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?

FAO LCA 2

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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Mutton Dressed as Lamb? “British” is a Regional Descriptor, not a Brand Name.

waitroseCelebrity chefs, farmers markets and media publications continually tell us that we should buy British food. In contrast to the 1990s yuppie ideal of airfreighted Icelandic strawberries in January, local food is the new sexy. Locavores salivate at the mention of village-grown carrots so spindly that they look like an advanced case of rickets and eggs at £6 per half dozen with speckled blue shells that perfectly match their Farrow & Ball kitchen wallpaper.

Yet local food has apparently become such a marketing campaign staple, it’s reached the point where “British” is no longer a description of origin or culture, but simply a brand name. In a string of tweets between Waitrose and a number of not-unreasonably incensed farmers, agricultural industry professionals and consumers, it emerges that selling New Zealand lamb under the label “British lamb with mint and redcurrant” is entirely acceptable, as “British” is simply used to denote the origin of the dish.

To be fair, nobody expects shepherds pie to be made from real shepherds, or toad-in-the-hole to contain tasty morsels of marinated natterjack. However, in an era when we care about how, where and when food is produced; and especially given the recent Tesco “fake farms” debacle, it’s difficult to believe that any marketing department could, with a straight face, announce that “British” is simply a brand name. What’s next? Cans of Special Brew sold under the new “champagne” brand?

A certain level of mistrust already exists between the consumer, retailer and farmer, with many consumers believing that the food industry lacks transparency. Traceability and clear labelling are increasingly important to the food-savvy consumer, yet these types of marketing initiative appear to be yet more attempts to manipulate consumer buying behaviour.

Absolutely no offence is intended to New Zealand sheep farmers who do produce fabulous meat, but when lamb from overseas is prominently labelled “British” (despite the seldom-read small print), consumers may feel misled and lose trust in buying British food. By all means celebrate the rich traditions of British cuisine, but please Waitrose, stop dressing mutton as lamb.

Big, Small, Local, Artisan… Why We Need to Kick the Food and Farming Label Habit

coffe-water-and-brownieLet’s think about marketing labels. The coffee I’m currently drinking is a new premium blend with fruity notes and hints of lemongrass, the tasting notes so extensive that I was tempted to swill it around and pretend it was a glass of vintage Malbec before the first sip (except I knew I’d end up with a caffeinated tsunami flooding my Mac). The walls of this coffee shop are plastered with buzzwords including “delicious”, “lovers” and  “changing lives”. Everything is carefully stage-managed to make me feel that I’ve wisely invested my £2.50 on a cup of branded coffee. Is this coffee more caffeine-laden than the equivalent free-cup-with-a-loyalty-card from Waitrose? Can I detect the top notes of passion fruit? Does it use less water than freeze-dried instant coffee? Will I leap tall buildings with a single bound after drinking it? Absolutely not. Yet the marketing involved makes me feel good about my choice of coffee chain and beverage, without providing any factual information to facilitate my decision.

Like it or not, marketing labels are ubiquitous, exclusive and bipolar. Black and white. Yes or no. Good or bad. Even in the scientific world, where we’re renowned for caveats and “Under this specific set of conditions we saw a significant difference in X although that can’t always extrapolate to Y….” answers to questions, media coverage of scientific research is becoming binomial. Food X will kill you. Eat food Y and you won’t get cancer. Shades of grey have ceased to exist.

Back in September 2016, Jayson Lusk published an excellent piece in the NY Times explaining the importance of technology use on modern, large-scale farms. The only issue (for me) was the title: “Why Industrial Farms Are Good for the Environment”. The supposition being, of course, that we have to dispel the myth that “industrial” farms are environmentally-undesirable. Yet using terms like “industrial” have deeper connotations – if a large farm is industrial, is a small farm artisan? If a dairy herd containing 100 cows is a “factory farm” (regardless of familial ownership or management), is the one that contains 99 cows a small, vibrant, local business? Is a farmer who is passionate about pasture management, reducing nutrient run-off and promoting biodiversity a saviour of the planet, regardless of whether he/she produces enough beef to feed one family or 5,000 families (approximately 1,700 cow herd) per year? There are as many farming systems worldwide as there are farmers – trying to apply broad categories (“big vs. small” “factory vs. humane” “grass-fed vs. grain-fed”) tells us absolutely nothing about the management practices, animal welfare, environmental sustainability and social responsibility of a particular farm.

Perhaps it’s time to take a evidence-based approach. The consumer absolutely has a right to choose products from agricultural systems that they prefer, yet this needs to be provided via factual, quantifiable information rather than marketing buzzwords. Being told that a piece of pork pie is “artisan” or that Supermarket X’s beef mince costs 20 p/kg less does not facilitate informed decision-making.

If we assume that all other factors (including price) relating to food purchase are equal:

  • Eggs from Farm X are ranked 9.5/10 on supporting the local community
  • Eggs from Farm Y have an animal welfare rating 10% higher than average
  • Eggs from Farm Z eggs have a carbon footprint 25% lower than average

I wonder how many consumers choosing eggs based on measurable performance outcomes would be supporting a different production system than the one that they perceive to be best? We (as an agricultural industry as well as in the role that we all play as consumers) need factual information on labels rather than marketing buzzwords.

We would also have a better understanding of the issues that really are important to the consumer. I was recently asked whether I was concerned about antibiotic use in livestock. The obvious answer was “Yes”… yet my main concern was the challenge of eliminating the use of medically-important antibiotics (while maintaining access to veterinary antibiotics that have no impact on human medicine), reducing antimicrobial resistance and improving the health and welfare of global livestock populations through alternative technologies and management practices. Not surprisingly, my answer didn’t fit with the assumed “I’m concerned because everybody knows that farmers massively overuse antibiotics as a panacea for poor management” rationale.

Recent data from a global charity suggests that almost 90% of Indian consumers are deeply concerned about cattle health and welfare on dairy farms. Great. Does this mean they’d pay more for milk to improve dairy cow welfare? That they were given factual information about dairy production? That they understand the relative environmental impacts, cattle health issues and social impacts of various dairy systems? All unlikely. We face a number of challenges within agriculture – notably the need to produce enough safe, affordable food to feed the growing population, whilst using fewer resources and with a lower environmental impact. We cannot and should not expect to make informed decisions on food choices based on marketing buzzwords – it’s time to stop differentiating on farm size or system and examine real farm impacts.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles: Why Mass Food Transport is Eco-Friendly

Food transportation. It’s the curse of the modern world. Just think how much brighter and sunnier the planet would be if we all shopped locally, tootling along on our bicycles to pick up freshly-baked bread and a dozen eggs just as our grandparents would have done. A brave new world unemcumbered by gas pumps and trucks. Except…. Well, no. It’s not that simple.

Food miles 2 In many cases, transport is a tiny proportion of total greenhouse gas emissions per unit of food – for example, it’s less than 1% of the carbon footprint of one lb of beef. However, food miles are often cited as an environmental proxy to differentiate between food choices, the assumption being that an egg which travels 2,000 miles across the country is less environmentally-friendly than one produced in the next county. Indeed, one farm website proclaims that “We do not ship anything anywhere. We encourage folks to find their local producers and patronise them”, while on the same page, a customer testimonial proudly proclaims: “I drive to <Farm X> 150 miles one-way in order to buy clean meat for my family”.
Food miles 4Given the dichotomy between these two statements, let’s compare buying eggs from a grocery store with a local farm (full analysis here). Food miles are far greater for eggs that have traveled from Texas to Virginia to be sold in the grocery store (2,405 miles round-trip), compared to driving to the local farm (300 miles round-trip); and the fuel efficiency is far worse for a truck (5.4 mpg) than a car (22.6 mpg); yet a modern truck can carry 23,400 dozen eggs.
Food miles 6Unless your car is packed to the roof with eggs, traveling to the farm to buy them emits 55X more greenhouse gas emissions than driving to the store to buy them. Bottom line? Unless the local farm is closer than the store, or you’re able to walk/cycle there*, it’s more environmentally-friendly to buy eggs from the store, because the greenhouse gas emissions attributable to one dozen eggs out of 23,400 dozen is a tiny fraction of the total.
One report claims that greenhouse gas emissions from one large container ship is equivalent to 50 million cars – however, in this instance it’s the result of sulphur dioxide emissions from poor quality shipping fuel rather than inefficiency. Mass transport may not have a feel-good factor associated with driving out to a farm, but it allows us to enjoy a wide variety of affordable foods with a low carbon footprint – essential factors for a sustainable food future.
*Which begs the question of how many eggs you can carry on a bicycle…