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

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Putting Beef Hormones into Context (AKA “How do you Make a Hormone…?”)

No Twinkies!Disclaimer – the alternative title is the start of one of my favorite jokes – in the interests of keeping this post PG-13, I’ll post the punch line at the end.

It never ceases to amaze me how selectively paranoid we are as a society. I know I’m not alone in avoiding certain behaviors because they seem too risky – I always wear my seatbelt (even in a pick-up driving at 10 mph through a pasture), I don’t put my phone in my lap (who knows what invisible radio waves are frying my internal organs?) and I’m convinced that if I eat a Twinkie (RIP?) it’ll instantly turn me into 400 lb couch potato. Yet I also drive too fast on the interstate, drink enough coffee to keep a polar bear wired for days and have the misguided impression that I can survive on 4 hours sleep per night (thank you NCBA Cattle Industry Convention 2013 for proving me right last week). There’s no doubt that I’m more likely to come to harm from the latter set of behaviors than the former, so why the dichotomy?

It appears to comes down to two main factors:

  • The perception of relative risk – am I more likely to be injured from driving fast or from not wearing a seatbelt?
  • The extent of our knowledge about the subject – I know what risks come with caffeine consumption and I accept them in exchange for improved work productivity, but who knows how addictive Twinkies really are? There’s a reason they’re sold in multi-packs…

Thanks to the preponderance of media articles and books about food production, we’re more educated as a society than we were 10 years ago, yet we still fail to understand the concept of relative risk:

  • Environmentally, the Meatless Mondays campaigns appear to make people feel good about saving the planet even as they drive their Hummer to Whole Foods to buy quinoa and kale salad for dinner
  • Socially, reusing grocery bags reduces waste, yet appears to come with a far higher risk of contracting E. coli (thank you David Hayden)
  • Healthwise, I have lost count of the conversations I’ve had with highly educated, health-conscious women who have stopped feeding beef or milk to their kids because of the hormones used in beef or dairy production. Yet this is one area where we have a huge amount of data, we just need to put it in context.

The birth-control pill contains almost 7,000x more estrogen than a steakYes, an 8-oz steak from a steer given a hormone implant contains more estrogen than a steak from a non-implanted animal. 42% more estrogen in fact. That’s undeniable. Yet the amount of estrogen in the steak from the implanted animal is minuscule: 5.1 nanograms. One nanogram (one-billionth of a gram or one-25-billionth of an ounce) is roughly equivalent to one blade of grass on a football field.

By contrast, one birth-control pill, taken daily by over 100 million women worldwide, contains 35,000 nanograms of estrogen. That’s equivalent of eating 3,431 lbs of beef from a hormone-implanted animal, every single day. To put it another way, it’s the annual beef consumption of 59 adults. Doesn’t that put it into perspective?

If birth-control is a sensitive subject, let’s compare it to vegetables: one 8-oz serving of cabbage = 5,411 nanograms of estrogen, over 1,000 times more estrogen than the same serving size of steak from a steer given a hormone implant. Yet Huffington Post, TIME magazine et al. aren’t up in arms about the dangers posed by cabbage consumption (NB. ~4,000 cabbage producers in the USA, please don’t send me hate mail, this is just an example).

Hormones are directly or indirectly responsible for everything that we do each day, from waking up to going to sleep, from the mundane to the life-changing. Yes, they are an intrinsic part of childhood development, yet the earlier ages at maturity we’re currently seeing in children have been attributed to increased levels of body fat (i.e. childhood obesity), not to exogenous hormone consumption. I’m not downplaying the consequences that hormones have on our long-term health and survival, just asking for a little balance – after all, where’s the risk in that?

*Oh, and the punchline to the joke above… “Don’t pay her!” (Sorry….)

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).

Pesticides, Hormones and Drugs, Oh My!

“Product A is healthier than Product B

“Product C is ethically produced”

“Product D is better for the planet than Product E”

But what if it’s not? What if claims are based on one single paper out of 1,000 published papers?

What if the next human health claim “Product F contains increased concentrations of fatty acids that improve heart health and prevent cancer” is true… but the fatty acid concentrations are so low that you’d need to eat 500 lb of the food product per day to have a significant human health effect?

My all-time favorite food advertisement is posted below. It’s an amazing concept, beautifully-drawn, thought-provoking… and it says nothing. Yet if you buy any other milk, aren’t you feeding your children, grandchildren or partner with pesticides, hormones and drugs?

Marketing is awesome. Mis-marketing does nothing but confuse the consumer, the policy-maker and the retailer.

Organic Valley Advert c. 2009