Cattle, Cowgirl Boots And Cancer

581677_10153042743360587_388837289_nLast week I was lucky enough to chat with the fabulous Will Evans, a Welsh cattle and hen farmer on his Rock and Roll Farming podcast.

Unlike most of my media interviews, which are focus entirely on sustainability and have me spouting numbers like data is going out of fashion; this was a huge amount of fun and Will got me admitting to a celebrity crush, the fact that I have to put bacon and cheese on hot cross buns and the fact that, as an undergrad, I was so useless at presentations that even the lecturers felt sorry for me.

So if you fancy listening to a fabulous Welsh accent (Will) and a slightly overexcited Oxford/Shropshire/Montana-hybrid (me) discussing the best types of cheese, beating cancer at 25 and the perils of being a reformed vegan in addition to the best way to ensure future livestock sustainability (hint: there’s no one-size-fits-all), check it out here.

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

img_4311

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)

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.

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.

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 Size Matter? Dairy Efficiency Becoming Paramount During Crisis

Media articles relating to agriculture appear to fall into two groups. Those relating to small-scale agriculture are glowing accounts of farmers wearing overalls and straw hats; lovingly taking care of the land and animals according to holistic principles; and selling their produce at the local farmers’ market. By contrast, commentary upon large-scale agriculture invokes images of corporate-controlled factory farms with blatant disregard for animal welfare and local community issues; blithely pumping animal manure into water courses.

To consumers, the majority of whom do not understand agriculture, but have questions about how their food is produced, the choice (as presented by the media) is clear. Small farms must be better for the environment, the economy and the local community. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), we need to sustainably intensify food production over the coming years in order to feed the increasing global population. For many however, the concept of intensification and high-efficiency production systems appears to be contrary to the holistic, small-farm philosophy.

Small cows dominateI will be presenting at the “World Congress on Controversies and Consensus in Bovine Health, Industry & Economics” in Berlin later this week, and have been asked to debate the question “Are hyper-intensive, mega farms more efficient?” If we examine the science, the results are unequivocal.

To use the U.S. dairy industry as an example: over three-quarters (76.7%) of dairy farms have small herds (less than 100 cows) and only 4.2% are large, with more than 500 cows in the herd. Yet the contribution to total milk supply is disproportionate – those 76.7% of herds containing <100 cows produce only 13.7% of U.S. milk, whereas the 4.2% of farms with >500 cows produce 63.0% of U.S. milk. A 17% Large cows dominateincrease in milk yield per cow is exhibited in large herds compared to small herds – does this mean that so-called mega farms are more efficient? Yes. They have a higher output of milk per unit of input. Data from the FAO also shows that as milk yield increases, the carbon footprint (and other resource use impacts) per unit of dairy is reduced.

Yield per cow and herd size (metric)Does this mean that large herds are better? Not necessarily. There’s no measure of animal health, worker conditions, or community support in these data. Yet these issues are size-independent. It’s possible to have poor animal health or worker conditions on a small farm, just as it is on a large farm. I’ve seen some great small operations, but also visited amazing large farms, including a 1,200 cow dairy in SE England where I was extremely impressed to see that they had a hospital pen to segregate sick cows from the rest of the herd, and that it only contained 12 cows. A 1% morbidity rate. How would that compare to the average human workplace, school or city?

Size isn't importantIs there an ideal farm or herd size? A blueprint to lead the global dairy industry during the current crisis? No. Dairy farms vary considerably – it would be foolish to suggest that there is only one sustainable way to produce milk (although this approach is often taken by certain NGO groups). However, one thing is clear. As we approach a global population of 9.5+ billion people in 2015, we need to stop vilifying large farms and worshipping small farms, and instead promote efficient, well-managed, productive farms that can survive the crisis, regardless of size. As the saying goes – it’s not size that matters, it’s what you do with it that counts.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles: Why Mass Food Transport is Eco-Friendly

Food transportation. It’s the curse of the modern world. Just think how much brighter and sunnier the planet would be if we all shopped locally, tootling along on our bicycles to pick up freshly-baked bread and a dozen eggs just as our grandparents would have done. A brave new world unemcumbered by gas pumps and trucks. Except…. Well, no. It’s not that simple.

Food miles 2 In many cases, transport is a tiny proportion of total greenhouse gas emissions per unit of food – for example, it’s less than 1% of the carbon footprint of one lb of beef. However, food miles are often cited as an environmental proxy to differentiate between food choices, the assumption being that an egg which travels 2,000 miles across the country is less environmentally-friendly than one produced in the next county. Indeed, one farm website proclaims that “We do not ship anything anywhere. We encourage folks to find their local producers and patronise them”, while on the same page, a customer testimonial proudly proclaims: “I drive to <Farm X> 150 miles one-way in order to buy clean meat for my family”.
Food miles 4Given the dichotomy between these two statements, let’s compare buying eggs from a grocery store with a local farm (full analysis here). Food miles are far greater for eggs that have traveled from Texas to Virginia to be sold in the grocery store (2,405 miles round-trip), compared to driving to the local farm (300 miles round-trip); and the fuel efficiency is far worse for a truck (5.4 mpg) than a car (22.6 mpg); yet a modern truck can carry 23,400 dozen eggs.
Food miles 6Unless your car is packed to the roof with eggs, traveling to the farm to buy them emits 55X more greenhouse gas emissions than driving to the store to buy them. Bottom line? Unless the local farm is closer than the store, or you’re able to walk/cycle there*, it’s more environmentally-friendly to buy eggs from the store, because the greenhouse gas emissions attributable to one dozen eggs out of 23,400 dozen is a tiny fraction of the total.
One report claims that greenhouse gas emissions from one large container ship is equivalent to 50 million cars – however, in this instance it’s the result of sulphur dioxide emissions from poor quality shipping fuel rather than inefficiency. Mass transport may not have a feel-good factor associated with driving out to a farm, but it allows us to enjoy a wide variety of affordable foods with a low carbon footprint – essential factors for a sustainable food future.
*Which begs the question of how many eggs you can carry on a bicycle…

Is It Time We Stopped Shouting About The Dietary Guidelines?

The recent report by the advisory committee to the USDA dietary guidelines has certainly caused a media stir in the past week or so. There’s a lot of nutritional common sense in the report – eat more fruit, veg, and dairy, reduce carbs and sweetened drinks/snacks, and moderate alcohol intake. Yet there’s a kicker – from both a health and a sustainability perspective, Americans should apparently be guided to consume less animal-based foods.

10982813_934682089898559_3461048965358255082_oWhen the report was released, my Twitter notifications, Facebook feed and email inbox exploded. Memes like the one to the left appeared on every (virtual) street corner, and the report was mentioned in every online newsletter, whether agricultural or mainstream media. It’s this press coverage rather than the content of the report, that really concerns me.

Individuals don’t pay a lot of attention to a government report on nutrition. Despite the fact that six updates to the guidelines have been released since their inception in 1980, we are all still eating too many Twinkies in front of the TV and super-sized takeout meals in the car, rather than chowing down on broccoli and lentil quinoa bake.

Headlines CollageYet people do pay attention to headlines like “Less meat, more veggies: big food is freaking out about the “nonsensical” new dietary guidelines” and others shown to the left. The media sub-text is that big bad food producers (so different from the lovely local farmer who sells heirloom breed poultry at $18/lb at the farmers market) are appalled by the release of this governmental bad science that’s keeping them from their quest to keep you unhealthily addicted to triple cheeseburgers washed down with a 500-calorie soda, and will do anything to suppress it.

This makes me wonder – at what point do we need quiet, stealthy change, rather than loud protests that attract the attention of people who would otherwise never have read about the guidelines? At what point does industry protesting seem like a modern version of “The lady doth protest too much“?

Rather than posting on Facebook or Twitter that the report is nonsense because the committee of nutritionists ventured into the bottomless pit that is sustainability; why don’t we instead extol the virtues of producing high-quality, nutritious, safe and affordable lean meat, and aim to reach the people who haven’t seen the hyperbolic headlines or read the guidelines simply because they’ve seen a lot of talk about them on Twitter? The old showbiz saying that there’s no such thing as bad publicity certainly applies here – the extent of the reporting on the industry backlash against the report means they have probably been noted by far more people that they otherwise might.

The impact of the dietary guidelines recommendations upon purchasing programs is far higher than on individuals, and does give rise to concern. Globally, one in seven children don’t have enough food, and school lunches are often the only guaranteed source of high-quality protein available to children in impoverished families. I may be being overly sceptical, but I suspect that if meat consumption in schools is reduced, it’s unlikely to be replaced with a visually and gastronomically-appealing, nutritionally-complete vegetarian alternative.

Sustainability doesn’t just mean carbon, indeed, environmentally it extends far further than the land, water and energy use assessed by the dietary guidelines advisory committee into far bigger questions. These include the fact that we cannot grow human food crops on all types of land; water quality vs. quantity; the need to protect wildlife biodiversity in marginal and rangeland environments; the use of animal manures vs. inorganic fertilisers; environmental costs of sourcing replacements for animal by-products in manufacturing and other industries; and many other issues. Simply stating that meat-based diet X has a higher carbon footprint or land use than plant-based diet Y is not sufficient justification for 316 million people to reduce their consumption of a specific food. Indeed, despite the conclusions of the committee, data from the US EPA attributing only 2.1% of the national carbon footprint to meat production suggests that even if everybody reduced their intake of beef, lamb and pork, it would have a negligible effect on carbon emissions.

Could we all reduce our individual environmental impact? Absolutely. Yet as stated with regards to dietary change in the advisory report, it has to be done with consideration for our individual biological, medical and cultural requirements. As humans, we have biological and medical requirements for dietary protein, and some would even argue that grilling a 16-oz ribeye is a cultural event. I have every sympathy for the USDA committee*, who were faced with a Herculean task to fulfill, but in this case, they only succeeded in cutting off one head from the multi-craniumed Hydra – and it grew another 50 in its place.

*Many people have already commented on the suitability (or not) of the committee to evaluate diet sustainability, but to give them their due, they do appear to have looked beyond greenhouse gases to land, water and energy use. They are nutrition specialists, not sustainability experts, but it would be difficult (impossible) to find a committee comprising people who were all experts in nutrition, sustainability, economics, policy, behaviour and all the other facets of the report. Nonetheless, the sustainability recommendations appear to be based on a small number of papers, many of which are based on dietary information from other regions (Germany, UK, Italy) which will also have different levels of animal and crop production. As somebody who was born and bred in the UK before moving to the USA I find it difficult to believe that the average American’s diet uses substantially more land (for example) than the average UK person, as cited in the report.