Livestock provide food, income, education, cultural status…and hope.

African farmland

I took the photo above while travelling in South Africa last year. Whenever I’m faced with the inevitable “But we can just grow corn and soy to feed humans!” anti-livestock rhetoric (as seen in The Guardian this past week), I’m reminded of this picture. It shows tiny rural homes on the edge of a major road, upon which the majority of people walk to work, dodging the traffic as they go. The land is rocky, steep and lacks nutrients, the soil only capable of producing fibrous grasses that can’t be eaten by people. Yet, another few hundred yards down the road, we came across a goat.

African goat (straighter)

For many people in low-income countries, a goat is a lifeline. A source of food that improves the nutrition and health of young children, pregnant women and elderly people. A source of income to allow children to attend school and have a future career, rather than working to support their family before the age of 10. A source of security that allows for improved mental health, female independence and cultural status. Last week I spoke at a Cheltenham Science Festival panel entitled “Should we all become vegan?” It’s easy to suggest that many of us in the developed world could eat less meat. However, the myriad benefits provided by livestock to people in low-income regions should not be foregone on the grounds of foodie ideology bestowed by those of us living in developed regions.

I’m pleased to see Prue Leith, Jenny Eclair, Bob Geldof, Jonathan Dimbleby and others lending their support to Send a Cow’s #UnheardVoices campaign. Let’s recognise livestock’s role in giving hope to those who need it most – and make those voices heard.

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Where’s the Beef? Not in Danish Diets.

Culvers burgerFor those of us in the UK, mentioning Danish livestock production almost inevitably leads to thoughts of Danish bacon (be still my beating heart) – a considerable proportion of their 90% of domestic pork products that are exported. However, any beef lovers in Denmark may be in trouble, as recent news articles suggest that red meat (beginning with beef) will soon be taxed in order to cut consumption and meet greenhouse gas targets.

Despite the number of voices clamouring for reduced meat consumption, it seems clear that the average consumer isn’t going to forgo meat and dairy simply because a new study is publicised in the lay press. I’m firmly of the opinion that the only way that meat consumption will decline is if it becomes too expensive to include in the weekly shopping basket. Indeed, although meat consumption per capita has declined in the USA over the past 10 years, demand (as measured by the price that the consumer is willing to pay) has increased over recent years.

So will taxing meat lead to a reduction in consumption? For those who routinely order a 16 oz (454 g) steak in a restaurant or think nothing of tucking into a chateaubriand, probably not. High end cuts of beef are associated with celebrations and luxury dining, and going out for a broccoli pasta bake just doesn’t have that same ring to it.

However, we live in a world where 793 million people (10.7 % of the global population) are undernourished – and that isn’t simply confined to people in developing regions. That means that almost 1 in 9 people do not have enough food. To low-income consumers, food availability isn’t simply a function of what is on the shelf in the supermarket, it’s directly related to economic cost and convenience. If red meat is taxed, it will still be eaten, but there will be a disproportionate shift towards consumers with a greater income and away from those who are in most need of affordable high-quality protein, including growing children.

Do beef alternatives exist? Absolutely – protein can be supplied from other meats, fish or vegetable-based foods. Yet here’s where the convenience aspect comes in – most of us can probably think of a quick and easy recipe involving beef, but how many can you think of involving tofu or lentils? That’s not to say that we shouldn’t expand our cooking repertoires, but when time is at a premium, quick easy recipes that will feed a family win every time.

If beef becomes unaffordable, it will have to be replaced by another protein – but this substitution does not occur at zero cost. Can tofu or lentils be produced on low-quality pastureland where we can’t grow other human food or fibre crops? Do pork or poultry make such efficient use of forages, pastures and by-products from human food and fibre production that, far from competing with humans for food, the animals produce more human-edible energy or protein than they consume? No. The only livestock that do this are those pesky greenhouse gas-belching bovines.

Greenhouse gases are important, but they are not the only factor that we should consider when advocating for sustainable dietary choices. In a world where millions of people are food-insecure, removing a protein choice from the table of those with low incomes simply adds to the problem of how to feed the world – sustainably.

Seeing the Bigger Picture – Why One-Dimensional Panaceas Do Not Solve Sustainability Issues

This week, another paper has been released claiming that we should change to a vegetarian diet in order to “…cut global food emissions by two thirds and save millions of lives“. As ever, media coverage of the paper by Springmann et al. ignored salient points regarding the importance of increasing fruit and vegetable consumption and reducing energy intake in reducing deaths from heart disease, cancer and diabetes; and simply focused on the claim that reducing meat intake would improve health and cut greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). The simple message to the consumer? Go vegetarian.

So are GHGs the only important environmental metric? Absolutely not. What about land use? Air quality? Fossil fuel consumption? Water use? Biodiversity? The myopic focus on GHGs as the only arbiter of environmental sustainability completely ignores these factors, yet the results of the current study (and similar papers) are promoted worldwide as a panacea to solve all environmental issues.

Can you imagine a world where we only look at one consequence of our actions? Where our only consideration when buying a car is the colour of its paint? Or the criteria for accepting a new job is whether they have good coffee in the canteen? Surely a ridiculous idea – all of our actions have direct and indirect consequences, some predictable, some entirely unforeseen, and we weigh up these outcomes with every decision that we make – including dietary choice. If we examine a number of the assumptions and recommendations within the current paper, it’s apparent that the negative consequences of the one-dimensional GHG focus may outweigh any benefits gained.

Although a regional approach was used to assess population health impacts, greenhouse gas emissions in the paper were based on reference values for various foods, with the inherent presupposition that all livestock production systems are equally productive and efficient. This is a fatally-flawed assumption. If we take beef as the example: in the USA, 90% of cows have a calf every year, cows first calve at 24 months of age and growing cattle are slaughtered at 15 months of age. By contrast, in Brazil, 60% of cows have a calf every year, cows first calve at 36 months of age and growing cattle are slaughtered at 42 months of age. Both systems are suited to the resources and market available, but have wildly different efficiencies. Consumption of a US-produced steak (16.7 kg CO2/kg) will therefore have a far lesser contribution to the average person’s carbon footprint than a Brazilian steak (62.0 kg CO2/kg).

All food have an environmental impact

Replacing milk, meat and eggs with plant-based foods (legumes, nuts, etc) is entirely possible, yet it does not occur at zero environmental cost. Every single food that we consume has an environmental impact, and although the greenhouse gas emissions associated with a unit of lettuce or beans may be less than pork or beef (asparagus is a notable exception), the land required to produce equivalent energy or protein from plants is significant.

We cannot simply remove cattle from the low-quality range and pastureland that they occupy in the majority of grazing regions and assume that we can plant brussels sprouts or soybeans instead. Only a small percentage of pastureland is productive enough to produce human food or fibre crops (8.0% in the USA and 10.8% in the UK). The fact that pastureland would have to be converted to cropland, releasing sequestered carbon dioxide to the atmosphere and increasing the use of fertilisers and irrigation water, was not accounted for in Springmann et al.’s study. Indeed, from where would we source fertilisers for crop production if we significantly cut meat consumption and thus livestock populations? Is an increased reliance on dwindling reserves of inorganic N, P and K really a sustainable solution?

Finally, and most importantly, cattle do not simply exist as a source of milk or meat. In many developing countries, immense cultural significance is placed upon livestock ownership and ruminant animals play a vital role in supplying draught power, capital assets and agricultural enterprise diversification. Should a single mitigating factor for reducing GHG emissions overcome the moral obligation to support and assist subsistence farmers in developing regions? It’s vital that we take a holistic view that encompasses environmental responsibility, economic viability and social acceptability in order to improve food system sustainability rather than simply focusing on one aspect of the problem. Rather than taking a whole-system approach to environmental and human health, the study by Springmann et al. is akin to amputating both legs in order to try and cure arthritis. Short-term pain may be reduced, but long-term suffering is inevitable.

The Paradox of the Roasted Vegetable Sandwich – Do We Eat What We Preach?

Large Veggie BurgerSo here’s the question: who has been out to eat with friends, family or work colleagues, ordered what’s perceived as a virtuous (low-fat, high-fibre, gluten-free or vegetarian) meal in a restaurant, and then grabbed a Snickers bar on the way home? Or, when completing a survey, stated that you are highly concerned about animal welfare or environmental issues, then gone to the grocery store and chosen food simply based on price, taste and convenience?

I’d suggest that this is a situation common to most of us – the behaviours and image that we present to the world (including our carefully-posed selfies) do not always reveal our real personality. Which brings me to the paradox of the roasted vegetable sandwich.

Yesterday, a friend complained that as a consequence of being last in the lunch line at a conference, all that was left was a “soggy veggie sandwich.” Now I attend a lot of meetings and conferences, many of which serve sandwiches, and despite being a voracious meat eater, I’ll almost always choose the vegetarian sandwich. I love egg, hummus or roasted vegetables and really hate slimy catering mayonnaise tainting the deliciousness of roast beef or ham. Luckily for me, in my experience any sandwiches left after the initial rush are inevitably vegetarian or vegan.

Obviously my view may be biased in that I attend far more meetings with a farmer or agricultural industry audience than those attended by, say, Hollywood actors or animal rights activists. But given the number of untouched meatless sandwiches, are caterers overcatering for vegetarians and vegans in an attempt to be sensitive to diverse dietary requirements; or do survey results indicating that people intend to cut meat consumption vastly overestimate the extent to which this is actually happening? Do many people who claim to be vegetarian or vegan actually eat mostly plant-based foods (Hello Beyoncé!) with the occasional hamburger?

We are inundated with messages suggesting that meat is a socially-irresponsible choice. That Meatless Mondays are wildly popular and an increasing number of people are turning to vegetarian and vegan diets to improve their health, animal welfare or environmental impact. Indeed, one UK study of the sandwiches available in grocery stores and fast food restaurants showed that less than 3% were plant-based, and suggested that this was a significant problem for the (alleged) 35% of people who are willing to cut their meat consumption. Yet if over a third of the population were really determined to cut meat intake, wouldn’t that demand have filtered back to sandwich retailers?

Despite stated consumer interest in buying earth-friendly or high-welfare products, interest seldom translates into real-life buying behaviours. Those opposed to livestock farming often state that we could feed the world (political, social and infrastructural barriers not withstanding) if we all adopted a vegetarian or vegan diet, but it seems that we simply don’t want to.

CIWF TweetCould we give up growing crops for animal feed and feed more people with tofu and Quorn? Absolutely. Yet there’s a huge gap between philosophical ideology and real world behaviour. Rather than bewailing the allegation that one-third of global grain crops are fed to livestock (ignoring the fact that a high proportion consists of human-inedible byproducts from cereal crops grown for human use), perhaps it’s time to celebrate the fact that two-thirds of global cereals are used to feed people, without being made to feel guilty for enjoying a roast beef sandwich (no mayo please).

Vegetarians May Preach – But We’re Not All Members of the Choir

Less meatThe  suggestion that we should eat less meat in order to save the planet pops up with monotonous regularity in my twitter feed. Interestingly, those who make this claim are almost always vegetarian, vegan or profess to eat very little meat. This is rather like me asserting that we could mitigate climate change and save resources by eating fewer bananas and curbing our windsurfing habits. I loathe bananas, and if you ever see me windsurfing you’d better be sure that there’s a nearby hospital bed and neck brace with my name on it. As you can imagine, giving up either activity would have little impact on my life.

This is why I find it interesting and rather facile that those who do not eat meat proclaim fleshy abstinence as the way forwards. It’s easy to preach a solution that has no impact on your life – far harder to make a dietary or lifestyle change that actually impacts you.

The “eat less meat” movement would have far more credibility if it was promoted by a hunting, fishing, grilling, hamburger-lover who publicly declared his/her love for meat in all it’s many forms, and bemoaned the fact that they felt they should forgo the steak in favor of the tofu stir-fry. Yet this doesn’t happen. Why? Because the vast majority of us simply don’t feel that an intangible threat (we can’t see or feel climate change, or conceptualize the quantity of oil reserves remaining) is sufficient to make us give up our carnitas burrito. In reality, meat eating is only likely to decline if it becomes too expensive or subject to regulatory sanctions (e.g. rationing similar to that in Britain during WWII). The influx of papers suggesting that we should reduce consumption therefore fall on deaf ears.

So let’s face the facts. Neither the national or global population is likely to reduce meat consumption in the near future, and the rising income per capita in India and China will increase demand for meat still further. Instead of making recommendations based on notional utopias, let’s focus on areas where we can really improve.

Amazing gains in productivity have allowed the beef, dairy, pork and egg industry to considerably reduce resource use and greenhouse gas emissions over the last century. With a culture of continuous improvement and access to technologies that improve productivity, we can feed the future population using even fewer resources.

Let’s make better use of the multifarious by-products from the human food and fiber industry. Ruminants are blessed with the ability to digest fibers and plant materials that we either can’t or won’t eat – using by-product feeds to replace corn and soy refutes the claim that livestock compete with humans for food.

Finally, take a look at your own plate. Globally, 33% of food is wasted. Just think of the reductions in resource use we could achieve (and people we could feed) if all the crops planted, fruit picked, and milk, meat and eggs produced were consumed, rather than just 2/3 of them.

We evoke change by leading by example – I’m off to enjoy a steak, conventionally-raised using 12% less water, 19% less feed and 33% less land than its equivalent in 1977. You’d better believe that if there’s any left, it’s going in a sandwich tomorrow. As my Grandma used to say: Waste not, want not.