Defending Conventional Beef in The Wall St Journal Today!

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

Given my blog subtitle, I thought I should link to it! Would love to read your comments. Article here:

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.

“Humane” Becomes Synonymous with Agenda-Driven Marketing

Over the past few years, certain words have evolved to invoke an involuntary shudder that I cannot suppress. “Sustainability” is first on the list (painfully ironic given that it’s the focus of my entire professional output), as it has so many definitions that it has become almost meaningless. Second place is reserved for “humane” when applied to livestock systems as a marketing term.

Raising animals humanely is an excellent concept; indeed it’s so important that it is already a key focus of the entire beef industry, not simply a niche market of accredited suppliers. National programs such as Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) exist to demonstrate to consumers that cattle are managed correctly. Indeed, recent surveys show that although the majority of large producers are familiar with BQA, even those that aren’t consider the various management practices involved to be important. When I asked a rancher friend how he defined “humanely-raised animals”, he emailed back with:

“To me, humanely-raised animals are provided adequate, balanced nutrition, water, veterinary care and shelter from extreme weather.”

So, we’re all on the same page…right?

Apparently not. In apparent despair at the “self-regulation” performed by the beef industry, Bon Appetit have announced that they will only buy “humanely-raised” meat; sourcing all their loose ground beef and beef patties from suppliers who meet strict animal welfare standards. So who’s defining “humanely-raised” for Bon Appetit? Four independent animal welfare organizations: Animal Welfare Approved (AWA), Food Alliance (FA, my abbreviation), Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC, my abbreviation) and Global Animal Partnership (GAP). Bon Appetit’s CEO Fedele Bauccio is cited as wanting to change conventional and/or large-scale beef production practices, yet representatives from conventional beef production are missing from the Board of Directors of all four organizations. Instead, Bon Appetit has a seat on the board of both FA and HFAC, and both GAP and HFAC have representatives from the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) on their boards*.

Without wanting to elevate the omnipotent fear of circling black helicopters still further, independent is an interesting descriptor for these groups as none of them could be considered agenda-free with regards to conventional beef production. Their management standards** certainly lead to some interesting welfare considerations. For example, producers on stage 5 of GAP’s program for beef must not castrate, disbud or brand their animals. I imagine the presumed welfare advantages of not performing these physical alterations will be of great comfort to those trying to corral intact, horned 1,300 lb bulls if they escape from their pasture onto the road. Feedlots are prohibited by AWA’s standards – indeed, AWA are such a friend of conventional production that they even find time to try to debunk the science regarding corn-fed and grass-fed beef production with “we all know…” claims.

Perhaps most alarming are the various attitudes towards pharmaceutical products. AWA states that homeopathic, herbal or other non-antibiotic alternatives are preferred for the treatment of disease, although with the caveat that should they not prove effective, antibiotics may be used. If effective non-antibiotic treatments existed, given the tight margins in beef production, wouldn’t we already be using them? Furthermore, for how long should we try and treat a dehydrated, diarrhea-coated, coccidiosis-infected calf with fairy dust and rainbows before we use an anticoccidial drug? FA states that an animal cannot be sold under the accreditation program if it has received antibiotics within 100 days of slaughter (farewell accreditation premium!) and GAP prohibits therapeutic use of antibiotics, ionophores, or sulfa drugs for market animals. If disease occurs, the producer is economically penalized either way – by removing the animal from the program or by having an untreated sick animal picked out by the buyer. It appears that philosophical ideals and marketing hyperbole may triumph over management practices that are humane by any standards – providing appropriate, effective care to a sick animal.

If Bon Appetit’s aim is to change (improve?) practices throughout the beef industry, the logical strategy would be to listen to and work directly with the farmers and ranchers who produce the majority of the nation’s beef, by interacting with the check-off programs. By catering to production systems that prohibit management practices that enable us to raise safe, affordable, environmentally-sustainable beef, and discourage effective veterinary treatment of sick animals, “humane raising” is anything but.

*Animal Welfare Approved BoardCertified Humane Board; Food Alliance Board; Global Animal Partnership Board 

**Animal Welfare Approved StandardsCertified Humane Standards; Food Alliance Standards; Global Animal Partnership Standards

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

Meat Quality is Related to Care?

I had one of those “What the XXX?” moments when reading a blog post today. The “Accidental Hedonist” posted the following:

“Ultimately, my guess is that the flavor of grass fed beef comes down to the quality of care given given to the cattle by the rancher”

I’m glad she put guess in italics, because she may as well have substituted the second half of the sentence for <<insert your own half-baked idea here>>.

Obviously the way that animals are cared for makes a difference. If animals are diseased, have a high parasite burden or are exposed to extreme temperatures or weather conditions, their productivity, growth and potentially meat flavor may be affected.

Yet her post seems to imply a utopian grass-fed paradise where the rancher goes out and tenderly caresses each animal, whispering sweet nothings into their ears and telling them about the happy ranch in the sky where they’ll frolic and kick their heels some day soon. Those efficiency-driven feedlot guys produce identical, anonymous widget cattle that by implication, must taste bland.

I’m an animal scientist not a meat scientist (for great meat science info head on over to itweetmeat’s blog) but I know that cattle diet, age at slaughter and post-harvest processing have a huge influence on meat flavor.

If only every self-proclaimed expert* (I eat food, so I know all about it, right?) did a little research before they published their guesses. La, la, la, la, luddite?

*Please note – I do not claim to be an expert in anything. Apart from perhaps eating carrots for 33 years on four continents (and even that expertise is debatable).