Is Eating Meat Sustainable For Everyone?
I set the stage last week with a post announcing the series that Mike and I are starting this week. Basically, we’re going to be taking on the Primal/Paleo lifestyle from several angles, looking at sustainability. We think this is kind of a “million dollar question,” if you will. We live on a world with limited resources and a vast population, so coming up with ways for everyone to be truly healthy, while also not outstripping the land and sea, is incredibly important.Now, I’ll be the first to admit that it’s unlikely there’s a simple yes/no answer to this question. We have to acknowledge a few realities with regards to population:
- It’s unlikely we can feed every person on the planet a pound of meat per day.
- Regardless of our thoughts on the population that can be supported on the available resources, there are 6.7 billion of us here and that’s not something we can change. (Though Mother Nature very well may.)
The goal here is to stimulate thoughts and get people talking about the kinds of changes that will at least tilt the field in the right direction.
Can Meat Production and Consumption Be Done Sustainably?
I figured we’d start it off with a bang, so today is a very hot-button topic. Put another way, what is the best use of land to get the most nutrition to the people that the land supports? Note that we’re not looking necessarily for the most calories. We’re looking for the most nutrition. Calories are part of that equation, but since some vitamins and minerals are only available in animal foods, that means there is some level of animal foods required, no matter what mental gymnastics one tries to play.So I’m going to try to coherently bring together some data on:
- Land Usage Of Various Animal Feeding Methods
- Land Usage Of Various Meat Animals
- Usage Of Marginal Land And Game Meats
to build a picture of where our food production system needs to go.
Land Usage Of Various Animal Feeding Methods
Now here’s where the fun begins. Can we support a Paleo lifestyle with current population numbers on the amount of land available? Some studies show that a vegetarian diet is the most efficient in terms of land usage, but then other studies have said that a diet with some meat included is the most efficient. The unfortunate thing there is that meat and egg consumption of the “most land efficient” diet was 2 oz per day, which is about 15g of protein and 10g of fat. Do we really need to cut back that far?I’m assuming that the meat in the study was beef, chicken, and pork, conventionally raised in a feedlot at that. These animals are fattened on grains (mostly corn) and soy that take up land usable for other crops, like fruits and vegetables. Which puts two ideas in my head:
- How do naturally raised animals compare to confinement operations in land usage?
- How do the various types of meat compare in land usage?
For the sake of trying to make this a discussion with fewer variables, I’m making a few assumptions:
- Land is the main constraint on the production of food (as opposed to water or oil, which are probably also issues that need to be resolved).
- What works for the US can be extrapolated to other countries, which probably isn’t true for countries like Macau with their 18,705 people per sq.km.
- I’m working from beef as it is the most land-intensive animal.
The Sustainability Of Grass-Fed Beef Vs. Grain-Fed CAFO Beef
Mike and I, along with numerous other nutrition bloggers, talk constantly about grass-fed meats and how much better they are for you than their grain-fed counterparts. We also know that grass-feeding uses fewer chemicals on the land to grow crops as well as fewer chemicals (antibiotics and hormones) for the animals. But what about total land usage? Surely a cow fed on grass needs more land than a cow fed grains, right?My initial thoughts are that Argentina feeds 40 million people an average of 150lbs/person of beef. Argentinian beef is grass-fed, so we have 3 million tons of grass-fed beef being eaten there. In the United States, we eat an average of 67lbs/person of beef, so 10,284,500 tons of beef, little of it grass-fed. That works out to 3.42 times as much beef eaten in the US on 3.55 times the land, so roughly equivalent. On the surface, it would appear that it’s possible to grass feed the cows in the United States.
The Numbers On Grain-Fed Beef
So I think a good starting point is to figure out how much land is used to raise grain-fed cows each year. There are about 100 million cows in the United States. And how much grain is needed to feed those cows? Some sources say 16 pounds, but…(1)
According to the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST) 1999 Animal Agriculture and Global Food Supply Report, an average of 2.6 pounds of grain is used to produce a pound of beef in developed countries and 0.3 lb. in developing countries. Animals don’t steal grains destined for the world’s hungry; instead they consume large amounts of feedstuffs not suitable for human consumption. This includes forage from marginal land that can’t be cultivated for human foods and food processors’ byproducts such as citrus pulp brewers’ grains, almond hulls and tomato pomace.
According to Food Reference.com:(2)
It takes about 2 pounds of grain to produce one pound of chicken meat, about 4 pounds of grain to produce 1 pound of pork, and about 8 pounds of grain to produce 1 pound of beef.
Given the disparities between 2.6 and 16, it seems reasonable that the answer is somewhere in the middle, so let’s run with 8lbs of grain to 1lb of beef. (EDIT: Thanks to Malcolm for fixing my math.) We get an average of about 150 bushels of corn & soy per acre (more for corn, less for soy) at about 60 lbs per bushel. That yields 9000 lbs of feed grain per acre. At 8 lbs of feed grain per pound of beef, that gives us 1125 lbs of beef per acre of grains, or about 2.5 cows per acre. Running that back into 100 million cows, yields 40 million acres needed to produce the grain for the cows (about 2% of US total land).Of course the cows don’t spend their entire lives in the feedlot. Most spend at least a portion of their lives grazing with their mothers, sharing from 2.5 to 35 acres (depending on the area of the country, see below).While there is a lot of land required for the first six months of each calf’s life, the next eight months are spent pretty tightly packed, perhaps 1 cow per acre for a few months as a “stocker,” before going into the feedlot where they are stacked extremely tightly, perhaps 2000 per acre (assuming 20 sq. ft. per cow).** I think it’s pretty obvious that with grain feeding, we’re able to produce lots of beef quickly on relatively little land. That’s why meat is so cheap.
* This number was found by taking a weighted average of the average corn yield (183 bushels/acre) and the average soy yield (40 bushels/acre) at their suggested feeding ratios for a cow (about 60% corn, 30% soy, 10% hay).
** These are educated guesses from a friend who raises grass-fed cows. See email below.
The Numbers On Grass-Fed Beef
I emailed a local farmer friend of mine who raises his cows, pigs, and lamb on pasture (Jim Fiedler for all you Louisvillians…pick up some of his awesome pork [I recommend the bacon ends] at the Bardstown Rd. Farmer’s Market) to get some information on how much land is needed to raise a cow completely on pasture. Here is his reply:
The amount of acres needed to raise a cow on grass is highly variable depending on the area of the country, the quality of the pasture and even the size of the cow and prejudice of the farmer. I have now come to the opinion that in this area it takes about 2.5 acres to raise one cow/calf pair after talking to Jason Tower, the manager at the Purdue farm near here. …Of course out west in Colorado or other mountain states, the number might be 1 cow per 35 rangeland acres which is number Dale Lasater threw out to use on a visit to his ranch.
Okay, so 2.5 acres in the midwest is a good start. And out west, we’re dealing with a much lower stocking rate. Perhaps 10 acres is a fair estimate of the “average per cow” needs across the U.S. It at least gives us a nice round starting point for discussion. Basically, we’re looking at about 3 times the land to produce a grass-fed cow as to produce a grain-fed cow. Which means a whole lot less meat available should the food system go that route. Though theoretically, we could reduce meat exports of nearly 1 million tons of beef (though we import 1.1 million), 3.5 million tons of poultry, and 2.3 million tons of pork.(3)
Land Usage Of Various Meat Animals
To this point, I’ve looked only at cows, the most prominent meat animal, at least in the United States. We also have to include the other meats like pork, chicken, and lamb. There are also 403 million chickens, 60 million hogs, and 7,600,000 sheep (plus 1.2 million goats) in the US.(4)To look at how much land is required to raise the various types of meat, and therefore figure out if one type of meat is less resource intensive, we have a measure called the “Livestock Unit” (LU).[TABLE=12]So on a 10 acre plot, we can raise 4 cows, 16 pigs, 27 sheep, or 40 goats. So we can get about 1800 lbs of beef (450lbs dressed weight each), 2400 lbs of pork (150lbs d.w. each), 1250 lbs of sheep (45lbs d.w. each), or 1400 lbs of goat (35lbs d.w. each).(5-7) Maybe part of the answer entails changing WHAT we eat without changing HOW MUCH we eat.
But what about combined grazing? What if we could increase the productivity of land by raising more than one animal on the same land? It’s actually possible that we could improve the land with multiple animals on graze.(8)
On this farm, Charles Reed has discovered, the goats eat for free. “You can run one to three does for each cow-calf unit and not change the stocking ratio,” he said. The goats don’t take feed away from the cattle. Instead, they eat the rough forage that cattle don’t eat, and create better pasture with more grass for the cattle. The kids produced by the goat herd add another 100 pounds or more net production to every stocking unit, he said. It works out about the same as if you were taking a 450-pound calf at weaning and adding another 150 to 200 pounds to the weight of that animal.
It is generally believed that six mature goats equal one cow on improved pastures and that ten goats equal one cow on browse or brushy areas.
Sheep can also be stocked with cows at a rate I’d presume is about 5 per cow given the LUs for sheep and goats. Basically, the goats and sheep eat different plants than the cows. In fact, sheep can eat weeds that are toxic to the cows and vice versa, keeping the pastures in better shape and preventing overgrowth of toxic weeds. They also help control parasites that affect one species, but not the other. An increase in the productive milk capacity is also seen from grazing sheep and cows together, the sheep actually helping the cows to produce more milk (presumably by improving the pastures).(9)Anyone that’s read Joel Salatin’s books, either “Holy Cows And Hog Heaven” or “Everything I Want To Do Is Illegal,” knows that chickens can follow ruminants in the pasture, taking advantage of grubs, larva, and nutrients in the ruminant manure, and leaving behind their own nitrogen-rich droppings. It seems that up to 400 chickens or 100 turkeys can be raised per acre behind the ruminant animals, producing both meat and eggs.(10) That seems to be a huge boost to how much food a piece of land produces. If a broiler weighs 1.5 lbs on average (not counting bones), that’s an additional 600 lbs of meat.This is actually the natural way of the world. Look in any natural setting and you’ll see numerous species living (somewhat) harmoniously, each living on different food sources. I’ll address this more in the post two weeks from now, but to set the stage, I think our best bet is to try to emulate nature with our food production system rather than fight it with monocropping and single animal enterprises. I’m sure it’s not as simple as running goats and cows together, then running the birds behind, but it seems there’s at least some possibility of a combined system that is greater than the sum of the parts.
Marginal Land/Crop Use
With the ruminant animals (like cows, sheep, goats), we’re taking a food source that humans can’t use (grass) and converting it into a food source that is usable by humans (meat). A big key is that there is a lot of land out there that just isn’t suitable for growing crops. So on this land, meat production only makes sense. Of course, just how much land is considered “marginal” is a number you probably won’t find. Regardless, this is the major flaw in the “we should all be vegetarian” argument. Some land won’t support plant life that humans find edible or palatable and therefore, it would be inefficient to not use it for animals.Further, as pointed out above, grain-fed animals tend to receive the low-quality corn, soy, and processing by-products of food product creation rather than using the higher-quality versions reserved for humans. If a cow can provide a more nutritious product than the direct eating of these food sources, I think it’d be kind of silly not to do so. Most anti-meat arguments tend to hinge solely on calories, which frankly are not the issue.
Wild Game Animals
In my book, game meats are fair game. They require no dedication of resources that could be appropriated in a different way (unless of course you consider taking out the forests to be a better use for the land). The animals endure no cruel rearing methods throughout their lives. Assuming a competent hunter takes the animal down, the animal is killed in as humane a way as possible, certainly more humanely than being eaten alive by a fellow creature. And it allows taking meat from an area that is allowed to operate under its own natural methods without much human intrusion.The only numbers I could find for the annual hunting take is for whitedail deer. Annually, we add about 75,000 tons of meat to our freezers from hunting.(11) That’s a drop in the bucket compared to how much meat 307 million people eat, but there are also turkey hunters, elk hunters, etc. I would imagine the take there might add another 5-10,000 tons. Regardless, it’s only a supplement to what we have to provide ourselves.
Next Time: Fruit And Vegetable Production And Consumption
Up next week, I’m going to look at production and consumption of the non-meat parts of our diet – the fruits, vegetables, roots, nuts, and seeds. On the docket are topics such as:
- How to efficiently grow the produce we need
- How to minimize produce waste
- How to move from a grain-based diet to a Primal-based diet
Then this topic is going to come up again as we take some time to look at how to effectively share the land between plants and animals to come up with a food production system that works. Again, we’re not going to solve the problem here, but we’ll at least stimulate some discussion, which is a key at this point to turn things around.Thoughts? What did I miss? Are there holes that I left open? Anyone with additional knowledge that I was unable to find in my searching? Feel free to debate any point in here. This is an exercise in stimulating rational thought and discussion.Resources:(1) Beef Myths & Facts(2) Food Reference(3) U.S. Meat Exports(4) Agriculture in the United States(5) Market Animal Dressing Percentages(6) Goat Meat Yields(7) Starting A Meat Goat Operation(8) Goat Stocking Rates(9) Grazing Sheep With Cattle(10) Sustainable Poultry Production(11) Deer Hunting