Jamie Oliver Should Be Presenting Friday Night Farming Facts – Not Feasting On Foodie Fiction

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Commercial dairy cows in Cumbria – should they be “retired” before slaughter?

Good grief. Just when I think I’ve heard it all, another food pundit comes up with an idea so daft that you could bottle it and sell it as vegan, gluten-free, dairy-free, humanely-reared organic water. The latest brainwave from Jamie Oliver is to “retire” old dairy cows onto pasture, where they can graze for four years before producing highly-marbled beef. Contrary to most of the breed-related marketing, Holstein beef is pretty good, so it’s a mouth-watering concept until we take a step back and think about the actual sustainability impacts.

Producing beef from cull dairy cattle? Excellent idea. I once had a heated argument with an activist protestor outside the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC who seemed surprised that, when he told me that most cull dairy cows end up as burgers, I didn’t renounce my heathen ways and immediately seek out the nearest tofu burrito. It makes perfect sense – where would be the logic in discarding an entire cow’s worth (~301 kg) of nutritious, delicious beef simply to bury, burn or use the meat for non-food purposes? Indeed, ~50% of the UK (and ~24% of the US) beef supply comes either from cull dairy cows or dairy calves reared for beef.

Is there an argument for giving extra feed to cows that are going to be culled so that they get a little fatter and produce tastier beef? Yes indeed, adding value to cull dairy cows is a great idea, especially when the beef price is high. But here’s the rub. The average dairy cow in the U.K. is culled at 6.4 years of age. By that time she should have reached her mature weight, which means that the majority of extra weight she puts on in “retirement” is fat. Although we love the streaks of intramuscular fat that we see in a steak (marbling) and enjoy the depth of flavour that gives to the meat, the vast majority of fat on a carcass isn’t particularly edible. So we’re feeding a cow for four years of retirement in order to discard (or rather render into tallow – perhaps to make some £5 notes?) a significant proportion of the weight that she gains.

A cow will eat 2-2.5% of her body weight in dry matter every single day. Four years of feeding a 700 kg cow = 4 x 365 days x 700 kg x 0.025 = 25,550 kg of feed dry matter, or 106,458 kg of fresh grass given that it’s only ~24% dry matter. Plus 4-years worth of drinking water, manure and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. A hefty environmental impact compared, for example, to rearing two beef steers on the same amount of pasture over a 4-year period, in addition to culling the dairy cow when she leaves the herd (sans retirement). That scenario would provide 200% more beef (~900 kg total, even allowing for the lighter weight for grass-finished vs. grain-fed steers) from the same amount of pasture and with a smaller total quantity of manure and GHG emissions because the growing animals are lighter in weight throughout, therefore excrete and emit less*.

I can’t decide whether the increasingly asinine proposals for sustainable food production propounded by Jamie Oliver’s “Friday Night Feast” programme, which recently left the casual viewer with the impression that welfare of housed dairy cows is equivalent to that of battery hens are serious, or simply a way to court fame through controversy. However, the number of tweets lauding the programme’s food philosophy is alarming given the amount of time devoted to non-sustainable ideology. Time for TV programmers to redress the balance with some Friday Night Facts vs. Fiction?

*Note that I have not accounted for the beef cows needed to produce the steers, nor for the cost of rearing the dairy cow or the heifer needed to replace her in dairy herd. This is not a full system assessment, but simply about the best use of a unit of pasture area – adding fat to a mature cow (less efficient) or adding muscle and fat to growing animals (more efficient)

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Does Nature Really “Do Its Thing” on Organic Farms?

Fridge picI am lucky. My fridge is full of food: mostly produced in the UK or Europe; all nutritious, safe and affordable; and almost all produced on conventional farms, with a small amount of organic food (in my case, chocolate). Given that you’re reading this, I’ll hazard a guess that you are lucky too. 795 million other people can’t say the same thing – and feeding all the people on a planet where 1 in 9 don’t currently have enough food is, in my view, our biggest challenge.

The fact that we face this challenge makes me really irritated when celebrity chefs who could make a huge difference, bow instead to popular rhetoric. In his latest blog post, mockney chef and food pundit Jamie Oliver proclaims that “…organic food is natural food, where nature has been allowed to do its thing, and I’m sure most of us will agree that putting natural ingredients into our bodies is only going to be a positive thing.”

If we ignore the nonsensical claim that natural ingredients produce positive results (Really? Let’s examine puffer fish, solanaceae poisoning, dangerous fungi, absinthe, the many consequences of obesity…), let’s simply look at his claim that organic food is natural.  Except, well, it’s not. Agriculture first developed ~12,000 years ago, and ever since then farmers have been doing their best to breed crops and animals that are best suited to their farming system, whether it’s organic or conventional. Want dairy cows that produce high-quality milk from grazing pasture; leaner pork chops; or strawberries that can survive supermarket handling? You’ve got it. All achieved through traditional breeding techniques (otherwise known as “nature doing its thing”): noting that plant or animal A has desirable characteristics and breeding it with plant or animal B to (hopefully) produce better offspring. No scary chemicals, scientists with syringes or genes in test-tubes. Every farm in the world is founded on “nature doing its thing” – not just the organic farms. We can argue whether GMO crops are natural (breeding techniques are simply more refined and specific) or not (scientists playing god…) but that argument becomes redundant in the EU and many other regions, where GMO crops are not approved.

Can organic producers use pesticides? Yes, if they’re compounds approved for organic production (e.g. highly-toxic copper-based fungicides). Can they use antibiotics and wormers? Again yes, if a proven disease problem exists (note that rules differ slightly between the UK and USA). Are organic farmers just merrily sitting back and letting their crops cross-pollinate and reseed, and their bulls run around happily “doing their thing” to whichever cow they come across? No. It’s a beautiful bucolic image to suggest that organic farmers are happily working with Mother Nature whereas conventional farmers have an evil scientist sitting on one shoulder and a big agribusiness corporation on the other, but its simply not true.

According to Mr Oliver, “…the simple fact is that often we don’t actually have to interfere with nature.” The idea of a world where we could feed over 7 billion people without having to actually invest any research dollars into improving food production is lovely, but it’s smoke and mirrors. At the most basic level, what happens if we don’t “interfere” by controlling weeds (whether by chemicals, mechanical tillage or human labour)? Crop yields are reduced, food production goes down and we feed and clothe fewer people. What happens if a cow has problems giving birth? In nature, she dies. On a farm (whether organic or conventional) both she and the calf are saved, providing milk and meat for us to eat. According to the World Organisation for Animal Health, 20% of global animal protein losses are due to diseases for which treatments already exist – we simply need to make them available to every farmer worldwide. Just think how many more people we could feed if we interfered with nature in that way?

Huge amounts of research monies are invested each year to find ways to improve food production on both organic and conventional farms worldwide. Some are highly technical, others are simple, but all are contributing to the goal of feeding the world. Unfortunately, when food pundits jump on the “let’s promote system X” bandwagon as Mr Oliver has done with organic production, using persuasive but false arguments, we lose traction in fulfilling the real goal. Rather than arguing about which foods we can/should be buying, we need to accept that there’s a place for all systems; examine the ways in which all systems can improve soil fertility, animal health and environmental impacts; and make faster progress towards feeding the world while still enjoying our food choices.