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.
Another week, another argument with vegans. Reading this blog you could suppose that I spend all my time arguing with the no-meat brigade. Thankfully it’s not that common – it’s just that it always seems to inspire another blog post.
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
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.