Is It Time We Stopped Shouting About The Dietary Guidelines?

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.

10982813_934682089898559_3461048965358255082_oWhen the report was released, my Twitter notifications, Facebook feed and email inbox exploded. Memes like the one to the left appeared on every (virtual) street corner, and the report was mentioned in every online newsletter, whether agricultural or mainstream media. It’s this press coverage rather than the content of the report, that really concerns me.

Individuals don’t pay a lot of attention to a government report on nutrition. Despite the fact that six updates to the guidelines have been released since their inception in 1980, we are all still eating too many Twinkies in front of the TV and super-sized takeout meals in the car, rather than chowing down on broccoli and lentil quinoa bake.

Headlines CollageYet people do pay attention to headlines like “Less meat, more veggies: big food is freaking out about the “nonsensical” new dietary guidelines” and others shown to the left. The media sub-text is that big bad food producers (so different from the lovely local farmer who sells heirloom breed poultry at $18/lb at the farmers market) are appalled by the release of this governmental bad science that’s keeping them from their quest to keep you unhealthily addicted to triple cheeseburgers washed down with a 500-calorie soda, and will do anything to suppress it.

This makes me wonder – at what point do we need quiet, stealthy change, rather than loud protests that attract the attention of people who would otherwise never have read about the guidelines? At what point does industry protesting seem like a modern version of “The lady doth protest too much“?

Rather than posting on Facebook or Twitter that the report is nonsense because the committee of nutritionists ventured into the bottomless pit that is sustainability; why don’t we instead extol the virtues of producing high-quality, nutritious, safe and affordable lean meat, and aim to reach the people who haven’t seen the hyperbolic headlines or read the guidelines simply because they’ve seen a lot of talk about them on Twitter? The old showbiz saying that there’s no such thing as bad publicity certainly applies here – the extent of the reporting on the industry backlash against the report means they have probably been noted by far more people that they otherwise might.

The impact of the dietary guidelines recommendations upon purchasing programs is far higher than on individuals, and does give rise to concern. Globally, one in seven children don’t have enough food, and school lunches are often the only guaranteed source of high-quality protein available to children in impoverished families. I may be being overly sceptical, but I suspect that if meat consumption in schools is reduced, it’s unlikely to be replaced with a visually and gastronomically-appealing, nutritionally-complete vegetarian alternative.

Sustainability doesn’t just mean carbon, indeed, environmentally it extends far further than the land, water and energy use assessed by the dietary guidelines advisory committee into far bigger questions. These include the fact that we cannot grow human food crops on all types of land; water quality vs. quantity; the need to protect wildlife biodiversity in marginal and rangeland environments; the use of animal manures vs. inorganic fertilisers; environmental costs of sourcing replacements for animal by-products in manufacturing and other industries; and many other issues. Simply stating that meat-based diet X has a higher carbon footprint or land use than plant-based diet Y is not sufficient justification for 316 million people to reduce their consumption of a specific food. Indeed, despite the conclusions of the committee, data from the US EPA attributing only 2.1% of the national carbon footprint to meat production suggests that even if everybody reduced their intake of beef, lamb and pork, it would have a negligible effect on carbon emissions.

Could we all reduce our individual environmental impact? Absolutely. Yet as stated with regards to dietary change in the advisory report, it has to be done with consideration for our individual biological, medical and cultural requirements. As humans, we have biological and medical requirements for dietary protein, and some would even argue that grilling a 16-oz ribeye is a cultural event. I have every sympathy for the USDA committee*, who were faced with a Herculean task to fulfill, but in this case, they only succeeded in cutting off one head from the multi-craniumed Hydra – and it grew another 50 in its place.

*Many people have already commented on the suitability (or not) of the committee to evaluate diet sustainability, but to give them their due, they do appear to have looked beyond greenhouse gases to land, water and energy use. They are nutrition specialists, not sustainability experts, but it would be difficult (impossible) to find a committee comprising people who were all experts in nutrition, sustainability, economics, policy, behaviour and all the other facets of the report. Nonetheless, the sustainability recommendations appear to be based on a small number of papers, many of which are based on dietary information from other regions (Germany, UK, Italy) which will also have different levels of animal and crop production. As somebody who was born and bred in the UK before moving to the USA I find it difficult to believe that the average American’s diet uses substantially more land (for example) than the average UK person, as cited in the report.

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Would Being Vegan Really Solve Climate Change? Not if We Don’t Kill the Cows.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA 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

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.

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.

We’re Off to Eat at Chipotle, the Chipotle Burrito of Oz

Chipotle 1Another day, another jalapeño in the salsa of Food With Integrity spin from Chipotle. After their recent decision to source grass-fed beef from Australia, citing a lack of supply from US ranchers; Texas Agriculture Commissioner Staples yesterday praised Chipotle for their willingness to discuss the matter. Yet in a world where companies can be made or broken by PR, the likelihood of Chipotle Chairman Steve Ells responding to Staples’ queries regarding their beef choices with “Our mind is made up, we’re not prepared to discuss it further.” was highly unlikely. Instead, their defensive response to Staples simply stated that they were happy to engage in dialogue.

Dialogue is great, but note that it doesn’t actually mean that any decisions will change. After all, I’m happy to dialogue with opponents of GMO crops and vaccines, but have any of those discussions made me change my stance on the safety, efficacy and importance of these technologies? No.

Rather than being applauded for their willingness to debate, Chipotle should instead be questioned about the apparent incompatibility between their Food With Integrity slogan, and their beef choices. As stated in the response to Staples, Chipotle only uses 23% of the beef on a carcass, relying on other buyers to provide a market for the remainder. Yet as we strive to feed an ever-increasing population using fewer resources and with less waste, wouldn’t it be more sustainable for Chipotle aim to use as much of each carcass as possible? After all, authentic Mexican food uses many different cuts, organs and variety meats – shouldn’t Food With Integrity derive more than chips and salsa from its supposed region of origin?

As discussed by California ranchers here, the issue appears not to be related to a scarcity of US beef per se, but rather beef at a price that Chipotle wants to pay. Given their claims of support for US beef producers, paying grass-fed ranchers the premium that they need for their production systems to be economically viable would show more integrity than importing beef from overseas. Ranchers should not be expected to operate at a loss for the privilege of supplying Chipotle with a premium product, of which three-quarters will be discarded.

I recently had a Twitter conversation with a follower who asserted that when assessing sustainability (economic viability, environmental responsibility and social acceptability), we should put “people and planet” ahead of “profit”. I disagree, as I firmly believe that all three have to balance – if any one is prioritized, the business will not achieve long-term sustainability. Yet in this instance, Food With Integrity appears to demote all three (while attempting to maintain Chipotle’s profit margin):

Chipotle 2

  • Reduced economic viability for US beef producers;
  • Increased environmental impact of shipping beef from over 8,000 miles away;
  • Reduced social acceptability for Chipotle’s brand within the agriculture industry.

Planning to eat at Chipotle this weekend? I’m willing to bet you’re not a US beef producer.

Do Moms Have Instant Beef Credibility?

TrustI spoke at the International Livestock Congress back in January 2012, and at the end of the day, had the pleasure of listening to a couple of distinguished industry colleagues wrapping up the day’s talks in Q&A format. The conversation went thus (with names changed to spare the blushes of the individuals concerned):

Dr. R: “Jude Capper talked about the importance of having credible industry spokespeople to communicate with consumers – how do you suggest that we improve the image of beef sustainability?”

Dr. S: (hitches up his pants, stands up straight): “Well, Jude Capper is credible because she is female…” (pause while the shoulders and eyebrows of 50 or so female graduate students in the audience almost hit the ceiling) “…and she’ll be even more credible when she has children.”

If any one of those graduate students had a gun, a knife or even a sharpened pencil, I think it’s a safe bet that Dr. S would not still be on this earth – the air was so thick with “How dare that chauvinistic old man SAY that?!” it was like spending a weekend in a cigar bar. Yet Dr. S was absolutely right (although he’d probably have fewer voodoo dolls created in his image if he’d explained his statement) – female scientists, especially those who have children, are trusted by female consumers more than the traditional scientific image of an older man in a white lab coat. Why? Well it’s all about how we relate to others. We’re more likely to trust people who seem more like ourselves (age, ethnic group, profession, socioeconomic class) than those with whom we perceive we have little in common. It’s therefore not surprising that recent research (graphs below) shows that we trust our friends and families more than we trust the media, TV shows (take that, Oprah!) or politicians.

Early baby bumpI’m excited to announce that I’m gaining credibility by the day…pound by pound…literally. At almost 7 months pregnant, the most popular question I have at conferences is still “How do I communicate this information to the consumer?”, but it’s swiftly followed by “When is your baby due?”. My baby bump has given me more opportunities for conversations about the importance of beef in pregnancy nutrition with people in airports, on planes and in the grocery store in the past few months than in the rest of my life to date – and I haven’t been the person starting the conversation.

Who do consumers trust 1

Who do consumers trust 2

So what does this mean for communicating with the consumer? Even in these enlightened times, women still make the bulk of food-buying decisions, so we need to specifically target the female consumer . In almost every talk I do, I urge farmers and ranchers to put photos, videos and status updates on Facebook and Twitter so that they can reach their crazy cousin, unsure uncle or doubting daughter, living in a far-off city, with positive messages about agriculture. This time, I’m widening the net – if you happen to be male*, please also ask  your wife, girlfriend, daughter, mother, granddaughter or niece to post and let the female consumer know why we do what we do every day, why beef is a great choice for our families, and why we spend time for caring for baby calves almost as if they are our own children. If you’re female… well, have at it! There are already some excellent blogs out there from women in the livestock industry (e.g. DairyCarrie, The South Dakota CowgirlFeedyard Foodie, Mom at the Meat CounterThe Real Farm Wives of America and The Pinke Post) – let’s push back against all the tide of anti-meat or anti-conventional agriculture misinformation with more real-life experiences from the parents of the next generation of farmers, ranchers and consumers.

*Note that I am NOT suggesting that only women should blog or post on social media! This is simply about making that female-female connection that, whether we like it or not, does promote an instant degree of trust

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

Putting Ourselves in the Cow’s Hooves?

Angus heiferIf you could walk like a cow, look like a cow, experience what it’s like for a cow to go to slaughter, would you eat less meat*?

Stanford researchers are trying to answer this question by putting people on their hands-and-knees and giving them a virtual reality helmet so that they see themselves as a cow on her way to slaughter, then documenting whether their meat consumption changes over the following week.

I am no psychology scholar, but surely the short-term response to such an ill-conceived experiment would be “heck yeah!” providing that the participant didn’t have a psychopathic-level lack of empathy? As humans, we are well-equipped to understand short- and long-term consequences, we know that the interaction between a cull cow and a captive bolt is unlikely to end happily, and just the atmosphere of a slaughterhouse would be enough to turn many people’s stomachs.

So, is this research addressing a crucial knowledge gap? After all, many of us want to know more about the food that we eat each day – perhaps being able to empathize with a cow would help us make better choices? I suspect that if all those who routinely buy grass-fed dairy or beef “experienced” life as a pasture-fed dairy cow on a rainy February day in upstate New York might change their mind about the relative welfare benefits of housing vs. pasture.

Alas no, this is less about animal-human interactions, and more about reducing the perceived environmental impact of our dietary choices. The head researcher states that: “In this case, empathy toward the animal also coincides with an environmental benefit, which is that [not eating] animals consumes less energy.”

Here’s a thought. Let’s all embrace our inner cows and reduce our meat consumption accordingly – we could make it yet another rationale for adopting Meatless Mondays! We’ll cut the US’s national greenhouse gas emissions by less than one-third of one percent but it’ll make us feel better about ourselves as we tuck into our salad sandwich.

Just one thing though – the wheat harvested to produce that bread caused the death of 25x more animals than are killed to produce a lb of meat. Time to don the virtual reality helmet again and see yourself as a fieldmouse with a combine harvester bearing down on you… I’ll take the captive bolt over the combine harvester blades every time thanks.

*Many thanks to Dr. Jennifer Thomson for bringing this article to my attention.

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!

Putting Beef Hormones into Context (AKA “How do you Make a Hormone…?”)

No Twinkies!Disclaimer – the alternative title is the start of one of my favorite jokes – in the interests of keeping this post PG-13, I’ll post the punch line at the end.

It never ceases to amaze me how selectively paranoid we are as a society. I know I’m not alone in avoiding certain behaviors because they seem too risky – I always wear my seatbelt (even in a pick-up driving at 10 mph through a pasture), I don’t put my phone in my lap (who knows what invisible radio waves are frying my internal organs?) and I’m convinced that if I eat a Twinkie (RIP?) it’ll instantly turn me into 400 lb couch potato. Yet I also drive too fast on the interstate, drink enough coffee to keep a polar bear wired for days and have the misguided impression that I can survive on 4 hours sleep per night (thank you NCBA Cattle Industry Convention 2013 for proving me right last week). There’s no doubt that I’m more likely to come to harm from the latter set of behaviors than the former, so why the dichotomy?

It appears to comes down to two main factors:

  • The perception of relative risk – am I more likely to be injured from driving fast or from not wearing a seatbelt?
  • The extent of our knowledge about the subject – I know what risks come with caffeine consumption and I accept them in exchange for improved work productivity, but who knows how addictive Twinkies really are? There’s a reason they’re sold in multi-packs…

Thanks to the preponderance of media articles and books about food production, we’re more educated as a society than we were 10 years ago, yet we still fail to understand the concept of relative risk:

  • Environmentally, the Meatless Mondays campaigns appear to make people feel good about saving the planet even as they drive their Hummer to Whole Foods to buy quinoa and kale salad for dinner
  • Socially, reusing grocery bags reduces waste, yet appears to come with a far higher risk of contracting E. coli (thank you David Hayden)
  • Healthwise, I have lost count of the conversations I’ve had with highly educated, health-conscious women who have stopped feeding beef or milk to their kids because of the hormones used in beef or dairy production. Yet this is one area where we have a huge amount of data, we just need to put it in context.

The birth-control pill contains almost 7,000x more estrogen than a steakYes, an 8-oz steak from a steer given a hormone implant contains more estrogen than a steak from a non-implanted animal. 42% more estrogen in fact. That’s undeniable. Yet the amount of estrogen in the steak from the implanted animal is minuscule: 5.1 nanograms. One nanogram (one-billionth of a gram or one-25-billionth of an ounce) is roughly equivalent to one blade of grass on a football field.

By contrast, one birth-control pill, taken daily by over 100 million women worldwide, contains 35,000 nanograms of estrogen. That’s equivalent of eating 3,431 lbs of beef from a hormone-implanted animal, every single day. To put it another way, it’s the annual beef consumption of 59 adults. Doesn’t that put it into perspective?

If birth-control is a sensitive subject, let’s compare it to vegetables: one 8-oz serving of cabbage = 5,411 nanograms of estrogen, over 1,000 times more estrogen than the same serving size of steak from a steer given a hormone implant. Yet Huffington Post, TIME magazine et al. aren’t up in arms about the dangers posed by cabbage consumption (NB. ~4,000 cabbage producers in the USA, please don’t send me hate mail, this is just an example).

Hormones are directly or indirectly responsible for everything that we do each day, from waking up to going to sleep, from the mundane to the life-changing. Yes, they are an intrinsic part of childhood development, yet the earlier ages at maturity we’re currently seeing in children have been attributed to increased levels of body fat (i.e. childhood obesity), not to exogenous hormone consumption. I’m not downplaying the consequences that hormones have on our long-term health and survival, just asking for a little balance – after all, where’s the risk in that?

*Oh, and the punchline to the joke above… “Don’t pay her!” (Sorry….)