The recent report by the advisory committee to the USDA dietary guidelines has certainly caused a media stir in the past week or so. There’s a lot of nutritional common sense in the report – eat more fruit, veg, and dairy, reduce carbs and sweetened drinks/snacks, and moderate alcohol intake. Yet there’s a kicker – from both a health and a sustainability perspective, Americans should apparently be guided to consume less animal-based foods.
I love conversations that leave my brain firing on a million cylinders and open my mind to new ideas. I was lucky enough to have three such discussions this past week, one at an organic research farm; another at a 300-cow Jersey operation; and the most recent with three faculty at the University of Oxford with regards to the interactions between animal welfare and livestock sustainability.
Animal welfare is a touchy subject – many people appear to define excellent welfare as only including a narrow range of production systems or practices; and although everybody has their own image of what a “happy” animal looks like, it’s not always easy to identify or describe those systems without anthropomorphizing. Indeed, I’ve become increasingly aware that promoting improved productivity and efficiency as a means to improve sustainability can be misconstrued as encouraging the agricultural equivalent of a owning a Victorian dancing bear or cymbal-playing monkey – a “force the animals to perform, regardless of the cost in terms of animal welfare”-type philosophy (see picture below).
Yet such suggestions entirely miss the point, as any system that is consistently detrimental to animal welfare is neither productive nor efficient on a long-term basis. We humans don’t perform well if we’re chronically underfed, stressed, sick, or housed in unfavorable environmental conditions – and neither do livestock.
Personally, my agricultural utopia would be one where all livestock operations, regardless of size, location or production system, exhibit both high productivity and excellent animal welfare. Admittedly, this leads to the difficult task of not only defining excellent welfare, but also the metrics and benchmarks by which it can be assessed within each operation. However, there is one overarching metric that can be measured, and improved on any farm or ranch – animal health. By definition, an animal that is chronically sick, lame or in pain cannot be said to be a example of good welfare.
As consumers, we want to know that the animals that provide us with milk, meat and eggs are healthy. Indeed, I imagine that even the most militant vegan opposed to the consumption of animal products would agree that animal health should be paramount. As producers, making sure that livestock are healthy is as ethically important as treating workers well. Plus, healthy animals are easier to manage: they grow faster; they have fewer incidents of illness or death; and they produce more milk, meat or eggs. These improvements in efficiency and productivity also mean that we need less feed, less land, less water and have a lower carbon footprint per unit of food produced.
Let’s consider lameness in dairy cattle. A major animal welfare issue, it costs between $120 and $216 per incidence (UK costs below)* and is a major cause of cows being culled at or even before the end of their second lactation. Similarly, mastitis has a huge impact on both cow longevity and productivity, and costs the US dairy industry $1.7-2.0 billion per year. If just these two health issues were addressed, how many associated dairy cattle health and welfare issues would be improved; how much could dairy farm profitability be enhanced; and how much would the public image of dairy improve?
Every herd has its best cow – the one who is never lame, doesn’t suffer from mastitis, metritis or ketosis; and gets back in calf easily – all while having a high milk (and components) yield. There is no magic bullet to improve productivity and efficiency – yet the discussions I’ve had in the past week conclusively demonstrated that that does mean suiting your system to your available resources and, though excellent health, nutrition, breeding and management, allowing every cow to perform like your best cow, every single day. I wish you a Merry Christmas and hope that in 2015, all your cows will be like your best cow.
*Lameness costs £180 pounds per incidence in the UK, or £15,000 per average herd annually. Mastitis costs the UK dairy industry £170 million per year.
A friend of mine drew my attention to this NPR blogger, who makes the point that being “good” isn’t zero sum (a situation where what is gained by one side or cause, is lost by another). If you’re concerned about the environment, you can both recycle cans and buy a more climate-friendly car. If you are passionate about children’s education, you can volunteer in the classroom and financially support literary projects. In most cases, doing good is not an either/or.
Which made me think a little more about the definition of “good”. To that writer it meant being vegan or vegetarian, in the belief that such a diet would improve animal welfare and environmental impact. Yet this is exactly where the conflict arises for me – if we were all vegan or vegetarian, what would happen to the sheep, the cow, the pig and the chicken?
I posed that question to a vegan on Twitter recently and he, in all sincerity, answered that we, as a vegan population, would care for the animals, but would not enslave or control them. Imagine the beautiful utopia where we all have time to calve a cow or throw some grain to feral pigs before we set off to work, expecting nothing in return. Or in a more realistic scenario, we’d have more meat than we knew what to do with simply through car accidents if we suddenly let loose the USA’s 87.7 million cattle (never mind the 62.1 million pigs, 5.2 millon sheep and 9+ billion chickens).
Anti-animal agriculture activists often purport that a cow can live for 20+ years in her “natural” state compared to a farmed animal – so being a data nerd, I did the maths*. Let’s assume that 1) cows first calve at two years of age and that 90% of cows (38.3 million of them in the US at present) have a calf every year**; 2) 85% of those calves survive (mortality would go up due to predation, assuming we wouldn’t shoot wolves, coyotes etc.); and 3) each cow or bull lives for 20 years. Admittedly that doesn’t account for the cattle that would die from starvation through lack of available grazing in 5, 10 or 20 years time, but being good vegans, we’d feed them, right?
Within five years we’d have 602 million cattle in the USA, within 20 years we’d have 3.7 billion – a 40-fold increase on our current national herd. That’s 40x more cattle belching methane, drinking water and producing waste, every single day, all as a result of our changing our diet in an attempt to reduce environmental impact.
It’s a nice, simplistic, oft-suggested argument that we shouldn’t eat meat or dairy products in order to save the planet, yet the conflict between veganism, animal welfare, and environmental impact is clear. Climate change will be solved by us turning vegan? Not unless we reconcile ourselves to killing animals without eating them.
*I’m British, and as such, cannot use the American term “math” as opposed to the British “maths”
**90% is the US average for cow-calf herds, in which few hormones or other reproductive aids are used
My 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.
Beta agonists have been a hotly debated topic in the media recently, after it was suggested that the use of Zilmax™ might be related to welfare issues in supplemented cattle (see note 1), and Tyson announced that they would not purchase cattle produced using the feed supplement.
As the global population increases and consumer interest in food production sustainability continues to grow, we know that to maintain the continuous improvements in beef sustainability that we’ve seen over the past half-century, we need to ensure that economic viability, environmental responsibility and social acceptability are all in place. All cattle producers obviously have the choice as to what tools and practices are used within their operation, but what are the big picture environmental and economic implications of removing technology use from beef production? Let’s look at two tools – beta agonists and implants (see note 2 below for an explanation of these tools).
In a traditional beef production system using both tools, we’d need 85 million total cattle (see note 3) to maintain the U.S. annual production of 26 billion lbs of beef (see note 4). If we removed beta-agonists from U.S. beef production we’d need an extra 3.5 million total cattle to support beef production; losing access to implants would require an extra 9.9 million cattle; and removing both tools would increase total cattle numbers to 100 million (a 15 million head increase) to maintain the current beef supply (see note 5).
If we need more cattle to maintain beef supply, we use more resources and have a greater carbon footprint.
If we removed beta-agonists, we would need more natural resources to maintain U.S. beef production:
- More water, equivalent to supplying 1.9 million U.S. households annually (195 billion gallons)
- More land, equivalent to an area just bigger than Maryland (14.0 thousand sq-miles)
- More fossil fuels, equivalent to heating 38 thousand U.S. households for a year (3,123 billion BTU)
If we removed implants, we would need more natural resources to maintain U.S. beef production:
- More water, equivalent to supplying 4.5 million U.S. households annually (457 billion gallons)
- More land, equivalent to the area of South Carolina (31.6 thousand sq-miles)
- More fossil fuels, equivalent to heating 45 thousand U.S. households for a year (3,703 billion BTU)
If we removed both beta-agonists and implants, we would need more natural resources to maintain U.S. beef production:
- More water, equivalent to supplying 7.3 million U.S. households annually (741 billion gallons)
- More land, equivalent to the area of Louisiana (51.9 thousand sq-miles)
- More fossil fuels, equivalent to heating 98 thousand U.S. households for a year (8,047 billion BTU)
Beef production costs would also increase if these tools weren’t used. Feed costs would increase by 4.0% without beta-agonists, 8.1% without implants and 11.0% without both tools. These costs ultimately would be passed on through every segment of the beef supply chain (including the retailer or food service segment) and ultimately onto the consumer, making beef a less-affordable protein choice.
In a world where one in seven children currently do not have enough food, keeping food affordable is key to improving their health and well-being. If we use productivity-enhancing tools in one single animal, the extra beef produced is sufficient to supply seven schoolchildren with their beef-containing school meals for an entire year. Is that a social sustainability advantage that we can afford to lose?
Although animal welfare is paramount for all beef production stakeholders from the cow-calf operator to the retailer, it is possible that the consumer perception of productivity-enhancing tools may be harmed by negative comments on media articles relating to Zilmax™. There is no doubt that we will need to use technologies within food production in order to feed the growing global population, yet we need consumer acceptance of both the technologies that we use, and the reasons why we use them, in order to continue to secure market access for U.S. beef.
Consumer acceptance therefore needs to be a key component of our mission to continuously improve beef sustainability. That does not mean giving in to the uninformed whims of those who blithely assert that we could feed the world by returning to the production systems of the 1940’s or ’50s, but does offer an opportunity to reach out, listen to and engage in a dialogue with our friends, family, customers and colleagues about the advantages that technology offers. We have a bright future ahead, but only if we keep the torch alight.
To read more conversation about the use of technologies within beef production (including the real-life experiences of feedyard operators who use these tools) and for facts and figures relating to beef production, please check out the following websites: Feedyard Foodie, Ask a Farmer, Facts About Beef, and the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance.
1) Merck Animal Health have since pledged to conduct a thorough investigation into the issue and have temporarily suspended Zilmax™ sales in the U.S. and Canada.
2) Beta agonists are animal feed ingredients that help cattle maintain their natural muscle-building ability and add about 20-30 pounds of additional lean muscle instead of fat. Implants (sometimes called growth promotants or growth hormones), are placed into the ear and release hormones slowly, helping cattle maintain natural muscle-building ability while also decreasing the amount of fat gained.
3) Includes beef cows, calves, bulls, replacement animals, stockers and feedlot cattle plus calves and cull cows from the dairy system.
4) Although this is a considerable amount of beef, it’s still not enough to fulfill current demand for beef in the USA and overseas.
5) This work was presented as a poster at the Joint Annual Meeting of the American Dairy Science Association and American Society of Animal Science in Indianapolis, IN in July 2013. The poster is available for download here.