Chewing it Over

Categories: Food & Health
Posted on Thursday, July 28th, 2011 at 12:53 pm by admin

This is reposted from The Australian, where you can read the original.

WE’RE told we could solve many of the world’s environmental problems if we stop eating meat. But is it true?

That’s the question Simon Fairlie — a self-described “agricultural worker, smallholder, environmentalist journalist and hippie” in the UK — sets out to answer in his book Meat: a Benign Extravagance.

“I embarked on it,” writes Fairlie, “because I like eating meat and keeping livestock and I wanted to address doubts I had about the sustainability and environmental justice of my way of life.”

When I learnt that environmental journalist George Monbiot – who’d made a well-publicised conversion to veganism – had sunk his fangs into flesh again after finishing this book, I had to get hold of it. I wanted to examine Fairlie’s arguments, where possible, from an Australian perspective.

The issues of feed and water are key in any examination of meat production. Two statistics are relentlessly waved around like banners at a protest march by agricultural scientists, vegans and journalists. The first is that it takes 100,000 litres of water to produce 1kg of beef. The second is that the feed conversion ratio for producing animal protein from beef cattle – meaning units of nutrition fed to an animal and amount of nutrition produced when that animal is eaten – is (on average) 10:1. That means 10 units in, only 1 unit out. If true, this would mean that beef farming is undeniably unsustainable. (The conversion ratios given for other animals are 5:1 for pork, and 4:1 for poultry.)

Let’s look first at Fairlie’s interrogation of water use. That figure of 100,000 litres of water to produce 1kg of beef is cited in many papers published by Professor David Pimentel of Cornell University in the US. But to get through that amount of water, a pasture-fed steer would need to consume 12,500 tonnes of water in the 500 days of its life – that’s 25,000 litres per day.

Such a figure, even when applied to feedlot cattle, taking into account the amount of water needed to raise the grain eaten in that feedlot and the water used in the abattoir, is ridiculous. How did Pimentel arrive at it? Fairlie traces the history of the calculation, which “takes into account every scrap of precipitation that falls upon the area of land a beef cow might occupy”. And it doesn’t take into account the vast quantities of very useful fertiliser deposited on the land when cattle pee.

Now let’s look at that feed conversion ratio. While Fairlie certainly doesn’t support the feeding of unsustainable quantities of human-edible grain to animals in feedlots, he points out that in arriving at the 10:1 formula, a lot of important stuff has been left out, such as the higher nutritional quality of meat protein, and the value of all the by-products, including the hide, collagen and waste meat used in pet foods. The value of these by-products reduces by at least 15 per cent the 10:1 ratio.

But another statistic ignored or overlooked by the proponents of the 10:1 “grain in/protein out” ratio for cattle comes from a 1997 United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation census on all livestock. This calculated that of the 966 million tonnes of human edible cereals, roots and tubers produced globally, 74 million tonnes is fed to livestock. From that meat, milk and eggs which “contain 53 million tonnes of protein” is produced. This pegs the global aggregate conversion ratio of human edible grain to human edible meat back to 1.4:1 for all meat and meat products. And because all of these figures are comparing grain in to protein out, it should be noted that in Australia we send only about 30 per cent of our beef cattle to grain feed lots, mostly for only 60 to 100 days. This means that 70 per cent of the beef produced in this country eats mainly grass – a food inedible to us – as per their original design. Even the 30 per cent grain-fed cattle spend much of their lives on pasture. And, very important in this country, while eating grass they drink rainwater.

Then there’s the magic pig: While cattle eat what we can’t – grass – pigs, throughout history, have eaten what we won’t: discarded human food, known as swill. But swill is not permitted to be fed to pigs in Australia, even though we throw out three million tonnes of food a year (around 136kgs each). Why can’t this be recycled to the pork industry?

According to Dr Robert van Barneveld, consultant in nutrition to Australian Pork Limited, “it’s all about food safety. Technically we could examine the swill content [and process it for consumption by pigs]. But the issues are making sure those waste streams comply with the relative state laws which are there to prevent exotic disease”. By which is meant foot and mouth. Meanwhile, pigs are fed industrial feed containing human-edible grain.

This may change, though. Barneveld cites work being done to produce edible algae as a base for pig food,  “taking advantage of Australian sunlight and nutrient outflow to produce a food that doesn’t compete with humans”.

Then there’s the issue of grazing. Many farmers and scientists argue that grazing cattle, even in Australia, is not only harmless to the land but beneficial in a number of ways – by storing carbon in the soil, for example.
Successive theorists – from French ecologist André Voisin, author of Grass Productivity, to biologist Allan Savory – have evolved their theories based upon the behaviour of wild ruminants. In his book Should Meat be on the Menu? Australian journalist David Mason-Jones writes that while studying desertification in Africa, “Savory realised that, in the natural state, wild ruminants, held tightly together by abundant predators, intensively grazed in small areas for short periods. Then they moved on. The intensively grazed section of grassland rested and recovered abundantly”.

That process of short bursts of intensive grazing sets in train a combination of complex mechanisms which, its advocates maintain, increases soil carbon. And Australia needs more soil carbon. Between 1839 and 1843, the explorer Paul Edmund De Strzelecki collected 41 soil samples around southeastern Australia. The top ten samples had an average of 20 per cent organic matter (soil carbon), the bottom ten an average of 3.72 per cent. Today, the average in Australia is around 1 per cent.

Mason-Jones has studied the effects of these intensive grazing methods and claims “some farmers are lifting [soil carbon] from 1.3 to 1.6 – that’s a 20 per cent increase in a relatively short space of time.” In various parts of the world, including Australia, there are now soil carbon markets which pay farmers for the carbon that they store.
Fairlie is against the practice of trading carbon, but not the idea that good grazing practices can improve pasture. “There is nothing to be lost,” he writes, “by encouraging mavericks to experiment with ways in which nature can store carbon whilst releasing in greater abundance the nutrients we need.”

All things considered, can we continue to eat meat? It would appear, with some reservations, yes. But we must eat less, and drastically change the way we farm it. Factory farming is not only cruel to animals but also wasteful of resources. Chemicals used in farming are degrading the environment and the most precious resource we have – soil. And, while it is not mentioned in Fairlie’s book, I’m sure he would come down against the practice of exporting live cattle by ship for any number of reasons to do with animal welfare, and for crimes against natural ecosystems.

Fairlie’s preferred form of farming is permaculture, and he quotes the English author of The Earth Care Manual, Patrick Whitefield, who writes that “at root [permaculture] means taking natural ecosystems as the model for our own human habitats”. That being the case, Fairlie points out, “All natural ecosystems have animals that eat the vegetation as well as one another, and are integral to the ecological balance”.

Meat: a Benign Extravagance is a complex and thought-provoking book and I would hope that those who are in charge of our food supply – farmers, agricultural scientists, politicians and those who care about what they eat and how it is raised – read it thoroughly.

Meat: a Benign Extravagance is published by Permanent Publications in the UK and Chelsea Green in the US.

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