• Thursday, May 30, 2013

    What about our Carbon Hoofprint?

    A cow in Hawaii
    A cow in Hawaii
    Notice the Pacific in the background
    Animal Agriculture and the Environment

    As a meat producer and a mom, I hear a lot of information about animal agriculture and the environment. Some groups claim that meat production is one of the main driving forces hurting the environment. They claim that we need to go ‘back to the start’ in food production, insinuating that we should go back to producing food the way we did decades ago.

    Earlier this month, I wrote a post about the enormity of the meat industry, and the massive numbers of animals and people it takes to keep 313 million Americans fed meat each and every day. We can’t go back to the food systems of 1950 and expect to be able to feed everyone that we have to feed today. Not only would food be much more expensive, taking our food production systems backwards would be bad for the environment.
    1954 rotary phone and iPhone
    Do you want to go back to the 1950's way of communicating?
    This week I had a wonderful opportunity to attend an agriculture symposium hosted by Alltech, a Kentucky-based company that makes a wide variety of products used in different aspects of food production. They are a very innovative company and it’s exciting to learn about all the new possibilities in agriculture. (but, more about Alltech in a future post).
    Alltech logo

    One meeting I attended at the symposium focused on the Carbon footprint of animal agriculture. There are several animal scientists and agriculturalists who have focused their research on limiting the impact that food animals have on the environment.

    It’s true that producing food from animals results in the production of green house gasses. All animals breathe out carbon dioxide and cows produce methane in their stomach when they digest their food. It’s just how their systems work. Regardless of the way a farmer produces food (grass fed, organic, antibiotic free, or conventional), some green house gasses are going to be produced.

    I was excited to learn one of the speakers at the symposium was my friend, Dr. Jude Capper, author of the Bovidiva blog. But, unfortunately, the storms early in the week delayed her plane and she wasn’t able to make it to the symposium. She sent me a link to her slides and I’ve seen her speak before. I’ve even discussed her research in my post about the beef industry.
    Dr. Jude Capper
    Dr. Jude Capper

    According to Dr. Capper, animal agriculture contributes to 3.1% of the total US carbon footprint. I love the analogy she uses to explain the environmental impact of animal agriculture. She compares two vehicles; the first gets 5 miles per gallon, the second gets 35 miles per gallon. You automatically think that the first vehicle is an environmental nightmare and the second is a much more environmentally-friendly choice. But wait… the first vehicle is a bus carrying 50 passengers and the second is a car carrying 4. That means, that for a 350 mile trip, the bus can carry 50 passengers, getting 250 people miles per gallon, whereas the car only carries 4 and gets 140 people miles per gallon. Now, which one is better for the environment?

    The same rules need to be applied to animal agriculture. The more productive an animal is, the smaller its impact on the environment.

    Dr. Capper goes on to compare animal agriculture of today (her data is based on numbers from 2007) to that of 30 years ago (1977). One cow of today produces 131% of the beef that one cow would have produced 30 years ago, and each pound of beef produced requires only 81% of the feed, 86% of the water, and 66% of the land a pound of beef required thirty years ago. Using our modern practices, farmers today are producing more beef and using fewer animals and less natural resources. She goes on to say that a pound of beef today results in 80% of the manure, 80% of the methane, 89% of the nitrous oxide and has 82% of the carbon footprint that a pound of beef had in 1977.

    The carbon footprint of animal agriculture will decrease when animals breed and have babies as often as possible, when they are healthy and free of disease, and they will produce much more food with improved genetics. (In animal agriculture, when we talk about improving genetics, we are not talking about creating GMO animals. We are simply talking about breeding the best to the best and getting babies that are even better. Some scientists can use the animal’s DNA to tell them which animals carry the best genes and use them to decide which animals to use for breeding.)

    Dr. Capper is a big proponent of using technologies to increase the amount of food each animal produces, including feeding animals in feedlots as well as utilizing antibiotics, hormones, and beta agonists. These have such a positive impact on productivity that one cow raised using them would produce enough extra beef to feed seven children with school lunches for a whole year! Some of these technologies are banned in Europe, but that decision results in 244 million metric tons of extra beef that must be imported to European countries each year.

    Many people think that producing animals using all grass systems would be better for the environment, but that is terribly inefficient. Animals fed only grass need about 7 more months of growing time to be ready for harvest and they are about 175 pounds lighter than those fed grain. If all US beef was produced on grass, we would need 131 million more acres of land (75% of the size of Texas) and 468 billion more gallons of water (equivalent to that used by 53.1 million US households).

    When you consider how large the global food supply is and how diverse the farming practices are, it’s easy to see how small changes to improve productivity can make huge differences in the amount of total food produced. Just controlling parasites in a small, 35-cow herd can result in enough extra beef to supply 19 families with their annual beef demand. Worldwide, disease in animals causes a 20% loss.

    The next speaker at the symposium (really the first speaker since Jude couldn’t make it) was Dr. Frank Mitloehner. It was great to see Dr. Mitloehner at Alltech. He was a graduate student at Texas Tech when I was an undergraduate and was the teaching assistant in some of my classes. Dr. Mitloehner is now a leading researcher in animal agriculture and its impact on the environment. He uses the term ‘sustainable intensification’ when he discusses improving the impact of animal agriculture on the environment. 
    Dr. Frank Mitloehner
    Dr. Frank Mitloehner

    He told us that the global population will triple in his lifetime and most of the human population growth will occur in the developing world. Farmers will have to produce enough food to feed 9 billion people by 2050 and they will have about the same or maybe a little less land than they have today. So efficiency is key. In the US, we have the most efficient food system in the world, meaning that our farmers produce the most meat, milk and eggs using fewer natural resources than anywhere else in the world. It takes 5 cows in Mexico to make the same amount of milk that one cow can produce in the US. That’s 4 more cows eating feed and hay, drinking water and pooping.

    Developing countries are really far behind in animal husbandry, and that’s understandable. Dr. Mitloehner stated that the best way to improve the environmental impact of animal agriculture worldwide would be to help these developing countries produce food more efficiently. In the developed world, he says that the environmental impact could be improved by learning ways to utilize animal waste to produce energy. (Some farmers already capture the gasses from their manure to produce electricity.)

    Now, we know that being more productive and producing more food is good for farmers, but some countries even take it one step further. The next speaker was Aidan Cotter from the Irish Food Board. He told us about a program in Ireland, called Origin Green that measures the carbon footprint of individual farms in Ireland and allows them to compare themselves to other farmers.

    Origin Green logo

    They measure the inputs and outputs of each farm and grant sustainable accreditation to farmers that are producing efficiently. Their accreditation focuses not only on carbon produced, but also measures efficiency of production, like how often the cows calve, how young they are when they have their first calf, how heavy the calves are at weaning, and how efficiently they gain. If a farmer needs a boost in efficiency, the program works with them to help them improve their farm. This accreditation is quite lucrative because beef factories pay a premium for cattle from farms that are certified as sustainable. The supermarkets that sell the beef in Europe demand beef that is produced sustainably.

    During the question and answer period, Dr. Mitloehner brought up a point that I think is very important. In developed countries like the USA, 1/3 of the food we produce goes into a landfill. All the food that is wasted contributes to greenhouse gas production and the national carbon footprint, but it isn’t used. That is such a travesty. Both Dr. Capper and I have since written blog posts about food waste.

    I hope this post was helpful. I really think that the impact of animal agriculture on the environment is something that is largely misunderstood. Please comment if you have any questions. If I don’t know the answer, I’ll find someone who does.

    Both Dr. Capper and Dr. Mitloehner have been interviewed in the Meat Mythcrusher video series and their videos have some great insight into their research.

    Tuesday, May 14, 2013

    Its a HUGE HUGE HUGE industry!

    In my job, I have lots of great opportunities to see the inside of food processing facilities and farms that most people don’t get to see. That’s part of the fun of being a meat nerd. I am always amazed by the sheer size and scope of the industry when I get to see these facilities in action.

    Huge pile of neatly-stacked bacon
    Mound of bacon.
    For example, I was in a pork processing plant last summer and I was standing in the middle of the bacon slicing room. The slicers are these huge machines with circular blades like 4 feet across. They move so fast you can’t see them. They sliced pieces of bacon faster than I could count. I found a really cool  bacon slicing video on youtube.

    At the plant I was visiting, I think there were six lines slicing bacon all running at the same time, at least 16 hours a day, 5 days a week. That is an incredible about of bacon. That plant harvested 19,000 pigs per day in 2011. Processors get about 15.4 lbs of cured bacon out of every hog, that’s 292,600 lbs of bacon, PER DAY, in one plant! The daily hog slaughter in the US in 2011 was 438,630 PER DAY, that’s 6.7 million pounds of bacon, PER DAY!!!  
    Of course, there are 313 million people in the US and they usually eat three times a day, seven days a week. Not to even mention exports.

    (See how I can get lost in the enormity of our food system! I’m just a meat head.)

    chicks on a broiler farm
    A few of the 80,000 chicks on the Munyon Farm
    We went on a tour of farms with some ladies a few weeks ago called Moms on the Farm Tour. Some local chicken farmers, Jared and Anita Munyon were nice enough to allow our group to tour their farm on a Saturday morning. They have four chicken houses where they raise broilers for a company called Simmons. Each of their chicken houses hold about 20,000 chickens. That’s 80,000 chickens on their farm! They will get about 5 sets of chickens each year, so this one farm produces 400,000 chickens each year. There are about 30,000 farms that raise chickens in the US, and 95% of them are family-owned like the Munyon’s Farm. Americans eat, on average about 83 pounds of chicken each year, so we need lots of them to keep us supplied in chicken nuggets, breasts, and chicken wings, over 37 billion pounds of chicken meat.

    Red Simmental cow
    One of Vallie's beef cows. She has 13.
    The beef industry is even more amazing to me because the cattle come from so many different farms in so many different places in the US. There were over 34 million calves born in 2012 and the US produced over 26 billion pounds of beef, but 90% of the beef farms in the US have fewer than 100 head and the average herd size is 44 head. That means a whole lot of people have input in the beef industry; from folks like my dad with 8 cows to the Deseret Cattle Co. in Florida with 42,000 cows. That’s right; the largest cattle ranch in the US sits between Disney World and Cape Canaveral.

    Students making hot dogs
    Some students learning to make hotdogs.
    A little slower than the commercial plants.
    Then there are the hotdog numbers: It’s hard to know exactly how many hotdogs are consumed in this country, but it is estimated that Americans consume 20 billion hotdogs each year, which works out to about 70 hotdogs per person. On Memorial Day alone, US consumers will enjoy over 150 million hotdogs. That’s enough hotdogs to stretch from Washington DC to Los Angeles five times!!! During the summer time, US consumers will eat 7 billion hotdogs, or 818 each second.
    All of this meat has to be produced by somebody. According to industry stats, the meat and poultry industries employ over 2 million workers paying them over $68 billion in wages. See what I mean about a HUGE industry?!?

    When we buy our 2 or 3 pounds of meat at the grocery store or a steak a restaurant, it’s easy to forget that there are 313 million people in the US who are buying their few pounds of meat for this week, too. Our food system is huge! It’s really amazing to me that we can produce and distribute so much food each day.

    It’s also sad to know that so much food is wasted each day, but that’s another day’s post.