Let’s Raise a Glass to the Dairy Cow

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAToday is Cow Appreciation Day and Elanco Animal Health have kindly asked me to write a few words for their 360º blog in praise of the magnificent foster mother of the human race. Here’s a short extract to whet your appetite:

…My 3-year-old daughter often tells me: “Mummy, milk is important to help me grow” and, although we are incredibly lucky to live in a world with myriad food choices, it’s important to bear in mind that not all foods positioned near to dairy products in the supermarket have the same nutritional benefits.

In conversations with fellow parents, I have often heard the suggestion that young children should be transitioned away from dairy milk towards soy or other beverages, in the belief that any drink sold as “milk” is nutritionally-equivalent. The European Court of Justice recently ruled that plant-based beverages such as soy, almond or rice juice can no longer be labelled as “milk”, therefore this may reduce parental confusion, yet it seems that replacing dairy products with plant-based foods has already had significant effects…

The full text (with many other great commentaries) is available here. Enjoy!

Jamie Oliver Should Be Presenting Friday Night Farming Facts – Not Feasting On Foodie Fiction


Commercial dairy cows in Cumbria – should they be “retired” before slaughter?

Good grief. Just when I think I’ve heard it all, another food pundit comes up with an idea so daft that you could bottle it and sell it as vegan, gluten-free, dairy-free, humanely-reared organic water. The latest brainwave from Jamie Oliver is to “retire” old dairy cows onto pasture, where they can graze for four years before producing highly-marbled beef. Contrary to most of the breed-related marketing, Holstein beef is pretty good, so it’s a mouth-watering concept until we take a step back and think about the actual sustainability impacts.

Producing beef from cull dairy cattle? Excellent idea. I once had a heated argument with an activist protestor outside the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC who seemed surprised that, when he told me that most cull dairy cows end up as burgers, I didn’t renounce my heathen ways and immediately seek out the nearest tofu burrito. It makes perfect sense – where would be the logic in discarding an entire cow’s worth (~301 kg) of nutritious, delicious beef simply to bury, burn or use the meat for non-food purposes? Indeed, ~50% of the UK (and ~24% of the US) beef supply comes either from cull dairy cows or dairy calves reared for beef.

Is there an argument for giving extra feed to cows that are going to be culled so that they get a little fatter and produce tastier beef? Yes indeed, adding value to cull dairy cows is a great idea, especially when the beef price is high. But here’s the rub. The average dairy cow in the U.K. is culled at 6.4 years of age. By that time she should have reached her mature weight, which means that the majority of extra weight she puts on in “retirement” is fat. Although we love the streaks of intramuscular fat that we see in a steak (marbling) and enjoy the depth of flavour that gives to the meat, the vast majority of fat on a carcass isn’t particularly edible. So we’re feeding a cow for four years of retirement in order to discard (or rather render into tallow – perhaps to make some £5 notes?) a significant proportion of the weight that she gains.

A cow will eat 2-2.5% of her body weight in dry matter every single day. Four years of feeding a 700 kg cow = 4 x 365 days x 700 kg x 0.025 = 25,550 kg of feed dry matter, or 106,458 kg of fresh grass given that it’s only ~24% dry matter. Plus 4-years worth of drinking water, manure and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. A hefty environmental impact compared, for example, to rearing two beef steers on the same amount of pasture over a 4-year period, in addition to culling the dairy cow when she leaves the herd (sans retirement). That scenario would provide 200% more beef (~900 kg total, even allowing for the lighter weight for grass-finished vs. grain-fed steers) from the same amount of pasture and with a smaller total quantity of manure and GHG emissions because the growing animals are lighter in weight throughout, therefore excrete and emit less*.

I can’t decide whether the increasingly asinine proposals for sustainable food production propounded by Jamie Oliver’s “Friday Night Feast” programme, which recently left the casual viewer with the impression that welfare of housed dairy cows is equivalent to that of battery hens are serious, or simply a way to court fame through controversy. However, the number of tweets lauding the programme’s food philosophy is alarming given the amount of time devoted to non-sustainable ideology. Time for TV programmers to redress the balance with some Friday Night Facts vs. Fiction?

*Note that I have not accounted for the beef cows needed to produce the steers, nor for the cost of rearing the dairy cow or the heifer needed to replace her in dairy herd. This is not a full system assessment, but simply about the best use of a unit of pasture area – adding fat to a mature cow (less efficient) or adding muscle and fat to growing animals (more efficient)

Mutton Dressed as Lamb? “British” is a Regional Descriptor, not a Brand Name.

waitroseCelebrity chefs, farmers markets and media publications continually tell us that we should buy British food. In contrast to the 1990s yuppie ideal of airfreighted Icelandic strawberries in January, local food is the new sexy. Locavores salivate at the mention of village-grown carrots so spindly that they look like an advanced case of rickets and eggs at £6 per half dozen with speckled blue shells that perfectly match their Farrow & Ball kitchen wallpaper.

Yet local food has apparently become such a marketing campaign staple, it’s reached the point where “British” is no longer a description of origin or culture, but simply a brand name. In a string of tweets between Waitrose and a number of not-unreasonably incensed farmers, agricultural industry professionals and consumers, it emerges that selling New Zealand lamb under the label “British lamb with mint and redcurrant” is entirely acceptable, as “British” is simply used to denote the origin of the dish.

To be fair, nobody expects shepherds pie to be made from real shepherds, or toad-in-the-hole to contain tasty morsels of marinated natterjack. However, in an era when we care about how, where and when food is produced; and especially given the recent Tesco “fake farms” debacle, it’s difficult to believe that any marketing department could, with a straight face, announce that “British” is simply a brand name. What’s next? Cans of Special Brew sold under the new “champagne” brand?

A certain level of mistrust already exists between the consumer, retailer and farmer, with many consumers believing that the food industry lacks transparency. Traceability and clear labelling are increasingly important to the food-savvy consumer, yet these types of marketing initiative appear to be yet more attempts to manipulate consumer buying behaviour.

Absolutely no offence is intended to New Zealand sheep farmers who do produce fabulous meat, but when lamb from overseas is prominently labelled “British” (despite the seldom-read small print), consumers may feel misled and lose trust in buying British food. By all means celebrate the rich traditions of British cuisine, but please Waitrose, stop dressing mutton as lamb.

Low Meat, Faux Meat or No Meat – Should Retailers Really Reward Us for Buying Vegetarian Foods?

All food have an environmental impact

There’s no doubt that eating more fruit and vegetables is a positive idea. Nationally we still don’t hit our 5-per-day and lifestyle diseases are major causes of premature death. However, as Sainsbury’s redesigns aisles to try and convince shoppers to swap meat for vegetables and plans to issue extra loyalty points to customers choosing vegetarian foods, are we in danger of applying myopic solutions to a seriously complex issue?

Most people in developed countries eat more than the recommended 70 g of meat per day. If (and this is debatable) the researchers who claim that meat consumption is linked to lifestyle disease are correct, then reducing the amount that we eat may be a positive step. However, much of the justification for cutting meat consumption appears to be on the basis of reducing environmental impacts.

So how do we ensure that we eat a diet with a low carbon footprint? It’s very simple. Drewnowski et al. (2015) showed that grains, syrups and sugars had the lowest carbon emissions per kg of food – considerably lower than meat and dairy products. So we simply reduce the proportion of meat and increase the quantity of sugar that we eat each day. Just replace meat products with Mars bars and golden syrup and we’ll save the planet, albeit in conjunction with a spike in type II diabetes and a significant protein deficit.

If Sainsbury’s is determined to reward consumers for making healthier choices, why not do so based on the proportion of fruit, vegetables, lean protein and dairy purchased vs. cakes, biscuits and crisps; rather than giving extra loyalty points for vegetarian products? After all, a snickers bar or a packet of oven chips are both vegetarian, but meat-free foods are not inherently healthy choices. Furthermore, where do fish and dairy fit into the new regime? Given the low nutritional value of soy and oat juices per unit of greenhouse gas emissions compared to dairy, the potential for child malnourishment is considerable if plant-based foods are mis-sold as being nutritionally-equivalent to animal products.

Bipolar “A is bad, B is good” panaceas do nothing to improve consumer knowledge of food production or environmental impacts. Strawberries may have a lower carbon footprint than beef, but cannot be grown on a rocky slope in Scotland. Pork may have a relatively high water footprint, but almonds use even more. Lettuce is a great source of fibre, but provides very little additional nutrients per kg compared to meat. In my experience as an ex-vegan, the majority of vegan restaurant dishes are largely reliant on pasta or rice to bulk out the vegetables. Is this really a healthier choice than lean meat and vegetables? Given that many young people have little or no interest in cooking, is the presence of spiralised courgettes or cauliflower rice at the end of the aisle going to engender a sudden interest in all things gastronomic?

Most people’s diets are led (to a greater or lesser extent) by the foods available in the local supermarket, therefore retailers have huge opportunities to educate, encourage and improve our food choices. It’s not clear why Sainsbury’s would choose to launch this initiative, but it appears to be a box-ticking exercise, designed to address a single minor issue while ignoring the bigger problem.

Where’s the Beef? Not in Danish Diets.

Culvers burgerFor those of us in the UK, mentioning Danish livestock production almost inevitably leads to thoughts of Danish bacon (be still my beating heart) – a considerable proportion of their 90% of domestic pork products that are exported. However, any beef lovers in Denmark may be in trouble, as recent news articles suggest that red meat (beginning with beef) will soon be taxed in order to cut consumption and meet greenhouse gas targets.

Despite the number of voices clamouring for reduced meat consumption, it seems clear that the average consumer isn’t going to forgo meat and dairy simply because a new study is publicised in the lay press. I’m firmly of the opinion that the only way that meat consumption will decline is if it becomes too expensive to include in the weekly shopping basket. Indeed, although meat consumption per capita has declined in the USA over the past 10 years, demand (as measured by the price that the consumer is willing to pay) has increased over recent years.

So will taxing meat lead to a reduction in consumption? For those who routinely order a 16 oz (454 g) steak in a restaurant or think nothing of tucking into a chateaubriand, probably not. High end cuts of beef are associated with celebrations and luxury dining, and going out for a broccoli pasta bake just doesn’t have that same ring to it.

However, we live in a world where 793 million people (10.7 % of the global population) are undernourished – and that isn’t simply confined to people in developing regions. That means that almost 1 in 9 people do not have enough food. To low-income consumers, food availability isn’t simply a function of what is on the shelf in the supermarket, it’s directly related to economic cost and convenience. If red meat is taxed, it will still be eaten, but there will be a disproportionate shift towards consumers with a greater income and away from those who are in most need of affordable high-quality protein, including growing children.

Do beef alternatives exist? Absolutely – protein can be supplied from other meats, fish or vegetable-based foods. Yet here’s where the convenience aspect comes in – most of us can probably think of a quick and easy recipe involving beef, but how many can you think of involving tofu or lentils? That’s not to say that we shouldn’t expand our cooking repertoires, but when time is at a premium, quick easy recipes that will feed a family win every time.

If beef becomes unaffordable, it will have to be replaced by another protein – but this substitution does not occur at zero cost. Can tofu or lentils be produced on low-quality pastureland where we can’t grow other human food or fibre crops? Do pork or poultry make such efficient use of forages, pastures and by-products from human food and fibre production that, far from competing with humans for food, the animals produce more human-edible energy or protein than they consume? No. The only livestock that do this are those pesky greenhouse gas-belching bovines.

Greenhouse gases are important, but they are not the only factor that we should consider when advocating for sustainable dietary choices. In a world where millions of people are food-insecure, removing a protein choice from the table of those with low incomes simply adds to the problem of how to feed the world – sustainably.

Seeing the Bigger Picture – Why One-Dimensional Panaceas Do Not Solve Sustainability Issues

This week, another paper has been released claiming that we should change to a vegetarian diet in order to “…cut global food emissions by two thirds and save millions of lives“. As ever, media coverage of the paper by Springmann et al. ignored salient points regarding the importance of increasing fruit and vegetable consumption and reducing energy intake in reducing deaths from heart disease, cancer and diabetes; and simply focused on the claim that reducing meat intake would improve health and cut greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). The simple message to the consumer? Go vegetarian.

So are GHGs the only important environmental metric? Absolutely not. What about land use? Air quality? Fossil fuel consumption? Water use? Biodiversity? The myopic focus on GHGs as the only arbiter of environmental sustainability completely ignores these factors, yet the results of the current study (and similar papers) are promoted worldwide as a panacea to solve all environmental issues.

Can you imagine a world where we only look at one consequence of our actions? Where our only consideration when buying a car is the colour of its paint? Or the criteria for accepting a new job is whether they have good coffee in the canteen? Surely a ridiculous idea – all of our actions have direct and indirect consequences, some predictable, some entirely unforeseen, and we weigh up these outcomes with every decision that we make – including dietary choice. If we examine a number of the assumptions and recommendations within the current paper, it’s apparent that the negative consequences of the one-dimensional GHG focus may outweigh any benefits gained.

Although a regional approach was used to assess population health impacts, greenhouse gas emissions in the paper were based on reference values for various foods, with the inherent presupposition that all livestock production systems are equally productive and efficient. This is a fatally-flawed assumption. If we take beef as the example: in the USA, 90% of cows have a calf every year, cows first calve at 24 months of age and growing cattle are slaughtered at 15 months of age. By contrast, in Brazil, 60% of cows have a calf every year, cows first calve at 36 months of age and growing cattle are slaughtered at 42 months of age. Both systems are suited to the resources and market available, but have wildly different efficiencies. Consumption of a US-produced steak (16.7 kg CO2/kg) will therefore have a far lesser contribution to the average person’s carbon footprint than a Brazilian steak (62.0 kg CO2/kg).

All food have an environmental impact

Replacing milk, meat and eggs with plant-based foods (legumes, nuts, etc) is entirely possible, yet it does not occur at zero environmental cost. Every single food that we consume has an environmental impact, and although the greenhouse gas emissions associated with a unit of lettuce or beans may be less than pork or beef (asparagus is a notable exception), the land required to produce equivalent energy or protein from plants is significant.

We cannot simply remove cattle from the low-quality range and pastureland that they occupy in the majority of grazing regions and assume that we can plant brussels sprouts or soybeans instead. Only a small percentage of pastureland is productive enough to produce human food or fibre crops (8.0% in the USA and 10.8% in the UK). The fact that pastureland would have to be converted to cropland, releasing sequestered carbon dioxide to the atmosphere and increasing the use of fertilisers and irrigation water, was not accounted for in Springmann et al.’s study. Indeed, from where would we source fertilisers for crop production if we significantly cut meat consumption and thus livestock populations? Is an increased reliance on dwindling reserves of inorganic N, P and K really a sustainable solution?

Finally, and most importantly, cattle do not simply exist as a source of milk or meat. In many developing countries, immense cultural significance is placed upon livestock ownership and ruminant animals play a vital role in supplying draught power, capital assets and agricultural enterprise diversification. Should a single mitigating factor for reducing GHG emissions overcome the moral obligation to support and assist subsistence farmers in developing regions? It’s vital that we take a holistic view that encompasses environmental responsibility, economic viability and social acceptability in order to improve food system sustainability rather than simply focusing on one aspect of the problem. Rather than taking a whole-system approach to environmental and human health, the study by Springmann et al. is akin to amputating both legs in order to try and cure arthritis. Short-term pain may be reduced, but long-term suffering is inevitable.

Cutting Meat? Or Just Cutting Corners?

DexterIt is equally interesting, inevitable and lamentable to see that another study has come out claiming that the only way to reduce climate change is to cut meat consumption per person.

Meat consumption appears to be the only human activity subject to continuous “we must cease/reduce this” claims on the basis of environmental impacts. If we compare to other greenhouse gas sources, a considerable proportion come from transportation. Yet rather than insisting that every car-owner cut their annual mileage by 25%, the focus has been on reducing emissions by producing more fuel-efficient vehicles. Similarly, no one has yet claimed that we should reduce household lighting by four hours per day, but the compact fluorescent lightbulb (CFL) has become the poster child for improving household energy efficiency.

We have demonstrable proof that beef and dairy producers have improved greenhouse gas emissions (as well as land use, water use, energy efficiency, etc) over time through improved efficiency, and can continue to do so into the future. So why are the gains made by livestock producers dismissed, and reduced meat intakes seen as the only solution? I have an absolute hatred of conspiracy theories, but it is difficult not to see an latent agenda in the preponderance of “Cut meat consumption” papers. Jumping on the bandwagon? Promoting individual dietary opinions as science? Or simply bowing to NGO/media opinions and looking for easy funding and publicity?

As the global population increases to over 9.5 billion people by 2050, with the majority of this growth occurring in the developing world, the demand for milk, meat and eggs is going to increase by 60%. If we are serious about cutting greenhouse gas emissions, it’s time to examine the impacts of all of our actions and concentrate on further efficiency improvements rather than constraining dietary choice.

Does Nature Really “Do Its Thing” on Organic Farms?

Fridge picI am lucky. My fridge is full of food: mostly produced in the UK or Europe; all nutritious, safe and affordable; and almost all produced on conventional farms, with a small amount of organic food (in my case, chocolate). Given that you’re reading this, I’ll hazard a guess that you are lucky too. 795 million other people can’t say the same thing – and feeding all the people on a planet where 1 in 9 don’t currently have enough food is, in my view, our biggest challenge.

The fact that we face this challenge makes me really irritated when celebrity chefs who could make a huge difference, bow instead to popular rhetoric. In his latest blog post, mockney chef and food pundit Jamie Oliver proclaims that “…organic food is natural food, where nature has been allowed to do its thing, and I’m sure most of us will agree that putting natural ingredients into our bodies is only going to be a positive thing.”

If we ignore the nonsensical claim that natural ingredients produce positive results (Really? Let’s examine puffer fish, solanaceae poisoning, dangerous fungi, absinthe, the many consequences of obesity…), let’s simply look at his claim that organic food is natural.  Except, well, it’s not. Agriculture first developed ~12,000 years ago, and ever since then farmers have been doing their best to breed crops and animals that are best suited to their farming system, whether it’s organic or conventional. Want dairy cows that produce high-quality milk from grazing pasture; leaner pork chops; or strawberries that can survive supermarket handling? You’ve got it. All achieved through traditional breeding techniques (otherwise known as “nature doing its thing”): noting that plant or animal A has desirable characteristics and breeding it with plant or animal B to (hopefully) produce better offspring. No scary chemicals, scientists with syringes or genes in test-tubes. Every farm in the world is founded on “nature doing its thing” – not just the organic farms. We can argue whether GMO crops are natural (breeding techniques are simply more refined and specific) or not (scientists playing god…) but that argument becomes redundant in the EU and many other regions, where GMO crops are not approved.

Can organic producers use pesticides? Yes, if they’re compounds approved for organic production (e.g. highly-toxic copper-based fungicides). Can they use antibiotics and wormers? Again yes, if a proven disease problem exists (note that rules differ slightly between the UK and USA). Are organic farmers just merrily sitting back and letting their crops cross-pollinate and reseed, and their bulls run around happily “doing their thing” to whichever cow they come across? No. It’s a beautiful bucolic image to suggest that organic farmers are happily working with Mother Nature whereas conventional farmers have an evil scientist sitting on one shoulder and a big agribusiness corporation on the other, but its simply not true.

According to Mr Oliver, “…the simple fact is that often we don’t actually have to interfere with nature.” The idea of a world where we could feed over 7 billion people without having to actually invest any research dollars into improving food production is lovely, but it’s smoke and mirrors. At the most basic level, what happens if we don’t “interfere” by controlling weeds (whether by chemicals, mechanical tillage or human labour)? Crop yields are reduced, food production goes down and we feed and clothe fewer people. What happens if a cow has problems giving birth? In nature, she dies. On a farm (whether organic or conventional) both she and the calf are saved, providing milk and meat for us to eat. According to the World Organisation for Animal Health, 20% of global animal protein losses are due to diseases for which treatments already exist – we simply need to make them available to every farmer worldwide. Just think how many more people we could feed if we interfered with nature in that way?

Huge amounts of research monies are invested each year to find ways to improve food production on both organic and conventional farms worldwide. Some are highly technical, others are simple, but all are contributing to the goal of feeding the world. Unfortunately, when food pundits jump on the “let’s promote system X” bandwagon as Mr Oliver has done with organic production, using persuasive but false arguments, we lose traction in fulfilling the real goal. Rather than arguing about which foods we can/should be buying, we need to accept that there’s a place for all systems; examine the ways in which all systems can improve soil fertility, animal health and environmental impacts; and make faster progress towards feeding the world while still enjoying our food choices.

(Almost) Wordless Wednesday

IMG_3166aSheep’s head broth, brains in parsley sauce optional. Nostalgic foodies in happy-heirloom-beet-utopia claim that we shouldn’t eat anything that our Great-Great Grandmother wouldn’t recognise as food – yet it works both ways. Follow the soup with a fish custard and a jam pudding and you have the perfect 1950’s meal – in line with the dietary recommendations of the day – 1/6 of your diet as fat, 1/6 protein and 2/3 carbs. Yummy!

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.