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

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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)

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Big, Small, Local, Artisan… Why We Need to Kick the Food and Farming Label Habit

coffe-water-and-brownieLet’s think about marketing labels. The coffee I’m currently drinking is a new premium blend with fruity notes and hints of lemongrass, the tasting notes so extensive that I was tempted to swill it around and pretend it was a glass of vintage Malbec before the first sip (except I knew I’d end up with a caffeinated tsunami flooding my Mac). The walls of this coffee shop are plastered with buzzwords including “delicious”, “lovers” and  “changing lives”. Everything is carefully stage-managed to make me feel that I’ve wisely invested my £2.50 on a cup of branded coffee. Is this coffee more caffeine-laden than the equivalent free-cup-with-a-loyalty-card from Waitrose? Can I detect the top notes of passion fruit? Does it use less water than freeze-dried instant coffee? Will I leap tall buildings with a single bound after drinking it? Absolutely not. Yet the marketing involved makes me feel good about my choice of coffee chain and beverage, without providing any factual information to facilitate my decision.

Like it or not, marketing labels are ubiquitous, exclusive and bipolar. Black and white. Yes or no. Good or bad. Even in the scientific world, where we’re renowned for caveats and “Under this specific set of conditions we saw a significant difference in X although that can’t always extrapolate to Y….” answers to questions, media coverage of scientific research is becoming binomial. Food X will kill you. Eat food Y and you won’t get cancer. Shades of grey have ceased to exist.

Back in September 2016, Jayson Lusk published an excellent piece in the NY Times explaining the importance of technology use on modern, large-scale farms. The only issue (for me) was the title: “Why Industrial Farms Are Good for the Environment”. The supposition being, of course, that we have to dispel the myth that “industrial” farms are environmentally-undesirable. Yet using terms like “industrial” have deeper connotations – if a large farm is industrial, is a small farm artisan? If a dairy herd containing 100 cows is a “factory farm” (regardless of familial ownership or management), is the one that contains 99 cows a small, vibrant, local business? Is a farmer who is passionate about pasture management, reducing nutrient run-off and promoting biodiversity a saviour of the planet, regardless of whether he/she produces enough beef to feed one family or 5,000 families (approximately 1,700 cow herd) per year? There are as many farming systems worldwide as there are farmers – trying to apply broad categories (“big vs. small” “factory vs. humane” “grass-fed vs. grain-fed”) tells us absolutely nothing about the management practices, animal welfare, environmental sustainability and social responsibility of a particular farm.

Perhaps it’s time to take a evidence-based approach. The consumer absolutely has a right to choose products from agricultural systems that they prefer, yet this needs to be provided via factual, quantifiable information rather than marketing buzzwords. Being told that a piece of pork pie is “artisan” or that Supermarket X’s beef mince costs 20 p/kg less does not facilitate informed decision-making.

If we assume that all other factors (including price) relating to food purchase are equal:

  • Eggs from Farm X are ranked 9.5/10 on supporting the local community
  • Eggs from Farm Y have an animal welfare rating 10% higher than average
  • Eggs from Farm Z eggs have a carbon footprint 25% lower than average

I wonder how many consumers choosing eggs based on measurable performance outcomes would be supporting a different production system than the one that they perceive to be best? We (as an agricultural industry as well as in the role that we all play as consumers) need factual information on labels rather than marketing buzzwords.

We would also have a better understanding of the issues that really are important to the consumer. I was recently asked whether I was concerned about antibiotic use in livestock. The obvious answer was “Yes”… yet my main concern was the challenge of eliminating the use of medically-important antibiotics (while maintaining access to veterinary antibiotics that have no impact on human medicine), reducing antimicrobial resistance and improving the health and welfare of global livestock populations through alternative technologies and management practices. Not surprisingly, my answer didn’t fit with the assumed “I’m concerned because everybody knows that farmers massively overuse antibiotics as a panacea for poor management” rationale.

Recent data from a global charity suggests that almost 90% of Indian consumers are deeply concerned about cattle health and welfare on dairy farms. Great. Does this mean they’d pay more for milk to improve dairy cow welfare? That they were given factual information about dairy production? That they understand the relative environmental impacts, cattle health issues and social impacts of various dairy systems? All unlikely. We face a number of challenges within agriculture – notably the need to produce enough safe, affordable food to feed the growing population, whilst using fewer resources and with a lower environmental impact. We cannot and should not expect to make informed decisions on food choices based on marketing buzzwords – it’s time to stop differentiating on farm size or system and examine real farm impacts.

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):

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  • 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.

“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).