The Future’s Bright; The Future’s…Meaty? A Response to Breakthrough’s Essay on Meat Production

jims-charolais-in-feedyardThis week I was asked to respond to an excellent Breakthrough article on the environmental impacts of beef production. As ever, I hope the comments below provide food for thought (pardon the pun) and I urge you to read the full Breakthrough article as well as the other comments by Jayson Lusk, Maureen Ogle and Alison van Eenennaam.

Every food has an environmental impact, whether it’s cheeseburgers or tofu, coffee or corn.

That shouldn’t come as a surprise to any of us and, as a scientist, sustainability consultant and parent, I don’t have a problem with food production being one of the biggest contributors to global environmental impacts. Why? Because food production is one of the few industries that are absolutely essential for human life. However, it’s clear that we need to take steps to reduce environmental impacts from human activity, and as such, the livestock industry is often criticised for both resource use and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Although meat production is predicted to increase from now until at least 2050, it should be noted that the trends for improved productivity and efficiency within global livestock industries also reduce environmental impacts. As described in Marian Swain’s essay on meat production, the US beef industry cut resource use and greenhouse emissions considerably between 1977 and 2007. Meanwhile, the rise of modern feedlot-finishing systems cuts land use, water use, and emissions per unit of beef compared to grass-finished meat.

These findings may seem intuitively incorrect as we’re constantly exposed to marketing and media messages suggesting that only grass-fed meats are environmentally sustainable, and that intensive livestock systems are undesirable. The data speak for themselves however—the majority of extensive systems finish cattle at lighter weights (thus requiring more total animals to maintain beef supply), have lower growth rates (so cattle take longer to grow to their finish weight) and often have lower reproductive performance in female cattle.

All these factors combine to increase environmental impacts. But when I presented this data to a group of French Masters-level Livestock Engineering students earlier this month, they were (in their own words) shocked. Even among experts and students, there remains a great deal of misunderstandings when it comes to meat production.

Does this mean that every beef producer worldwide should embrace feedlot-finishing and reduce pasture use? Absolutely not. One of the major benefits of cattle compared to swine and poultry is that they digest and use human-inedible forages, such that dairy and grass-fed beef cattle actually produce more human-edible protein in the form of milk and meat than they consume; and feedlot-finished beef cattle have a ratio of human-edible feed intake to human-edible protein output similar to that of swine, despite their greater overall land use. In keeping with the themes discussed in the Swain’s essay, there is no magic bullet—it is essential to fit production systems to the cattle, climate, market, and culture within each region and to improve productivity within each and every system.

So rather than reducing animal protein consumption as we move towards 2050, we might ponder keeping total consumption relatively stable, with a more equitable distribution across the globe? This would allow for a decrease in over-consumption in high-income regions, while providing a greater quantity of milk, meat, and eggs to those who have dire need for adequate animal proteins to maintain health and to promote adequate child growth and development. While the environmental impact of beef production is a key concern, we also have to examine the role of livestock in economic and social sustainability.  For billions of small-scale farmers, cattle provideeconomic viability, improved nutrition, social status and a means to diversify agricultural production as well as tangible benefits in terms of fertilizer, hides and other by-products.

Should we insist that global beef production is abandoned in favour of increased legumes, nuts or lab-created proteins? No. We simply need to give producers worldwide the education, tools and technologies to make the best and most efficient use of their resources. Only then will we have a truly sustainable (environmentally responsible, economically viable and socially acceptable) global meat industry.

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.

The Paradox of the Roasted Vegetable Sandwich – Do We Eat What We Preach?

Large Veggie BurgerSo here’s the question: who has been out to eat with friends, family or work colleagues, ordered what’s perceived as a virtuous (low-fat, high-fibre, gluten-free or vegetarian) meal in a restaurant, and then grabbed a Snickers bar on the way home? Or, when completing a survey, stated that you are highly concerned about animal welfare or environmental issues, then gone to the grocery store and chosen food simply based on price, taste and convenience?

I’d suggest that this is a situation common to most of us – the behaviours and image that we present to the world (including our carefully-posed selfies) do not always reveal our real personality. Which brings me to the paradox of the roasted vegetable sandwich.

Yesterday, a friend complained that as a consequence of being last in the lunch line at a conference, all that was left was a “soggy veggie sandwich.” Now I attend a lot of meetings and conferences, many of which serve sandwiches, and despite being a voracious meat eater, I’ll almost always choose the vegetarian sandwich. I love egg, hummus or roasted vegetables and really hate slimy catering mayonnaise tainting the deliciousness of roast beef or ham. Luckily for me, in my experience any sandwiches left after the initial rush are inevitably vegetarian or vegan.

Obviously my view may be biased in that I attend far more meetings with a farmer or agricultural industry audience than those attended by, say, Hollywood actors or animal rights activists. But given the number of untouched meatless sandwiches, are caterers overcatering for vegetarians and vegans in an attempt to be sensitive to diverse dietary requirements; or do survey results indicating that people intend to cut meat consumption vastly overestimate the extent to which this is actually happening? Do many people who claim to be vegetarian or vegan actually eat mostly plant-based foods (Hello Beyoncé!) with the occasional hamburger?

We are inundated with messages suggesting that meat is a socially-irresponsible choice. That Meatless Mondays are wildly popular and an increasing number of people are turning to vegetarian and vegan diets to improve their health, animal welfare or environmental impact. Indeed, one UK study of the sandwiches available in grocery stores and fast food restaurants showed that less than 3% were plant-based, and suggested that this was a significant problem for the (alleged) 35% of people who are willing to cut their meat consumption. Yet if over a third of the population were really determined to cut meat intake, wouldn’t that demand have filtered back to sandwich retailers?

Despite stated consumer interest in buying earth-friendly or high-welfare products, interest seldom translates into real-life buying behaviours. Those opposed to livestock farming often state that we could feed the world (political, social and infrastructural barriers not withstanding) if we all adopted a vegetarian or vegan diet, but it seems that we simply don’t want to.

CIWF TweetCould we give up growing crops for animal feed and feed more people with tofu and Quorn? Absolutely. Yet there’s a huge gap between philosophical ideology and real world behaviour. Rather than bewailing the allegation that one-third of global grain crops are fed to livestock (ignoring the fact that a high proportion consists of human-inedible byproducts from cereal crops grown for human use), perhaps it’s time to celebrate the fact that two-thirds of global cereals are used to feed people, without being made to feel guilty for enjoying a roast beef sandwich (no mayo please).

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.

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.

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….)

Meatless Mondays.. or More Veg Mondays?

I consider myself to be an omnivore. I love meat – the smell of grilling beef or lamb turns me into a human version of Scooby Doo drooling and begging for a Scooby snack, and I’ve been known to arm-wrestle people for the last bratwurst. I love vegetables even more than meat – anyone examining my grocery-shopping list might conclude that I have an entire colony of rabbits to support with radishes, asparagus and zucchini, and I simply don’t understand those people who don’t find immense pleasure in eating “green stuff”. Given that the Meatless Mondays campaign apparently aims to “introduce consumers to the wide variety of healthy, delicious plant-based foods available”, you might think I’d be all over it like butter on a baked potato (be still my beating heart). Yet the very phrase causes my blood pressure to rise. Snacking on carrots, celery and olives in Delta Airlines’ Sky Lounges rather than buying deep-fried Taco Bell at the airport fills me with joy, but when I order a pizza, it’s always the vegetarian supreme…with added Italian sausage.

There it is – the added sausage. Meaty, spicy goodness that adds another layer of flavor to my pizza and that, as meat, I consider to be an essential component of my diet. In the US we are more food-centered than ever before – Facebook albums are titled “food porn” and chefs are celebrities. Yet we also seem to be moving towards a culture where individual foods or nutrients are demonized. “Fat-free” and “sugar-free” are marketing terms that imply that specific nutrients are undesirable in our diet; whole aisles are devoted to gluten-free foods despite the fact that celiac disease found in less than 1% of the population; and who doesn’t have a friend who is diligently avoiding carbs, dairy or red meat on “health grounds”? Why has our society evolved to the point where those who can afford the greatest variety of foods are the most likely to demand a gluten-free, dairy-free, low-carbohydrate, macrobiotic diet as a mark of their elite status?*

Abstinence, whether on dietary or moral grounds, has always been synonymous with purity, sacrifice, and a certain level of sanctimoniousness. I am purer than you because I don’t give in to my dark desires for <<insert your sin of choice here>>. The Meatless Mondays campaign plays the abstinence hand beautifully – give up your selfish meat-eating habits for one day per week and you too can save the world by eating a bean burrito. The Humane Society of the United States inevitably supports the Meatless Mondays campaign, their comment (expressed verbatim in almost every press-release) being that it “helps spare animals from factory farms, helps our environment, and improves our health”. If “meatless” is the way forwards, meat must be an undesirable food and vegetarian diets must be healthier, just as fat-free Oreo cookies would be presumed to be a wiser nutritional choice than regular Oreos (interestingly, their calorie contents are almost identical). Yet the national carbon footprint would be reduced by less than half of one percent if everybody adopted Meatless Mondays for an entire year, and the propounded effects of meat consumption on health have not been borne out by science.

When a school district or college campus adopts the Meatless Mondays campaign, I don’t hear the buzz of black helicopters and see the hand of Wayne Pacelle on the throttle. However, I am deeply disappointed that a campaign demonizing meat consumption, suggesting that eating a hamburger is comparable to the environmental equivalent of driving at 120 mph in a Hummer or the health effects of smoking 20 cigarettes per day, is considered by so many to be a positive move forwards in feeding a hungry world. I am not suggesting that we should all eat a 16 oz T-bone steak for every meal, or that vegetarianism or veganism are not valid dietary choices. Indeed, I propose that meat-eaters be afforded the same courtesy as vegetarians or vegans – to choose foods according to their individual or religious beliefs.

So what is the future for Meatless Mondays? It’s very simple. If this campaign really aims to expose people to a wider range of vegetables and plant-based food choices, let’s simply christen it “More Veg Mondays”. Have an extra helping of broccoli with your steak, try eggplant parmegana alongside your hotdog, or replace crackers with raw celery and radishes. Rather than demonizing individual foods, let’s celebrate the fabulous variety of choices that are available to us and that allow us the opportunity to eat a balanced diet every single day. Ironically, yesterday my Monday was almost meatless – I spent the day traveling and subsisting on dried mango, chocolate-covered coffee beans and vitamin water in Chilean airports. However, I made up for it once I reached Córdoba – the Iberian ham on my pizza was the best I ever tasted, and made better by the rocket, tomatoes and olives that accompanied it (see picture above). Eat more vegetables? In an instant. Give up meat on Mondays? As Charlton Heston would say: only when you pry it from my cold dead hands.

*Please note that I do not include those who have demonstrable food allergies in this group

Vegan is Love. So Omnivore is…Hate?

When I visualize vegans* with kids (and I apologize in advance for the stereotyping but after all, this is a visualization), I have an image of a couple similar to my childhood friend Molly’s** parents. A pair of liberal arts majors, in favor of trying to have rational discussion with a toddler who’s beating her fists on the floor as she has a tantrum in the middle of Safeway, he had a huge beard, she wore hemp and they were both passionately devoted to both Molly’s education and her right to make rational choices as she developed into a miraculous human being.

So imagine my surprise when the latest kids book de jour isn’t the beautiful and life-affirming “Guess How Much I Love You“, but “Vegan is Love” a charming tale that paints graphic pictures of the perceived violence that farm animals undergo during slaughter and effectively paints all omnivorous kids as Manson-esque murderers. Reviews on Amazon.com include “Leaping and bounding toward a more peaceable world…” from singer Jason Mraz and similar compliments from the founders of Animal Acres and Farm Sanctuary. Nicely done vegan activists – get the Mommy guilt going and start a “you eat meat so you’re a murderer, get out of my sandbox” clique going in kindergarten.

I never fail to be amazed by just how narrow-minded the focus is of those opposed to animal agriculture, despite their assumed “peace, love and tolerance for all living creatures stance”. Can you imagine the consequences if a similar children’s book was published detailing the horrible life of little Trevor, born with developmental problems due to a severely restricted maternal diet during pregnancy? There would be outrage – how dare the meat-eating majority pick on a vegetable-eating minority… The funny thing is, I’ve yet to hear any omnivorous acquaintance ever seriously assert that vegetarians or vegans should be made to eat meat. Yet the activist vegan contingent are determined to pass their “morals” (note that’s ethical morals, not the delicious fungal morels) onto omnivores and impose dietary choices upon them.

Some states already have abstinence-only sex education, and many schools have “Meatless Mondays”, so what’s next? Vegan-only high school nutrition classes? Herbivorous zoology (no carnivores  allowed)?  The tale of the loaves and fishes rewritten as the loaves and the three-bean-and-lentil-surprise?  Only 1.7% of the population may be actively complaining against modern food production, but they’re not just banging the drum, they’ve hired the whole darn band.

*Before I’m accused of being a meat industry zombie or other such nonsense, I should confess that I was a vegetarian and then a strict vegan from the age of 15-17. I actually turned orange from a sensitivity to beta-carotene.

**Names have been changed 

Eating Less Meat, May Not Help You To Live Forever…But It’ll Sure Feel Like It

I know Harvard researchers are smart, I really do. Yet I have to question the latest study reporting that eating red meat is associated with premature death. Published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, the paper analyzed the relationship between mortality and red meat consumption in a total of 121,342 healthcare professionals and concluded that:

Greater consumption of unprocessed and processed red meats is associated with higher mortality risk… replacement of red meat with alternative healthy dietary components may lower the mortality risk.

As a researcher, I know full well that it’s almost impossible to prove a cause-effect relationship. This is particularly difficult in human studies where other dietary and lifestyle factors have to be accounted for. After all, if you have ketchup on your steak, does the lycopene prevent against prostate cancer? “Associated with” is therefore absolutely the correct terminology for the paper’s authors to use. Alas, in the minds of so many, “associated with” translates to “causes” (especially when it’s a bad news story), and everybody panics accordingly.

The results of this report need to be put into context with our other lifestyle choices. If, as reported, eating unprocessed or processed red meat increases the relative risk of mortality by 13% and 20% respectively, how does that compare to all our other daily activities – driving a car, drinking a glass of wine or eating a candy bar? How do we weigh the risk of consuming a steak or slice of pepperoni pizza against the bottle of Mountain Dew or unwashed raw carrot? After all, during the BSE crisis in the UK, data suggested that the risk of dying from falling out of bed and suffering a fatal head injury was far greater than that from contracting vCJD, yet there was immense consumer concern relating to the perceived dangers of beef consumption.

Relative risk is not a measure that many people understand. Within this study, the absolute mortality risks (i.e. the probability of any one person dying) paint a rather different picture. Out of every 100 men, 1.23 men consuming three servings of unprocessed meat (the equivalent of one 9-oz steak) per week were likely to die, versus 1.30 men eating 6 oz of processed meat (bacon, sausage etc) per day (42 oz per week). Given the small difference in those mortality risks (which were similar for women) yet the huge difference (9 oz vs. 42 oz) in weekly meat consumption, we would be better served by focusing more on other factors (bodyweight, exercise, genetic propensity to specific diseases) that contribute the vast majority of our absolute mortality risk rather than assuming that we can live forever if we only replace a hamburger with a vegetarian meatloaf.

Since this study hit the headlines my Facebook newsfeed predictably been over-run by anecdotes about grandparents who lived to the ripe of age of 101 years while eating bacon and eggs for breakfast, corned-beef hash for lunch and three pork chops (with extra heavy cream in the whipped potatoes) for dinner. Without wishing to be flippant, the one certainty in this life is that we’ll all die at some point – if I restricted my meat intake to the suggested 3 oz per day (or less) I have a sneaking feeling that I might not live forever, but it’d sure feel like it.

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.