentic Mexican food uses many different cuts, organs and variety meats – shouldn’t Food With Integrity derive more than chips and salsa from its supposed region of origin?

As discussed by California ranchers here, the issue appears not to be related to a scarcity of US beef per se, but rather beef at a price that Chipotle wants to pay. Given their claims of support for US beef producers, paying grass-fed ranchers the premium that they need for their production systems to be economically viable would show more integrity than importing beef from overseas. Ranchers should not be expected to operate at a loss for the privilege of supplying Chipotle with a premium product, of which three-quarters will be discarded.

I recently had a Twitter conversation with a follower who asserted that when assessing sustainability (economic viability, environmental responsibility and social acceptability), we should put “people and planet” ahead of “profit”. I disagree, as I firmly believe that all three have to balance – if any one is prioritized, the business will not achieve long-term sustainability. Yet in this instance, Food With Integrity appears to demote all three (while attempting to maintain Chipotle’s profit margin):

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  • Reduced economic viability for US beef producers;
  • Increased environmental impact of shipping beef from over 8,000 miles away;
  • Reduced social acceptability for Chipotle’s brand within the agriculture industry.

Planning to eat at Chipotle this weekend? I’m willing to bet you’re not a US beef producer.