Defending Conventional Beef in The Wall St Journal Today!

WSJShameless self-promotion, but very excited to have an essay published in The Wall St Journal today defending conventional beef production.

Given my blog subtitle, I thought I should link to it! Would love to read your comments. Article here: http://www.wsj.com/articles/is-feedlot-beef-bad-for-the-environment-1436757037

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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 Increasing Resource Use and Taking Beef from the Mouths of Hungry Children?

Bull eatingCan we really afford to lose the sustainability advantages that productivity-enhancing tools provide?

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).

Figure 1. Extra Cattle NeededIn 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)

Water infographic

Land infographicFuel infographicBeef 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 FarmerFacts About Beef, and the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance.

Footnotes

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

Flawed Water Use Claims Are Huge Threat to Beef Sustainability

Let’s make a bet. I bet you that within the next five years, the biggest sustainability issue to hit the beef industry won’t be carbon emissions, hormone implant use or ethanol prices, it’ll be water use. Conflict over water rights and declining aquifer levels are already occurring in many areas and those battles will only increase as urban sprawl encroaches onto agricultural land.

Fortunately, scientists at the University of Twente in The Netherlands have calculated the water footprint* of humanity. Published in the highly prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, this study provides valuable evidence as to water consumption across different regions. Within the paper, beef production is singled out as contributing 6.7% to global water flows – less than cereals at 17% or industrial products as 12.2%.

Yet the message accompanying press coverage of the report is anything but positive for conventional beef production – a  ScienceNow press release (tagline: “Up to the minute news from science”) quotes Sandra Postel (director of the Global Water Policy Project) as saying:

…people can opt to eat less meat or to switch from grain-fed beef—which, again, requires about 5300 liters of water for each dollar’s worth of grain fed to a cow—to grass-fed beef, which typically requires only the rainwater falling on a pasture

Interestingly, the 5,300 liter (1,400 gallon) figure is not mentioned in the PNAS study, indeed there is no evidence as to the source for Ms. Postel’s claim. Furthermore, the figure is worthy of an award for what must be the most incomprehensible units ever assigned to water use. Expressing water use per acre or per unit of beef produced gives a solid foundation for understanding and comparison, but a volume unit per economic unit of feed fed to a beef animal? What happens when corn hits $10/bushel or falls to $3/bushel?

It’s a sad reflection upon my social life (or lack thereof) that I spent an hour last night calculating water use per dollar of corn fed. The entire calculation can be seen in the excel spreadsheet below, but in essence we simply need to know the current corn price ($6.335/bushel), the proportion of corn that is irrigated in the USA (15%), water use per acre of irrigated corn (2.1 acre-feet) and corn yield per acre (147.2 bushels).

Using these data, 110 gallons of water (417 liters) are used per $ of corn grain fed to a feedlot steer (equivalent to 44.9 gallons of water per lb boneless beef). That’s in line with the total water use of 367 gallons/lb boneless beef cited by Beckett and Oltjen at UC Davis.

Ms. Postel’s estimate is 12.7x higher than average USA data suggests. An error of this magnitude is huge and has the potential to do immense damage to the beef industry, especially when it’s used as a divisive argument against grain-fed production systems. Yet it’s published as factual data in a scientific press-release (without the need for citations or supporting evidence) and will be read by thousands of consumers with an interest in science. Just imagine the reaction from PETA and HSUS if the beef industry quoted environmental figures unsupported by science – instant loss of credibility.

As an industry, we need to be proactive and conduct assessments of resource use and environmental impact before the anti-animal groups or “impartial” environmental groups produce numbers for us. If we continue avoiding science for fear of what it might reveal, we may soon be reacting to a loss of consumer confidence and market share, rendering long-term sustainability impossible.

* Total water use by humans

Water use spreadsheet