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

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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.

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.

Can We Please Have Calls for Moderating Meat Consumption… in Moderation?

Do we need to moderate meat consumption in order to feed the world in 2050? Given beef producers’ track record of ingenuity, it’s possible but not probable.

A Twitter follower (Tweep? Twriend? Twquaintance?) asked yesterday whether we could really supply 9+ billion people with 250 lb of meat per capita in 2050. The question stemmed from a recent paper in which Stockholm scientists claimed that we would all have to reduce meat consumption by 75% by 2050 in order to have enough water to supply the population, and a subsequent rejoinder from the American Society of Animal Science in which several scientists noted the flaws in the Swedish paper, the importance of animal-source foods in the diet and the use of marginal land for grazing livestock.

On Twitter, the comment was made that there appear to be two distinct sides to this argument – one side (the environmentalists and anti-animal agriculture groups) warning that we need to drastically cut meat consumption in order to feed everybody, and the other (the meat industry) turning a blind eye and effectively promoting the idea that we can eat all the meat that we like without having any environmental impact.

Globally, we’re nowhere near 250 lb meat consumption per capita, even US consumers who are often portrayed as meat-guzzling bacon-o-philes by the Huffington Post et al. have an average annual consumption of 171 lb according to the USDA. As current beef consumption is 58 lb per capita in the USA, that’s a lot of pork and chicken that will presumably make up the difference. There’s no doubt that increases in both population size and per capita income in regions such as China and India will have a significant impact on global meat consumption by 2050. However, I have to admit I find the “blind eye” comment a little hard to swallow, given, for example, the beef industry’s commitment to measuring and mitigating both resource use and carbon emissions through current life cycle analysis research, and involvement with groups such as the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef.

There is no doubt that beef production uses considerable amounts of land and water, yet should we expect producers to effectively shoot themselves in the foot and suggest that consumers forgo a cheeseburger in favor of an alfalfa sprout salad? Isn’t improved efficiency a characteristic of every successful industry? The motor industry is a major contributor to environmental concerns, yet automobile manufacturers aren’t saying “we’re going to produce cars in the same way that we did in the ‘50s, you’ll just have to drive less”. Instead, the message is something akin to “we’re making cars more energy-efficient so that you can continue to drive without worrying about your car’s environmental impact.

That’s exactly what the beef industry has done, is doing and will continue to do into the future. Since 1977, the US beef industry has cut water use by 12%, land use by 33% and the carbon footprint of one lb of beef by 16%. Providing that producers are still able to use management practices and technologies that improve efficiency, further reductions should be seen in future. Yet we have to look beyond the idea that the USA can feed the world by itself. I’m writing this post from Brazil, which has a huge beef industry, yet on average, Brazilian beef cattle first calve at 4 years of age, only 67% of cows have a calf each year and beef animals take 3 years to reach slaughter weight. Comparisons to the equivalent US figures (2 years, 91% and 15 months respectively), show the potential for amazing reductions in resource use from Brazilian beef production, and this, along with other less-efficient systems, is where we have to focus in future. It’s not about forcing US-style production on every producer; it’s about enabling producers to make the best and most efficient use of resources according to their management system and region. Brazil has just approved the use of beta-agonists in beef production, which will allow the production of more beef using fewer resources. This is just one step on the road to improved efficiency.

So do we need to moderate meat consumption in order to feed the world in 2050? I’d love to be able to answer this by citing a published paper that has taken improvements in meat industry productivity over the next 40 years into account rather than assuming a “business as normal” outcome. In the absence of such a paper, I’ll give a Magic 8-Ball type answer: Given beef producers’ track record of ingenuity, it’s possible but not probable. Globally, there are huge opportunities for improved efficiency and concurrent reductions in resource use from all meat production systems – the key is not to reduce meat production but simply to produce it more efficiently.

All Aboard the “Eat Less Meat” Bandwagon

One of the main criteria for publishing scientific research is that it should be novel, yet not a week goes by without yet another paper concluding that we have to reduce meat consumption in order to mitigate climate change. That’s the headline in media coverage relating to the latest paper from a researcher at the The Woods Hole Research Center (published in Environmental Letters), which examines nitrous oxide emissions (a highly potent greenhouse gas (GHG)) in 2050 under various scenarios.

It’s an interesting paper, not least for some of the assumptions buried within the model. Based on data from the FAO, the authors assume that meat consumption will increase by 14% in the developed world and 32% in the developing world by 2050. Coupled with the predicted population global increase (from the current 7 billion to 8.9 billion in 2050), it’s not surprising that a 50% reduction in meat consumption would be predicted to have a significant effect on total GHG. It’s rather akin to suggesting that each person will own two automobiles in 2050, so we should reduce car manufacture.

However, the more striking result is buried in Figure 1, showing that if efficiency of manure management and fertilizer application were improved, this would have a more significant effect on GHG emissions than reducing meat consumption. Given the considerable improvements in cropping practices, crop genetics and yields over the past 50 years there is absolutely no reason why this should not be achieved in the next 40 years.

Alas, a headline suggesting that agriculture needs to continue to improve manure and fertilizer efficiency just isn’t as sexy as the “eat less meat, save the planet” message so often propounded by the mass media. They say that bad news sells – it’s a shame that the lay press are so enamored with messages that denigrate ruminant production, rather than taking a broader look at the options available for mitigating future climate change.

*Thanks to Jesse R. Bussard for bringing this one to the forefront of my “to do “ list.

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

Feed = Food? Do livestock really compete with humans for food?

Can we feed up to 10 billion people in 2100 by improving crop yields, reducing deforestation, and reducing meat and dairy consumption? These solutions are among those suggested by Jonathan Foley at the University of Minnesota’s Institute of the Environment to enable the increase in food production required by the future global population. These are logical suggestions, yet the proposal that meat and dairy consumption should be reduced is likely to be the most-debated, particularly as livestock industry stakeholders may regard this as yet another attack on animal agriculture.

The futility of the “Meatless Mondays” campaign has been discussed ad infinitum, yet in contrast to the EWG’s recent report, Foley does not attempt to promote a vegetarian or vegan ideology or to suggest that climate change could be reversed if only we all ate humanely-certified or organic meat. Instead, the report concludes that resources could be saved if we shifted to meat consumption towards pork and poultry production as:

…it takes 30 kilos [66 lb] of grain to produce one kilo [2.2lb] of boneless beef… We’re better off producing grass-fed beef or more chicken and pork, which requires far less grain feed

Based on those data, Foley’s conclusion is entirely logical. However, as Carl Sagan said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” – and here the evidence is lacking. A recent review of feed efficiency by Wilkinson reports that monogastric animals require 4.0 kg (swine) or 2.3 kg (poultry) of feed per kg of gain. Monogastrics are indeed considerably more efficient than their ruminant counterparts as beef animals require 8.8 kg feed per kg gain – considerably more than swine or poultry, but far less than Foley’s estimate.

It would be convenient to argue that the errors in Foley’s feed efficiency data (not to mention religious limitations on pork consumption) negate the report’s conclusions. But isn’t it logical to argue that we should eat meat produced in systems that use fewer resources to produce animal protein? Personally, I spend more than half my time traveling to present precisely that message to the animal industry and to encourage livestock producers to improve efficiency. I absolutely believe that we need to improve productivity and efficiency in order to feed the growing population. However, traditional feed efficiency data have a major flaw – it’s assumed that all animal feed could otherwise be used to feed humans.

Wilkinson suggests that the traditional concept of feed efficiency be re-examined to reflect the quantity of human-edible crop inputs that are used to produce a unit of energy or protein from animal products. For example, humans cannot digest pasture, only 20% of the nutritional value of oilseed meals can be utilized for human food and yet 80% of nutrients within cereals, pulses and soybean meal are human-edible. By partitioning out the human-edible component of animal feed, Wilkinson demonstrates that the human-edible energy feed efficiency ratios for pork and cereal beef are similar (Figure 1*) and that dairy production actually produces twice the amount of human-edible energy than it uses (input:output ratio of 0.5). On a protein basis, cereal beef has a higher human-edible protein feed efficiency ratio (3.0) than pork (2.6), but suckler beef systems where cattle are grazed on pasture again produce more human-edible protein than they consume (input:output ratio of 0.9, Figure 2*). Not only are these revised feed efficiency estimates considerably lower than those quoted by Foley, but they underline the importance of herbivorous grazing animals in utilizing human-inedible forage to produce animal protein.

  

Numbers have power – it’s always tempting to base a suggestion around a single data point that “proves” the argument. Feed efficiency is a useful metric, but as we face an ever-increasing challenge in balancing food demand, resource availability and consumer expectations, it’s critical that we examine the bigger picture. The ruminant animal has a major evolutionary advantage in its ability to digest forages – we may be better acquainted with the human dietary advantages of probiotic bacteria than our ancestors, but until we are equipped with human rumens (humens?) we cannot hope to effectively make use of all crop resources.

*The importance of acknowledging the human-edible component of feed efficiency was part of my presentation at the Alltech Ruminant Solutions Seminar in Ireland this week – to go to a PDF copy of my presentation please click here.