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.

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Taking the pledge – Meat as the new Mephistopheles?

Post-prohibition, is meat the new devil?

My Grandpa, a strict Methodist, took the pledge to abstain from alcohol back in the 1940’s when the church was endorsing Prohibition via the Temperance movement in the UK. It was an entirely personal choice for him, one that he felt was right for his lifestyle and a cause that he didn’t try to recruit other people to join. Admittedly it filtered down to his children and even had some influence on his grandchildren, although for my brothers, cousins and me the effect is now somewhat akin to adding a single ice-cube to a tumbler of whiskey.

In 1889, George Sim described slum areas where drinking was commonplace thus:

The gin-palace is heaven to them compared to the hell of their pestilent homes… The drink dulls every sense of shame, takes the sharp edge from sorrow, and leaves the drinker for awhile in a fools’ paradise… It is not only crime and vice and disorder flourish luxuriantly in these colonies, through the dirt and discomfort bred of intemperance of the inhabitants, but the effect upon the children is terrible. The offspring of drunken fathers and mothers inherit not only a tendency to vice, but they come into the world physically and mentally unfit to conquer in life’s battle. The wretched, stunted, misshapen child-object one comes upon in these localities is the most painful part of our explorers’ experience. The country asylums are crowded with pauper idiots and lunatics, who owe their wretched condition of the sin of the parents, and the rates are heavily burdened with the maintenance of the idiot offspring of drunkenness.

Given such strong words, it’s not surprising that alcohol was considered by many to be the root of all evil. In this modern world, where a myriad of organizations exist to help us with our addictions to the more insidiously hedonistic pleasures in life*, surely we are beyond taking the pledge?

Alas no, the Environmental Working Group is at it again, this time with a pledge that they aim to get 100,000 supporters to sign. That’s right, you can save the planet by simply clicking a button on the internet stating that:

I pledge to skip meat one day a week and to include more healthy fruits and vegetables in my diet. Not only will I be doing something good for my body, I’ll also be doing something good for the environment.

So, let’s assume 100,000 people sign up for this. That will cut the USA’s carbon footprint by 0.00014% (it would only be 0.44% if the entire population took the pledge *and* actually stuck to it). Hardly a significant environmental effect.

What would you replace meat with? Jack-in-a-Box Jalapeno poppers? A couple of Twinkies? A 1/2 lb soy burger? It’s rational to assume that giving up meat for one day a week will not suddenly cause everybody to have more time to cook, or to prepare fresh exotic salads from scratch – the basic food preferences will stay the same, simply without meat.

So the chicken breast, hamburger or pork chop is replaced by a vegetarian burrito – one from Chipotle no less, which has made a big play of not using rbST and other hormones. According to USDA’s nutrient database, the calorie content of an 8 oz steak is 581 calories with 35 grams of fat.  An 8 oz pork chop has 524 calories with 38 grams of fat. The vegetarian burrito? Chipotle lists nutritional information by ingredient, luckily the handy dandy My Fitness Pal website has put together all those ingredients –  750 calories with 27 grams of fat. Hardly a short-cut to becoming a lean, mean fitness machine.

Life is all about choices, and all dietary choices have environmental and health consequences. The Temperance movement believed abstaining from alcohol made for a better life and (via Methodism) a promise of a better afterlife. Can the same really said of abstaining from meat for one day per week? Should meat be renamed Mephistopheles – or is abstention simply another short-term panacea by which we can feel better about our health, environment and karma via bad science and vegetarian spin?

*Personally, I need a “Cinnabon Lovers Anonymous” help-group

Meatless Mondays don’t amount to a hill of beans – or do they?

Eat alfalfa, save the planet?

Today’s Thursday, so presumably we can all enjoy a hamburger without being made to feel guilty by the virtuous soy-eaters who are saving the planet (thanks Environmental Working Group). But what happens when the weekend is over, Monday morning appears in all it’s miserable beginning-of-the-week glory and we’re choosing lunch? According to many schools, universities, hospitals, retirement complexes and workplaces, Monday is the day when you can make a difference!

Simply by replacing that ham and cheese with a nice alfalfa and hummus wrap, we can all sleep safely knowing that our hummer driving and air-conditioning set at 65 degrees isn’t harming the environment – after all, we went meatless today! So what’s the real impact of Meatless Mondays?

If you believe the hyperbolic text of the EWG’s recently released report, animal agriculture is the root of all environmental evil. Yet buried on page 21 is the admission that animal agriculture only accounts for 4.5% of the US’s carbon footprint. The EPA has a somewhat smaller, but similar figure at 3.1% of total emissions. The original Meatless Mondays claim appears to have been derived from a paper from Carnegie Mellon that concludes:

Shifting less than one day per week’s worth of calories from red meat and dairy products to chicken, fish, eggs, or a vegetable-based diet achieves more GHG reduction than buying all locally sourced food.

So let’s do the math. Removing poultry and horses from the EPA’s animal agriculture total of 3.1% gives a red meat/dairy impact of 3.05%. Divide that by 7, and the impact of one meatless day per week is equal to 0.44% of the US carbon footprint – and that’s assuming that the US population of 311 million people all adopt this lifestyle change.

0.44% is minuscule. A tiny fraction of the impact that we could make on the carbon footprint. But if we put it in consumer-friendly numbers, it’s like taking 5.7 million cars off the road each year, or planting 4.5 billion trees. Sounds far more compelling now doesn’t it? But how does that compare to the impact of powering the MacBook upon which I’m currently writing this post during a 3 hour cross-country airplane flight, followed by a 90 minute drive home? Not to mention all the other environmentally-damaging actions I’ll execute before the day is out.

In a world where we have a wildly tenuous grasp on the immediate or long-term environmental consequences of the majority of our actions, we really need to assess the environmental impact of simply existing as a human. Forget demonizing specific foods, or pretending that one single action can save the planet – we need to understand and quantify how all our choices have consequences – and act accordingly.