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.

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Beef is Killing the Planet…and Elvis is Riding a Rainbow-Belching Unicorn

BurgerMy Twitter feed just exploded. Yet another study has been released claiming that if we all just gave up beef, the planet would be saved, Elvis would come back from the dead, and rainbow-belching unicorns would graze the Northern Great Plains. I may have exaggerated a little with the latter two claims, but the extent of media coverage related to the paper “Land, irrigation water, greenhouse gas and reactive nitrogen burdens of meat, eggs and dairy production in the United States” seems to suggest that the results within are as exciting as seeing Elvis riding one of those unicorns…but they’re also about as believable.

Much as we’d all like to stick our fingers in our ears and sing “La la la la” whenever anybody mentions greenhouse gases or water footprints, we cannot deny that beef has an environmental impact. Yet, here’s the rub – so does every single thing we eat. From apples to zucchini; Twinkies to organically-grown, hand-harvested, polished-by-mountain-virgins, heirloom tomatoes. Some impacts are positive (providing habitat for wildlife and birds), some are negative (nutrient run-off into water courses), but all foods use natural resources (land, water, fossil fuels) and are associated with greenhouse gas emissions.

So is this simply another attack on the beef industry from vegetarian authors out to promote an agenda? Possibly. The inclusion of multiple phrases suggesting that we should replace beef with other protein sources seems to indicate so. But regardless of whether it’s part of the big bad vegan agenda, or simply a paper from a scientist whose dietary choices happen to complement the topic of his scientific papers, the fact remains that it’s been published in a world-renowned journal and should therefore be seen as an example of good science.

Or should it?

I’m the first to rely on scientific, peer-reviewed papers as being the holy grail for facts and figures, but there’s a distressing trend for authors to excuse poor scientific analysis by stating that high-quality data was not available. It’s simple. Just like a recipe – if you put junk in, you get junk out. So if one of the major data inputs to your analysis (in this case, feed efficiency data) is less than reliable, the accuracy of your conclusions is….? Yep. As useful as a chocolate teapot.

Feed efficiency is the cut-and-paste, go-to argument for activist groups opposed to animal agriculture. Claims that beef uses 10, 20 or even 30 lbs of corn per lb of beef are commonly used (as in this paper) as justification for abolishing beef production. However, in this case, the argument falls flat, because, rather than using modern feed efficiency data, the authors employed USDA data, which has not been updated for 30 years. That’s rather like assuming a computer from the early 1980’s (I used to play “donkey” on such a black/green screened behemoth) is as efficient as a modern laptop, or that the original brick-sized “car phones” were equal to modern iPhones. If we look back at the environmental impact of the beef industry 30 years ago, we see that modern beef production uses 30% fewer animals, 19% less feed, 12% less water, 33% less land and has a 16% lower carbon footprint. Given the archaic data used, is it really surprising that this latest paper overestimates beef’s environmental impact?

The authors also seem to assume that feed comes in a big sack labeled “Animal Feed” (from the Roadrunner cartoon ACME Feed Co?) and is fed interchangeably to pigs, poultry and cattle. As I’ve blogged about before, we can’t simply examine feed efficiency as a basis for whether we should choose the steak or the chicken breast for dinner, we also have to examine the potential competition between animal feed and human food. When we look at the proportion of ingredients in livestock diets that are human-edible (e.g. corn, soy) vs. inedible (e.g. grass, other forages, by-products), milk and beef are better choices than pork and poultry due to the heavy reliance of monogastric animals on concentrate feeds. By-product feeds are also completely excluded from the analysis, which makes me wonder precisely what the authors think happens to the millions of tons of cottonseed meal, citrus pulp, distillers grains, sunflower seed meal etc, produced in the USA each year.

Finally, the authors claim that cattle use 28x more land than pigs or poultry – although they acknowledge that cattle are raised on pasture, it’s not included in the calculations, which assume that cattle are fed feedlot diets for the majority of their life. This is a gross error and underlines their complete ignorance of the U.S. beef industry. Without cow-calf operations, the U.S. beef industry simply would not exist – efficient use of rangeland upon which we cannot grow human food crops both provides the foundation for the beef industry and creates and maintains habitats for many rare and endangered species of plants, insects, birds and animals.

Want to know how to reduce the environmental impact of food production overnight? It’s very simple – and it doesn’t involve giving up beef. Globally we waste 30% of food – and in developed countries that’s almost always avoidable at the consumer level. Buy the right amount, don’t leave it in the fridge to go moldy, and learn to use odd bits of food in soups or stews. Our parents and grandparents did it out of necessity – we can do it to reduce resource use and greenhouse gas emissions; and take the wind out of the sails of bean-eating anti-beef activists.

Are We Producing More Food…and Feeding Fewer People?

Waste foodI’m ashamed to admit that the picture to the left is of the lunch table that a media colleague and I left last week – after spending an hour lamenting the fact that in the US, 40% of food is wasted (30% globally). Admittedly, that waste isn’t all down to restaurant portions (in our defense, we both had to fly home, so doggie bags weren’t an option) – however, according to FAO data here, consumer waste accounts for anything between 5% (in Subsaharan Africa) and 39% of total waste (North America and Oceania). The difference (anything from 61% – 95%) is made up from losses between production and retailing.

Losses from production to retail comprise by far the biggest contribution to waste in the developing world, which makes absolute sense – if food is your biggest household cost and hunger is a constant and real danger, the concept of wasting purchased food would seem ridiculous. In the developing world, a myriad of factors play into food insecurity including low agricultural yields, lack of producer education (particularly for women, who are often the main agricultural workers), political instability and military conflict (Pinstrup-Andersen 2000). However, possibly the biggest threat to food security is a lack of sanitary and transport infrastructure (Godfray et al. 2010) – building a milk pasteurization plant is a great opportunity to improve shelf-life, but can only be effective if producers have the facilities to refrigerate and transport milk. Improving tomato yields can reap economic dividends, but if they are transported to markets packed into plastic bags on the back of a bicycle, the wastage is huge. I’m not going to pretend I have the solutions to global food wastage, but what can we do in our own households?

Just as our grandparents learned during WWI and WWII – when food is scarce, you make the most of every single drop of milk or ounce of grain. Yet in the modern developed world, we can afford to waste almost 2/5 of our household food through not understanding expiration dates (cheese does not spontaneously combust into a listeria-ridden ooze at midnight on the day of the expiration date); throwing away the “useless” parts of food waste (radish leaves and wilted celery are actually really good in soup); or simply buying more than we need. In a recent study of greenhouse gases associated with US dairy production, the carbon footprint of a gallon of milk was increased by almost 20% simply because of the amount of “old” milk that consumers poured down the sink each day.

To go back to the picture above, it’s tempting to blame the restaurants – portion sizes tend to be huge, so in this carb-conscious world, it’s not “our fault” if we forgo the last 500 calories by leaving half a plateful of potato chips – they should have just served a smaller portion in the first place, right? Well, maybe. If we’re feeding dairy cows or beef cattle and seeing more than 5-10% feed unconsumed, we’ll reduce the amount fed. I’m sure that exactly the same practice would pay dividends in the restaurant world, and I’d be willing to bet that they could charge exactly the same price.

I spend most of my time myth-busting, showing that the modern beef and dairy industries are far more efficient than the farming systems of 40 or 70 years ago and that we now produce more food using far fewer resources. However, are we really feeding more people if we’re wasting 40% of our food? To suggest that we return to a practice from the WWII era feels almost heretical, but here’s an idea – rather than defining “sustainable” systems as those producing artisan cheeses from heirloom breeds cared for by hemp-wearing liberal arts graduates, why doesn’t every restaurant (or suburb) have a small herd of backyard pigs? Collect the waste food, boil it for 30 min to avoid disease issues, feed to pigs, produce bacon. What could be better? Admittedly, my mother country has banned this practice (I’m beginning to wonder if anything will be permissible in Europe soon), but let’s start the pigswill revolution! Doesn’t “You don’t have to eat that last potato, it’ll make some really good bacon and help us feed those 1 in 7 kids in our local area who don’t have enough food” sound more realistic than “Think of all the starving orphans who would enjoy your PB&J sandwich” (to which the continual smart-a** answer was “I’ll just mail to to them). Let’s do what the livestock industry does best – recycle waste resources to make safe, affordable, nutritous meat!

Feed = Food? Do livestock really compete with humans for food?

Can we feed up to 10 billion people in 2100 by improving crop yields, reducing deforestation, and reducing meat and dairy consumption? These solutions are among those suggested by Jonathan Foley at the University of Minnesota’s Institute of the Environment to enable the increase in food production required by the future global population. These are logical suggestions, yet the proposal that meat and dairy consumption should be reduced is likely to be the most-debated, particularly as livestock industry stakeholders may regard this as yet another attack on animal agriculture.

The futility of the “Meatless Mondays” campaign has been discussed ad infinitum, yet in contrast to the EWG’s recent report, Foley does not attempt to promote a vegetarian or vegan ideology or to suggest that climate change could be reversed if only we all ate humanely-certified or organic meat. Instead, the report concludes that resources could be saved if we shifted to meat consumption towards pork and poultry production as:

…it takes 30 kilos [66 lb] of grain to produce one kilo [2.2lb] of boneless beef… We’re better off producing grass-fed beef or more chicken and pork, which requires far less grain feed

Based on those data, Foley’s conclusion is entirely logical. However, as Carl Sagan said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” – and here the evidence is lacking. A recent review of feed efficiency by Wilkinson reports that monogastric animals require 4.0 kg (swine) or 2.3 kg (poultry) of feed per kg of gain. Monogastrics are indeed considerably more efficient than their ruminant counterparts as beef animals require 8.8 kg feed per kg gain – considerably more than swine or poultry, but far less than Foley’s estimate.

It would be convenient to argue that the errors in Foley’s feed efficiency data (not to mention religious limitations on pork consumption) negate the report’s conclusions. But isn’t it logical to argue that we should eat meat produced in systems that use fewer resources to produce animal protein? Personally, I spend more than half my time traveling to present precisely that message to the animal industry and to encourage livestock producers to improve efficiency. I absolutely believe that we need to improve productivity and efficiency in order to feed the growing population. However, traditional feed efficiency data have a major flaw – it’s assumed that all animal feed could otherwise be used to feed humans.

Wilkinson suggests that the traditional concept of feed efficiency be re-examined to reflect the quantity of human-edible crop inputs that are used to produce a unit of energy or protein from animal products. For example, humans cannot digest pasture, only 20% of the nutritional value of oilseed meals can be utilized for human food and yet 80% of nutrients within cereals, pulses and soybean meal are human-edible. By partitioning out the human-edible component of animal feed, Wilkinson demonstrates that the human-edible energy feed efficiency ratios for pork and cereal beef are similar (Figure 1*) and that dairy production actually produces twice the amount of human-edible energy than it uses (input:output ratio of 0.5). On a protein basis, cereal beef has a higher human-edible protein feed efficiency ratio (3.0) than pork (2.6), but suckler beef systems where cattle are grazed on pasture again produce more human-edible protein than they consume (input:output ratio of 0.9, Figure 2*). Not only are these revised feed efficiency estimates considerably lower than those quoted by Foley, but they underline the importance of herbivorous grazing animals in utilizing human-inedible forage to produce animal protein.

  

Numbers have power – it’s always tempting to base a suggestion around a single data point that “proves” the argument. Feed efficiency is a useful metric, but as we face an ever-increasing challenge in balancing food demand, resource availability and consumer expectations, it’s critical that we examine the bigger picture. The ruminant animal has a major evolutionary advantage in its ability to digest forages – we may be better acquainted with the human dietary advantages of probiotic bacteria than our ancestors, but until we are equipped with human rumens (humens?) we cannot hope to effectively make use of all crop resources.

*The importance of acknowledging the human-edible component of feed efficiency was part of my presentation at the Alltech Ruminant Solutions Seminar in Ireland this week – to go to a PDF copy of my presentation please click here.