Should I Eat Meat? How to Feed the Planet
The second of the Horizon series presented by Dr Michael Mosley on meat-eating proved to be much more interesting than the first – see my review of Epidode 1 here. This programme asked ‘Is there a way to eat meat without destroying the planet?’ A loaded question if ever there was one. Let’s get to the arguments…
Dr M began by talking about statistics on UK meat consumption and then confusingly swapped to talk about worldwide consumption (a habit that continued throughout the programme). Globally, humans ‘consume nearly twice as much meat as they did 50 years ago’. Worldwide we eat 60b chicken, 3.5b ducks and turkeys, 1.4b pigs, 1b sheep and goats, 300m cattle, 5m horses and 2m camels. The average Briton eats 80kg of meat per year (which works out to roughly 219g per day or ½ pound). You can see how this compares to other countries here (statistics updated 2012). The UK is 22 in the table.
Dr M admits that the amount of earth’s resources dedicated to raising these animals is ‘difficult to measure.’ According to the report from United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (see here) 26% of the earth’s surface is given over to grazing animals. Of the 11% arable land on the earth’s surface, a third goes to feeding animals (3.7%). Dr M concluded that a third of the entire land mass of the earth is given over to animals that we eat or milk. I have to say here that for many people in different parts of the world, the land is shared with the animals that they raise. Herding animals from one area to another does not always mean ‘giving over the land’ to livestock and preventing other uses. As Dr M stated, it must be very difficult to determine these figures. Beginning your argument by depending on figures that are ‘difficult to measure’ is not ideal, but on we go.
Dr M explained that the US eats more meat than any other country (this is in total; according to the table linked to above, per capita the US is behind Denmark). We learn that cows eat 50kg of grass a day that is converted into 1kg of muscle. Dr M strolls around with a methane detector and we learn that one cow is ‘the equivalent of a family car in terms of the effect on global warming’. This statement needs careful unpicking and I have to say that I will need more than Dr M and his methane detector to convince me of this.
But Dr M wonders if we could reduce the amount of methane the cow produces. He visits the University of Nebraska to see a cannulated cow. Observing how the cow digests grass may help scientists to address the ‘problem’ of methane. There is an embarrassingly pointless clip in which Dr M inserts his hand into the cannula. We learn that microbes in the cow’s rumen digest the cellulose in hay and convert it to nutritious, energy-dense molecules that the cow absorbs. Some microbes actually bypass the rumen and end up in the small intestine where they are digested as microbial cell proteins. That is why the cow has no protein requirement – because the proteins are actually provided by the microbes. This is amazing to hear and Dr M states that this is a ‘brilliant adaptation’. However, he then goes on to suggest that by changing foods that the cow eats (and thus the microbes) we can reduce methane. Feeding the cattle corn and other carbohydrates in concentrated animal feeding operations may be the answer. In one fell swoop we have moved from the wonder that is the cows digestive system, evolving to make super-efficient use of the grass that it eats (and producing the gift of manure to enrich the soil and feed other animals in the food chain), to tampering with that same digestive system in order to affect microbes and thus methane production. This doesn’t bode well.
Dr M visits a huge, incredibly depressing Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) feedlot in Texas. He notes that ‘this could put you off eating beef altogether’, as if there is no alternative to such systems. The cattle that are fed corn and other carbs fatten up in fewer days than if fed on grass and so have the following advantages:
- For the farmer, it gets the cow to market quicker thus translating to a bigger profit
- From an ‘ecological’ viewpoint, the life cycle of the cow is reduced thus reducing methane emissions.
Therefore, so the argument goes, cattle fed via this system are ‘greener’. Dr M states that this ‘seems to be the very antithesis of ecological farming.’ He adds that he has no idea how to tell if a cow is happy but observes that they don’t seem any less happy than the cows he has seen in a field (is this for real?).
We hear that 40% of corn grown in the US is fed to livestock (do watch the wonderful King Corn film). The cattle are fed corn flakes to fatten them up (‘much like we eat’ Dr M observes) and also food containing by-products of High Fructose Corn Syrup and by-products of the Ethanol Industry. As well as this concoction, Dr M notes that there is one thing that worries him: growth hormones and antibiotics. He notes that this is: ‘the one thing that has disturbed me’. Really?! Only that one thing? The rest of it hardly seems ideal. We learn that the feedlot is not designed to be ‘eco-friendly’ but that economic efficiency can equate to ‘environmental efficiency’ as cows fed this way produce 40% less emissions per kilo of meat than grass fed cows.
Chickens, fish and artificial meat
Dr M explains there may be no right answer to what is the greenest system. He talks about overgrazing in parts of Africa and the problems in South America where rainforests are being ploughed up to grow soya. If you eat chicken or pork, the chances are it has been fed soya.
We look at the comparisons between different animals and how much food they need to convert to meat. As chickens’ ‘carbon footprint’ is about a quarter of that of cattle, it’s looking like chickens are the winners in all this (so just forget about those rainforests for a minute).
Dr M then visits a huge chicken farm in which the birds are reared in large numbers (5-6 million birds per year) in sheds. He is incredibly upbeat about this in comparison to the intensive cattle feeding operation and talks about them being ‘remarkably well-cared for’. A Life Cycle Assessment (used to assess environmental impacts associated with all the stages of a product/animal life) concludes that chickens raised intensively are the ‘greenest form of meat.’ What the hell does that really mean?
There is a very brief mention of population growth (is this the elephant in the room in all of this?) and Dr M suggests that we should look to mussel farming as part of the solution. In many parts of the world fish farming is not without its problems (see for instance Richard Manning’s brilliant Against the Grain pp. 116-119, this article by Mark Sisson, this article in the NY Times). We are back to the problem of crowding, unnatural food sources, infectious disease, chemicals, and environmental destruction. As with all farming methods, we need to seek out and support those producers that are raising their fish in a responsible and sustainable way.
Artificial meat grown in the laboratory may also be the answer according to the expert from Compassion in World Farming. Words fail me on this one but Dr M notes that the ‘alternatives’ to artificial meat are ‘apocalyptic’.
Small-scale farming and less meat eating
Lastly, Dr M visited Simon Fairley, author of Meat: A Benign Extravagance, farmer, previously Co-Editor of The Ecologist magazine and now Editor of Land magazine. At last the subject of manure was mentioned and the possibility of integrating livestock into a more holistic agriculture system, using traditional farming methods. Simon explained how ruminants convert grass, leaves etc. into a range of useful products such as wool, leather, dairy, meat, and most importantly fertility for the land via manure. Simon explained that 85% of what goes into a cow is turned into manure and this enriches the soil: ‘the best way of using grass is via ruminants.’ When raised in small numbers, Simon believes they can be beneficial to humans and to the environment.
We move on to the subject of pigs and their ability to feed on our scraps and waste. In view of the amount of food we throw away each year, pigs would seem an excellent way of providing meat. Suddenly we jump to a warning about the risks of swill not being adequately treated and the causes of the Foot and Mouth outbreak in which a farmer was found guilty of feeding his pigs untreated waste (see here) – cue foreboding music and depressing clips. How did we leap from a very positive view of small-scale pig farming to this? Pig farming is not mentioned again – that seems to have wrapped it up.
Simon draws a hockey-stick graph to illustrate that there is a critical point of meat and dairy consumption, beyond which we need to feed animals grains, acquire more land, use chemical fertilizers and more water. Dr M tells us that it is difficult to come up with figures for this critical point but economists have tried to work it out:
- Cattle and sheep fed only on grass: 40m tons per year
- Pigs and chickens fed only on food waste : 110m tons per year
- Animals fed on other by-products: 40m tons per year
This works out at 40kg which translates to around 100g per day for each person on the planet. Therefore everyone on the planet should cut their meat consumption to 100g per day.
We finish with Prof Tim Benton from the UK Global Food Security Programme telling us to eat less meat (favouring grass-fed meat and then eating chicken for most of the time) and Dr Tara Garnett from Food Climate Research Network at University of Oxford telling us to ‘explore plant-based substitutes.’
Dr M leaves us with the reminder that intensive farming ‘can be the best option when it comes to minimizing greenhouse gas emissions’ and that intensively farmed chickens are probably the best choice. No mention again of their soya feed or the problem of the rainforests being ripped up to grow it; that all seems to be forgotten about.
Although Dr M explains that it is ‘impossible to give a completely accurate figure of how much meat we should eat’, that’s not going to stop him and again we are urged to eat 100g per day. I remembered last week’s programme where Dr M stated that ‘The average meat consumption in the UK is 70 grams of red and processed meat a day, with a quarter of men eating 130 grams.’ That doesn’t include chicken or any other poultry. If the average Briton eats 219g per day then I assume the extra 149g is chicken and other white meats.
The conclusions of this programme obviously chime completely with the health findings of the first programme. What a coincidence and I can see why they were aired in that order. The entire premise of this programme depended on the assumption that eating red meat and offal (beef, pork and lamb) is bad for our health and should be limited (conveniently ‘proved’ in last week’s programme). If eating red meat can be extremely beneficial to our health and provides a myriad of nutrients that are hard to find elsewhere, then being asked to cut back on it just wouldn’t work. Asking us to reduce our consumption of something so beneficial just wouldn’t make sense. Hence we had last week’s protracted and desperate argument to show us that eating less red meat and more vegetables will make us healthier.
What do we actually eat?
I was still left confused about how much meat we really eat in the UK and how this is broken down into carcass meat, processed meat, and meat-derived products.
According to the Office for National Statistics, in 1974 people in the UK bought 393g of carcass meat per person per week + 630g of non-carcass meat (sausages, bacon, other meat products) per person per week, giving a total of 1023g per person per week. Fast forward to 2012 (latest figures) and the average per person per week bought 196g of carcass meat and 793g of non-carcass meat giving a total of 989g per person per week. That is a modest reduction overall but definitely a move away from traditional carcass meat. I assume that the rise in meat consumption that Dr M talks about must be due to eating outside the home (in addition to expenditure on groceries). I contacted the ONS (Office of National Statistics) and they only have data going covering 2001-2012 showing expenditure on hotels and restaurants which has declined in that period from £47.30 to £40.50 per week for the average household. Obviously it is impossible to calculate how much of this spending is strictly on food and further still on meat or meat products alone.
What we can ascertain is that people have sadly moved away from traditional cuts of meat towards meat ‘products’. In many of these products, we have no knowledge how that meat has been raised, what it has been fed, where it has come from etc., so unless we do, cutting those back certainly seems like a good idea. What we need is a return to buying carcass meat and offal more often from livestock raised responsibly. No unnatural feeding, no pitiful conditions, no overcrowding into huge sheds.
1. There was no mention in this programme of holistic farming methods such as those practised by the Savory Institute on both a small and large-scale. What about the beneficial effects on the soil using such methods such as increased carbon storage and increased biodiversity? There was no discussion about how we can make more efficient use of the land that we farm. Read my notes on the Savory Institute conference here.
2. How much does the methane produced by cattle change the climate of the earth? There are conflicting opinions and figures about a) the importance of methane in changing the climate and b) the amount of methane produced over time c) the amount of methane produced by other activities.
‘Methane is a red herring regarding our changing climate’ – Richard Teague, Texas A&M at the Savory Institute Conference 2014.
There are around 88 million cattle in the US at present. Just how many ruminants wandered the Great Plains hundreds of years ago (at least)? In the case of just bison alone:
‘Just two centuries ago, between 30 and 60 million bison roamed the continent’s grassy, shrubby plains and prairies, and their range extended from Mexico to central Canada’ – Wildlife Conservation Society.
I think that the methane argument is far from settled.
3. How can we conduct LCA (Life Cycle Assessments) on livestock without taking into account their place within a holistic framework?
‘Any LCA (life-cycle assessment) that does not include top soil is not an LCA’ – Richard Teague, Texas A&M
4. The devastation caused to the land by growing mono-crops that require the obliteration of the soil and the creatures that live on it was completely ignored by this programme. See Against the Grain by Richard Manning and The Vegetarian Myth by Lierre Keith for more on this.
‘Down below the ripening ears, on the bare earth, no bugs or insects are visible among the forest of stems. Nothing lives here; the pesticides have seen to that. Those that don’t kill the insect predators directly destroy the smaller invertebrates on which they feed. They also wipe out the fungal life on which the smaller creatures feed in their turn. The end result is the same; a barren earth.’ – Graeme Harvey: The Killing of the Countryside.
In addition to this, how does the growth of these mono-crops affect the carbon stored in the soil?
‘In Iowa, for every 1lb corn grown there is a soil loss of 1lb’ – Peter Byck, Producer of Carbon Nation.
5. The population will continue to grow based on current projections. Therefore following the argument put forward in this programme, the logical conclusion is that we will need to give up meat eating altogether. It would be helpful to have also had a discussion on the amount of land mass needed to farm mono crops for this future population growth, and the ensuing damage to the environment that this may cause.
6. One of the most important factors in choosing grass-fed meat is the health benefits. Increased Omega 3s, conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), Vitamin E and other vitamins & minerals, all of which decline as animals are fed on grain – even for as little as 3 months. See this excellent article at Eat Wild. I will be writing more about grass fed meat shortly. These health benefits are not limited to ruminants: see also the slides from Daphne Miller’s presentation at the Savory Institute Conference 2014 here that illustrate the nutrient benefits of pasture raised eggs and also the conditions that can qualify for the ‘free range’ label.
Making things simpler
It seems we have lots of confusing terms here. We have to take a step back here for a minute and question what we really mean by ‘green’, ‘ecologically-friendly’, ‘environmental efficiency’ and all those other words that get used in the debate about what is good for our planet. Ruminants evolved to eat grass. We have evolved to eat a mixture of (naturally-fed) meat, fish, fats, vegetables, roots and tubers and some fruit (with a few geographical variations). A penguin has evolved to eat fish. A lion has evolved to eat meat. Why mess with it? Haven’t we realised by now that messing with things like this usually end up in disaster? If we looked at what is really good for us as human beings on the most basic level – eating nutrient-dense food, interacting with nature, caring for our environment, sleeping well, forming social bonds, moving and playing, reducing pollution and waste – many of those things are also good for the planet. I don’t believe that we can extricate ourselves out of the equation. Generally, if we follow what is good for the planet, it is usually good for us.
Finally, in the context of this website, raising a cow to eat is obviously something our Paleolithic ancestors did not do. We are no longer hunters and gatherers, but the best we can do is to raise the food that we eat as naturally as possible. Attempting to change a cow’s digestive processes by feeding it alien foods and forcing it to spend the end of its life in a feedlot is not conducive to this. Such drastic deviations have knock-on effects to our health. We cannot escape the consequences of our actions. Raising animals for food in a responsible way connects us to our environment, to a respect for the earth that we live on, to a respect for the animals we eat and ultimately to a respect for ourselves through the nutrients we feed our bodies. Eating meat is not the problem.