Why Meat Production Should Stay on the Farm and not in a Lab.

Science is making breakthroughs in food production, energy and healthcare that are almost beyond belief – I mean, have you seen how good Jane Fonda looks at 78? So, it shouldn’t be a surprise that smart, brainy types in lab coats have figured out how to manufacture meat products in a laboratory without an actual animal.  It’s called cultured meat and they take live cells from a donor animal via biopsy (often stem cells) and grow them in a specific culture media – I picture a piece of liver in a petri dish under florescent lights. There is no shortage of debate about the pros and cons of this emerging technology. Below are my random thoughts and opinions and are not a summary of actual science. I’m going to stay away from “people won’t eat something gross like fake meat” cause, let’s be honest – if we can sell them on baked chicken breast, then lab meat is not that much of a stretch.

One of the main pitches for lab meat is that it’s “cruelty free”, which sounds really good if you are one of the growing number of consumers who believe that animal agriculture is, inherently inhumane. Sigh… The fundamental flaw in this logic is the same as the vegan myth that animals don’t die if you don’t eat meat. Humans have worked our way to the top of the evolutionary ladder over millions of years and every time we invent something new for Team People, there is an impact on species lower on the evolutionary ladder. When we grow vegetables for people food, animals get caught in the cross fire of harvesting equipment and they lose habitat to cultivated rows of kale, cucumbers and tomatoes. But what about something not even part of the food chain, like driving – even vegans and animal rights activists drive. The amount of animals and birds killed or displaced by roads and traffic, not to mention the resources required to put all those electric cars on the road certainly kills millions of animals, but, out of sight, out of mind. Give your head a shake – cities, the foundation of modern civilization, have removed huge chunks of animal habitats, yet I don’t think anyone is suggesting we should revert back to living in caves or jungles just because that’s the way it would be “in nature.”

The environmental argument is another pillar of the lab meat movement. Stats are quoted for how many resources we can save and how much less land is required to grow meat in a lab vs conventional animal agriculture. The main technological reason they can make this claim is that more of the resources (energy, protein and minerals) go directly into tissue growth because there is no actual animal walking around performing those nasty everyday functions like eating, breathing and reproducing. There is however a pretty big laboratory infrastructure required to maintain the correct environment. It takes a lot of energy to control things like temperature, PH and tissue health. Just like with actual animals, in order to grow, the test tube tissue needs to be fed. This part I think is actually really exciting: the food source scientists are using is something called microalgae, which, as you might guess is very efficient to grow and has a very small enviro footprint. This is one of the big “YAHOO” moments for lab meat. The part I am excited about is that microalgae is also a remarkably good feed stock for actual food animals. So, if we develop microalgae as a feed crop for chickens (which already have a lower enviro footprint than lab meat) there are some very exciting possibilities, even is the end result is boring old chicken. Get it – microalgae is the star, not lab meat.

Ok, I will concede that lab meat in combo with microalgae can be produced on a much smaller land base than beef, which has become the poster child for irresponsible use of resources and land. Here’s the part that some people will be shocked at – THERE’S NO SHORTAGE OF LAND TO RAISE BEEF! Whew, I had to get that off my chest. About 60% of the world’s arable land is only suitable for grazing. That means it can’t be used to grow corn or soybeans or rice or cucumbers or kale and that without grazing animals like, cattle, sheep, goats and buffalo we would give up the ability to use this renewable resource to provide food, fuel and pharmaceuticals to a massively expanding global population. And… that’s what drives me nuts about the land use argument. It is really not an either/or argument – we can develop new feed sources and technologies AND continue to develop and advance the efficiency of the worlds gazing lands.

Science is doing some exciting things and some of the technologies being developed by growing meat in a laboratory have the potential to dramatically improve the efficiency of meat production. The question I would ask the beaker jockeys in their lab coats is – why are we trying to re-invent the wheel when we should be improving the great wheel we already have?

 

When is an expert no longer an expert?

Temple Grandin is famous for more than just being an animal welfare expert. She is the face for autism awareness and her name has become a brand for “humane” slaughter facilities. As an industry, animal agriculture has supported and promoted her work and has even gone so far as to enlist her celebrity status in the battle to satisfy consumers that we raising their food ethically and responsibly. (I’m still puzzled why consumers are so concerned, as farmers used to be one of the most trusted professions)  So, now that this quirky, seemingly introverted personality is in the media spotlight, I have to wonder – has she gone from being a scientist to just another celebrity with a cause?

In a recent  Washington Post article Dr Grandin makes a claim that I would have expected from someone like Food Babe (@thefoodbabe) or Gwyneth Paltrow (@GwynethPaltrow) but from an actual animal scientist? Say it isn’t so! In this article about the dairy industry, Grandin’s attention grabbing quote is this: “What they’ve done is basically the equivalent of taking a car, putting it in neutral, and then dropping a brick on the accelerator until it blows up,” says Grandin. “These cows are constantly in the red zone.” While not based on a shred of science, this bold statement certainly paints a vivid picture of an irresponsible, ruthless, money grubbing industrialists who care, not a bit, for the welfare of animals. Unfortunately, a picture the public is all too ready to accept.

Dr Grandin is further quoted “I call them the bad dairies. They make up most of the farms in the United States, and their cows are so wrecked by the time they stop milking they can barely be used for beef.” She defines “bad dairies” as the ones that use selective breeding to increase cow size and milk production, at the expense of cow health.

Now as a scientist, surely she didn’t just grab this off the first page of a Google search, right?  I’m just a simple country boy, but I have worked with some pretty successful dairy farmers both here in Canada, where the farms tend to be smaller, as well as in the United States of Walmart, where farms can be anywhere from 40 cows anywhere to “mega dairies” with thousands of cows. In my experience (as a simple country boy) the size of the farm is not an indication of the quality of care, and the farms with the very highest production are the ones where the cows are healthiest and have the least stress possible. I scratch my head at her statements because I have also been on substandard dairies, where the animals really are on the edge of disaster (to use Dr Grandin’s analogy) and those farms never, ever have high milk production.

So, given my simple observations of real dairy farms all over North America, I start to wonder about Dr Grandin’s motives here. The author of this article cites academic papers from as far back as 1999 and, as anyone involved in the dairy industry knows, 20 years are a lot of years of improvement. Let’s consider for a minute Dr Grandin’s claims that farmers have bred cows to be “disposable” with no consideration to health and longevity. What are the financial impacts to a farm?  We know that the cost to raise a dairy heifer (that’s a female before she has her first calf, for the city folks telling us how to farm) is in the range of $2,500 before she ever generates any income (shhh, don’t tell people that farmers have to make money) so, even a corporate tycoon can see that farmers benefit from breeding cows that stay in the herd longer, so that might factor into a farmers selection of genetic traits.

Here’s where Dr Grandin and I agree: Breeding for production and size on their own, without considering health and longevity would be irresponsible, but you can’t stop there. If a cow has a high genetic index for milk production, it’s almost always because that cow has good feet, legs, udder and general conformity which LEADS to high feed intake, good mobility and good udder health which LEADS to high milk production.  Maybe it’s not choosing one or the other…..

In the article, while specifically trying to make the point that high production is counter intuitive to longevity, GigiGrandin highlights the world record Holstein for milk production (75,000 lbs/lactation), a cow named Gigi from the original dairy state, Wisconsin– she is quoted- “You can push cows to the point where they start to fall apart, and that’s what we’re doing.” She must mean Gigi, right? With that amount of milk, there must be nothing left of poor Gigi? Is Gigi going to get a third lactation?????  Well if the Washington Post or Dr Grandin did their research they would have discovered that Gigi is 9 years old! Hmm, high milk production and longevity? Makes you wonder how Gigi has been setting milk records for 7 years if her body is in “biological system overload.” As Dr Grandin suggests.

Now, in my simple, country boy opinion, perhaps Gigi and cows like her, give a lot of milk because they have great conformation, comfortable housing, good nutrition, regular health care, and the farmers’ careful attention. Perhaps when Dr Grandin used the term “impossibly productive” she didn’t do her research and was just trying for a sound bite or a headline? Has Temple Grandin crossed over from being an ally to the animal agriculture industry, or has she become more celebrity, less expert?

Here is the original post written about this issue written by Sadie Frericks which appeared in Hoards Dairyman. Credit to Sadie for bringing this issue to light.

http://www.dairygoodlife.com/2016/04/did-temple-grandin-just-say-that-hoards.html

 

Superbugs and the Zombie Apocolypse….

Antibiotic Apocalypse! Superbugs resistant to Everything! What will we do when medicines no longer work?! These kind of headlines make it appear like the end of the world may in fact be close at hand. (do you have your zombie apocalypse team in place?) Worse than this kind of media sensationalism are food companies who have turned this important issue into a fear based marketing campaign. You know who I’m talking about….

The use of antibiotics in livestock production has been a growing concern for consumers due to the increase in illnesses and deaths caused by antibiotic resistant bacteria. It is estimated that two million illnesses and 23,000 deaths annually in the US are a result of antimicrobial resistance. While this is, understandably a major concern for consumers, they have unfortunately been mislead by non-credible sources who choose to ignore the up side of antibiotic use in livestock production. It’s important for consumers to hear both sides of the antibiotics argument to fully understand the benefits and risks of antibiotic use on farms.

We have used antibiotics in livestock  for years. In the 1970’s, monensin (an antibiotic) was fed to chickens to help prevent coccidiosis (a bacteria). The chicken manure was used as fertilizer on cattle pastures and the farmer noticed that the cattle grazing the pastures that had chicken manure grew faster than the cattle grazing pastures with other fertilizer. This lead to the scientific discovery that certain ionophores (antibiotics) promote increased growth and improved feed efficiency in production animals. This has become important in recent years as we are tasked with feeding a growing global population with a limited land base.

Using antibiotics sub-therapeutically not only enhances feed efficiency and promotes healthy growth, it also ensures that the livestock is healthy for human consumption. Feeding certain antibiotics leads to increased nutrient absorption and reduces the pathogens shed into the environment. By increasing the feed efficiency and bioavailability of nutrients, production animals are able to use feed more efficiently, live healthier, and this helps eliminate food-borne pathogens that could contaminate the food supply. In a 2014 study, researchers found that over one hundred antimicrobials play an important role in prevention, treatment, and control of animal diseases caused by pathogens. Not only did they find that antibiotics improved the overall health of livestock, they found that feeding some antimicrobials to animals could reduce the emission of greenhouse gases by encouraging normal fermentation, thus aiding in reducing air pollution.

When thinking about the risks of antibiotic use in livestock, it is important to understand the actual risks versus the perceived hype. Consumers have been told that the rise in antimicrobial resistance has been linked to their over-use in livestock production and both Canada and the US have begun phasing out antibiotic use in production agriculture. While this makes it appear obvious that excessive use of antibiotics in livestock is to blame, it’s not really that clear. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) in the US has found that, in human medicine, antibiotics are the most commonly prescribed drug, and up to 50% of the time the antibiotics are prescribed when they are not needed! In a 2013 release, Dr. Tom Frieden, CDC Director stated that “right now the most acute problem is in hospitals, and the most resistant organisms in hospitals are emerging in those settings because of poor antimicrobial stewardship among humans”. The other thing to keep in mind is that majority of antibiotics used in livestock production are ionophores, which are a whole class of drugs that are NEVER used in human medicine.

So, while responsible antibiotic use on farms continues to be important, it should also not be the convenient scape goat for the rise in antimicrobial resistance. As an industry, we have a responsibility to properly administer and prescribe medications for animals when required. Antibiotics will always be a tool to keep livestock healthy, and the fight against superbugs is real. There are things we can do to monitor and lessen the impact of the livestock industry on resistant bacteria, just like there are ways human medicine can do better. One thing is clear: the fight against antimicrobial resistance depends on proper education and information and is not helped by misleading marketing and fear mongering. You know who I’m talking about…..

References

Broadway, P.R., Carroll, J.A., & Callaway, T.R. (2014). Antibiotic use in Livestock production. Agric. Food Anal. Bacteriol., 4, 1-10. Retrieved fromhttp://afabjournal.com/articles/antibiotic-use-in-livestock-production/

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2015). Antibiotic/antimicrobial resistance. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/drugresistance/about.html

Committee to Study the Human Health Effects of Subtherapeutic Antibiotic Use in Animal Feeds, Division of Medical Sciences, National Research Council. (1980). The effects on human health of subtherapeutic use of antimicrobials in animal feeds. Retrieved from http://www.nap.edu/read/21/chapter/1#xii

Hao, H., Cheng, G., Iqbal, Z., Ai, X., Hussain, H.I., Huang, L., Yuan, Z. (2014). Benefits and risks of antimicrobial use in food-producing animals. Frontiers in Microbiology, 5,288. Retrieved fromhttp://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4054498/

U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (2015). Antimicrobial Resistance. Retrieved fromhttp://www.fda.gov/AnimalVeterinary/SafetyHealth/AntimicrobialResistance/

Weber, G. (2006). FDA approvals ensure safe antibiotic use. Issues Update, 15-16. Retrieved fromhttps://www.beefusa.org/uDocs/fdaapprovalsensureantibioticuse856.pdf

 

Why a Farm is a Happy Place for Animals

As the father of 3 mostly grown kids and husband to a Disney fanatic, I abambim more familiar, than a grown man should be, with classic Disney movies, and by extension, the phenomenon known as “Disneyfication”, applying human emotions to animals, and in particular, happiness. We place a high value on happiness – it’s more than a feeling for humans- we’re so fixated on happiness that we define the pursuit happiness as a basic human right.

Now, it’s not just extreme anti-animal ag activists who think animal happiness is important. Recently, I’ve heard arguments for hunting as an alternative to farming livestock, because at least the wild animals lived happily prior to their death, while the poor cows or chickens suffered because they were never allowed to be free. Also, it’s hard to watch Free Willy and not feel, at least in that moment, that every animal we have ever put in a cage or a tank should be let go….

The idea behind all of this is the belief that animals in nature are happier than animals in captivity, even than domesticated ones. But the question is – are they? Really?

Happiness is tough to define in people, let alone in an animals. You certainly can’t ask them how they are feeling(even though my wife asks the cats everyday), so scientists qualify happiness in animals as a lack of chronic stress because stress, unlike happiness, is easy to measure. They look at decreases in health, look at neurotic behavior, and measure hormone levels of cortisol, adrenaline and other “stress” hormones to provide a quantified means of measuring stress.

The idea, in particular, that livestock could be happier than wild animals is a hard thing to grasp, because as people, we can’t imagine being kept simply to be used. The idea of having no control over how we are used by another, even if we’re given everything we want now, seems unbearably cruel, but – wait for it – we are not animals! Animals don’t feel stress about the future, because they don’t have an understanding of their future in the same way we do. A cow doesn’t live a more stressed or unhappy life because it is destined to be killed for its meat because, in a cows brain the concept of nonexistence has never occurred.

So the real question is whether a domestic animal is more or less happy in the moment as its wild counterpart. There are a few key conditions that are generally thought to lead to a “happy” animal by reducing undue stress. In fact, they are the basis for most animal cruelty regulations. Animals have the ‘rights’ to:

  • Enough food and water
  • Comfortable conditions (temperature, air quality, etc)
  • Expression of normal behavior

I am not a fan of the term “factory” or “intensive” farming, but, even on large scale farms, animals are generally well cared for, and these animals live lives where they are well fed, free of curable diseases, in comfortable conditions. When it comes to wild animals, none of these things is guaranteed. They struggle to survive on a daily basis, from finding food and water, to escaping predators, to fighting to find a breeding mate. They don’t have the right to comfort, stability, or good health. Ironically, by most animal cruelty standards, the life of a wild animal is cruel.

But, even with that – are they happier? Keep in mind, domesticated animals are fundamentally different from their wild counterparts: they are not just wild animals that have been raised in captivity; they have undergone evolutionary changes through artificial selection that have altered their bodies, brains and behaviors. We have no evidence whatsoever that wild animals are, in any way, happier than domesticated ones when they are properly cared for. One of the consequences of domestication is a decrease in stress across the board. Studies have shown that domesticated animals are less stressed to begin hormone levels dom vs wildwith, and freak out less in response to stressful things like unfamiliar habitats or predators. In a study with guinea pigs, serum epinephrine and norepinephrine concentrations were as much as eight times lower for domestic animals than their wild counterparts. Similar results have been found in other animals, in fact, a decreased stress response compared to wild counterparts has been found in every single domesticated species that has been studied.

When humans domesticated animals thousands of years ago, we forever altered how they respond to their environment. We reduced their sensitivity to things that are otherwise very upsetting to their wild relatives – like interacting with us. The side effect of this is that domesticated animals are predisposed to being happier than their wild counterparts, in spite of captivity. To think of domestication as a form of enslavement or exploitation is to misconstrue the whole relationship between farmers and animals. We look after animals on farms, and, as a result, they have LESS stress! Stress is important for surviving in the wild. Stress tells you you’re in danger, and provides your body with the boost of adrenaline needed to get out of the situation.

Ultimately, the vast majority of domesticated animals wouldn’t survive in the wild. Period! Releasing a domesticated animal into the wild isn’t ‘freeing’ it – it’s placing a mostly defenseless creature into an unfamiliar and deadly environment it’s not equipped to deal with. Studies  also suggest something that might seem radical – if we provide food, water, shelter and allow for behavioral expression, domesticated animals are, not only likely to be as happy as their wild relatives, they’re probably happier. This applies to livestock as much as it does to a guinea pig, even though we raise them solely as a food resource for people.

So, are wild animals happier? Science suggests they are not. It’s just opinion, but I think the idea that wild animals are happier stems from popular culture going all the way back to the original Disney classic, Bambi, when we began to idealize nature, with a wild world of lush forests full of brightly-colored, singing birds and monkeys swinging from branch to branch. We see vast prairies with herds of antelope and zebra grazing peacefully while a pack of lions naps lazily in the shade. Even when we do imagine the more gruesome aspects of the wild, we see them as OK or better than what we do because it’s “natural.” This fixation on what is “natural” skews our judgement on everything from vaccines to diapers we put on our kids (thankfully, not for many years, in my case) to farming practices. In reality, there is nothing inherently better about something being natural, and the idea that something that occurs in nature without us is somehow better than something we have created is a dangerous misconception. It’s ok to love nature and fight for the beauty and preservation of our planet, but remember that we humans are an important part of the circle of life. We are, after all, “natural” too.

 

References:

 

  1. Franklin D. McMillan (2008). Chapter 16. Do Animals Experience True Happiness? Mental Health and Well-Being in Animals DOI:10.1002/9780470384947.ch16
  2. Möstl E, & Palme R (2002). Hormones as indicators of stress. Domestic animal endocrinology, 23 (1-2), 67-74 PMID: 12142227
  3. Pollan, Michael. “An Animal’s Place” The New York Times Magazine, Nov 10, 2002
  4. Künzl, C. (1999). The Behavioral Endocrinology of Domestication: A Comparison between the Domestic Guinea Pig (Cavia apereaf.porcellus) and Its Wild Ancestor, the Cavy (Cavia aperea) Hormones and Behavior, 35 (1), 28-37 DOI: 10.1006/hbeh.1998.1493
  5. BROWN, J. (2006). Comparative endocrinology of domestic and nondomestic felids Theriogenology, 66 (1), 25-36 DOI:10.1016/j.theriogenology.2006.03.011

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Should veganism be a human right?

If being vegan is a human right, isn’t being an omnivore, a carnivore, a red foods only-avore?

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Last week the Huffington Post reported on the news that veganism is close to becoming a human right in Ontario. I saw some mixed responses to this news.

Rather than do my usual personal ranting, I thought that it would be more meaningful if the responses came from people who were more passionate about the issue. Certainly, I have opinions but I think that these perspectives might get people thinking about the issue in different ways.

In the vegan corner we have Jason. Jason is from Halifax and is celebrating his 20th year as a devout vegan.

In the opposing corner, we have Amy Matheson. Amy is a strong and vocal advocate of the Canadian agricultural industry, and is very passionate about our food and the farmers who produce it. She is part of a dairy farm and crop growing family outside of Stratford, Ontario. She can be found on twitter

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Why 2015 Was a Real Eye Opener…

I tried something new this year and wrote one blog piece…. I surprised myself with how much I enjoyed doing it so I wrote another. Then I realized how much I care about agriculture and farming. Here are my my favorite posts from the past year.

Guess What? The Good Old Days Were Really Just the Old Days

Who Really Wins By Scrapping Supply Management?

Growing Up on a Farm Looks Great on a Resume!

Why Animal Agriculture is the Only Way to Save the Planet

2015 was a great year for Agriculture! Bring on 2016!

 

The Livestock Feed Industry – Why Animal Agriculture is the ONLY way to Save the Planet

I have never paid much attention to doomsday predictors, but even I know that the earth has a limited capacity and the growth of the human race shows no signs of slowing down. In November 2011, the global population reached seven billion people and is expected to reach nine billion by 2050! Sustainability is a buzzword that has gained worldwide attention. Finding a definition for sustainability can be more confusing than understanding the loyalty of a Leafs fan, but generally, sustainability has three key parts: environmental stewardship, economic viability, and social responsibility. For an industry to be sustainable, all three pieces need to be in place. If one factor is ignored or focussed on independently, then the system isn’t really sustainable in the long term.

Public opinion seems to be that animal agriculture uses an unreasonable amount of resources (both renewable and non-renewable) and is an alarming contributor to global warming in the form of green house gases (GHG). For example, a 2007 study cited agriculture as contributing 14% of global GHG emissions, which is more than the total emissions from burning fossil fuels for transportation! And that’s when farmers become enemy number ONE on the internet and I get that red face and twitch my family has come to recognise. While it’s true that growing food has an environmental cost, it’s NOT restricted to foods of animal origin. As we, in agriculture strive to maintain and improve food sustainability, we face criticism that that animal agriculture is an inherently inefficient method of food production.

If you’ve spent any time on the internet, you will have likely seen the suggestion that farmers are irresponsible hoodlums who should stop using valuable land growing food for animals and use it to grow people food – preferably kale and sprouts. It’s true that globally we are facing a growing food crisis during the next century. Worldwide, one in seven people have insufficient energy and protein to maintain health and undernutrition accounts for 12% of deaths worldwide. It has been suggested that one of the underlying issues is the so-called “feed vs. food” competition between animals and humans, but that isn’t really true at all.  Although lots of foods that are suitable for humans can also be used as animal feed, animal feed and human food are not always interchangeable. In the quest to alleviate world hunger, activist groups often quote the statistic that one third of all cereal grains are fed to livestock. This leads to the, seemingly logical suggestion, that we should all stop being bloody, meat eating cavemen and switch to an earth loving, vegetarian diet. What they never tell you in this “feed vs. food” argument is that livestock diets include mostly crops and by-products from human food, fiber, and fuel production that are not suitable as human food and would otherwise be garbage…..

Some examples of commonly used feeds in North American livestock systems:

byproducts

A wide range of food by-products are fed to animals depending on region, system, and animal species. It should be noted, also, that pastures used for livestock grazing are based on plants which are completely indigestible by humans. Estimates suggest that 70% of the world’s agricultural area is grassland. The majority of energy stored in these plants is in trapped as cellulose or hemicellulose, which are of ZERO food value to humans. Ruminants (cows, goats and sheep) are unique because they have a rumen with a tremendous microbial population that breaks down the plant cellulose and hemicellulose into simple sugars and, voila…. Turn inedible grasses into energy and protein, otherwise known as meat and milk.

The suggestion that animal agriculture should be abolished and that the global population could survive on a vegetarian or vegan diet is a narrow view and doesn’t consider the consequences of such a change. Most comparisons are based on swapping out animal based energy for plant based foods on the basis of total calories, without regard for supply of protein, vitamins, or minerals that you also get from animal-source foods. Nonetheless, there are numerous campaigns aimed at getting consumers to eat less meat, and, often quote a reduction in GHG emissions as the principal reason. The misguided folks behind the “Meatless Mondays” program, encourage consumers to forgo meat for one day per week, and claim they can decrease GHG emissions the equivalent of removing 20 million mid-size sedan cars from the road. The obvious piece they have missed is that a large-scale reduction in meat consumption not only would result in the replacement of animal products with plant-based foods, but additional sources would be required for the diverse by-products that come from animal agriculture, including leather, fertilizer and pharmaceuticals just to name a few. Take leather – replacing leather with hydrocarbon-based synthetics has a serious global environmental impact because it requires  huge amounts of primary energy.

Until the 1950s, the majority of beef was raised using an entirely pasture-based systems and lots of urbanites and outspoken celebrities would like us to return to that. The move to rations containing a significant proportion of corn and by-product feeds is portrayed as an entirely negative development. The truth is that this shift has been a big plus not just for steak lovers, but also for precious mother earth. Average carcass weight, growth rate and feed efficiency have increased dramatically in the last half century resulting in less animals required to produce an equivalent amount of food. This is important relative to livestock’s environmental impact because every animal has a daily nutrient requirement for maintenance, pregnancy, lactation, or growth and thus associated resources (including feed, land, and water) and GHG emissions. The net result is that beef cattle today use 19% less feed, 33% less land, 12% less water, and 9% less fossil fuels than they did in 1977. The carbon footprint per kg of beef has improved by 16%! The pork and dairy industries have seen similar improvements.

Nonetheless, the reliance of intensive beef and dairy systems on fossil fuels and fertilizer inputs for feed production and transportation still leads to the suggestion that feedlots have a greater environmental impact than pasture-based beef operations. The reason this isn’t true is that cattle in feedlots convert feed much more efficiently.  Numerous studies have demonstrated that GHG emissions per kg of beef are greater in pasture-finished systems than in feedlot systems, by as much as 20%.

Here’s where the animal feed industry makes its contribution. When grains or other vegetable ingredients are processed for human consumption, a significant portion is unusable and becomes a by-product. For example, when 1,000 kg of sugar beets are processed, the end result is 685 kg water, 140 kg of sugar and whopping 175 kg of feed only suitable for cattle…. That means that for every kg of sugar produced there is 1.25 kg of food for animals. Almost 70% of the ingredients used in livestock feed originate from the food processing industry as human inedible residues. As the world population continues to grow, livestock and poultry will be essential to recycle by-products that are inedible by humans into high-quality protein sources.

Fact – All foods have an environmental cost, not just food that comes from animals.

Fact – Global animal agriculture provides safe, affordable, nutrient-dense foods that support human health and well-being as part of a balanced diet.

Fact – Livestock production plays a significant role in the economic and social sustainability of developed and developing countries.

Fact – A significant proportion of land is incapable of supporting the production of human food yet forages can be efficiently converted by ruminant animals into meat and milk products.

Fact – The human food industry produces a vast amount of by-products that, if not fed to livestock, would be waste.

Fact – The gains made by recycling safe, yet otherwise valueless, by-products from human food production decrease competition between animals and humans for crops and reduce the environmental impact of food production

In a world where the global population is continually growing, the “feed vs food” myth will be pushed on us by well meaning vegans and environmentalist. We need to help them see that the use of by-product feeds in combination with management strategies that improve efficiency will, in fact help make animal agriculture a key pillar of sustainability. The challenge for us is to foster social acceptability and understanding of our industry’s contributions, thus advancing all three pillars of sustainability. It’s not as if we didn’t already have our hands full feeding the 9 billion…..

References:

Potential for selection to improve efficiency of feed use in beef cattle: A review. Aust J Agr Res 50:247–161. Beever, D. E. 1993.

Ruminal animal production from pastures. Current opportunities and future perspective. Pp.158–164. In M. J. Baker (ed.).

The relative greenhouse gas impacts of realistic dietary choices. Energ Policy 43:184–190. Boggia, A., L. Paolotti, and C. Castellini. 2010.

Environmental impact evaluation of conventional, organic and organic-plus poultry production systems using life cycle assessment. World Poultry Sci J 66:95–114. Boyd, G. and R. Cady. 2012.

A 50-year Comparison of the Carbon Footprint and Resource Use of the US Swine Herd: 1959–2009. Camco North America, Colorado. Capper, J. L. 2011.

The environmental impact of beef production in the United States: 1977 compared with 2007. J Anim Sci 89:4249– 4261. Capper, J. L. 2012.

Is the grass always greener? Comparing resource use and carbon footprints of conventional, natural and grass-fed beef production systems. Animals 2:127–143. Capper, J. L. 2013.

How can we feed 10 billion people? Sustainable alternatives for the dairy and beef industry. In American Feed Industry Association 2013 Nutrition Symposium, Fort Worth, Texas, March 12. Capper, J. L. and D. J. Hayes. 2012.

Development of a corn-based beef industry. J Anim Sci 86:3635–3639. Corsi, A. and S. Novelli. 2002.

Livestock and the Environment: Finding a Balance. Report to the European Commission Directorate-General for Development, Brussels, Belgium. Diez-Gonzalez, F., T. R. Callaway, M. G. Kizoulis, and J. B. Russell. 1998.

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