Reducing Environmental Impact by Improving Animal Health
If you have not yet seen the recent Health for Animals report “Animal Health and Sustainability” produced by Oxford Analytica, I thoroughly recommend it.
People often assume that the production systems that they are most familiar with are the norm and that therefore global figures that are quoted around animal production and the role of livestock in food systems somehow reflect those systems. There is no typical livestock system though – there are systems that evolve in different places influenced by many different factors. Climate, soils, land type, cropping systems, human population density and cultural norms, legislation, distance from market, infrastructure, and endemic diseases all have their impacts on the food that is produced from a given piece of land. Within those differences, some are fixed, but many are variable and could change. Sometimes there are negative feedbacks that keep a system in place until a tipping point is reached that results in positive feedback leading to change.
Animal health and welfare is the cornerstone of any production system. Failure to ensure good animal health will result in direct stock losses as well as poor performance whether that be in terms of growth or reproductive rate. The knock-on effects of poor health are that feed is being wasted and a larger herd or flock is required to produce the same amount of food as would be the case if the animals were in good health. This is all pretty vague until we start adding up the losses and quantifying them in terms of opportunity costs, whether in food supply, livelihoods, or losses to the economy; this is where the above-mentioned report comes in. “A 60% global vaccination rate for beef cattle correlates to a productivity rise of more than 50%.”
That is a stark figure to those for whom vaccination against prevalent diseases is simply part of the annual routine. We know why we vaccinate, but do we all realize just how devastating not vaccinating might be? A global productivity rise of more than 50% from a vaccination rate of 60% means there are a lot of cattle owners out there who do not vaccinate and their productivity is extremely low. I have seen this first-hand in many lower-income countries of both Africa and Asia what this looks like. For those in high-income countries, this may be assumed to be part of the overall problem of development; poor people have poor animals. Yet, while running a veterinary program in Afghanistan that provided training for para-veterinarians and distributed vaccines throughout the country, I also saw the immediate benefits to livestock keepers who had access to vaccines and veterinary medicines. Being on hand also meant that we could provide support to communities where outbreaks of zoonoses such as Crimean-Congo Haemorrhagic Fever occurred. For countries like Afghanistan, where the amount of land that can grow human edible crops is limited, healthy animals really do mean healthy people. There are many such countries in both Asia and Africa and those two continents are home to two-thirds of large ruminants but produce less than a third of the related animal source foods.
There is huge potential to improve the livelihoods of millions of livestock keepers and the diets of many of the world’s poor if we address animal health. There are challenges, both financial and technical in doing so. But in a world where the sustainability of all food production is under scrutiny, let us not leave the poorest behind. The dividend extends to all of us since to quote once again from the Health for Animals report: “A fall in disease levels of 10 percentage points is associated with an 800 million tonne decrease in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.”
I have said it many times, but we can produce more food from fewer livestock and feed more people while decreasing the footprint of food, but it requires a willingness to engage with real issues rather than ideologies. Far too much of the food systems debate is about what rich people should eat rather than how to make all systems better. If there is one area of food systems truly worthy of investment it is animal health in those countries where crop-producing land is scarce, and livestock are central to livelihoods.
European Regulation and its Actual Effect on Deforestation
From the desks of Josefina Eisele and Ruaraidh Petre
For Brazil, Europe currently represents only 1% of its exports; for Argentina, it is 13% (2020). Beyond the percentages, the prices that Europe pays for the types of cuts that they buy are attractive to most exporters and it is a market that they want to preserve and grow.
Personally, I do not think that the EUDR alone is going to solve the problem of deforestation. It has definitely created awareness and has led to discussions with an increasingly high level of knowledge about Deforestation, Degradation, and Conversion as well as definitions as to what are considered Forests and what are not, and this in itself is positive.
The EUDR has generated discussions on “environmental” traceability, beyond the already existing sanitary traceability for Europe. It has also started exchanges with local governments on access to data, information of origin, georeferencing, and the importance of public-private collaboration which has become evident since the Regulation falls on the private sector (exporters) but the origin (farm/production unit) and transportation data for the products generally come from public sources.
Technology has advanced a lot in recent times through BlockChain, satellites, and multiple applications and programs that allow faster access to information. I believe that this is the beginning of new directions for international and local trade to take. The need to provide information in a transparent and rapid manner is vital, not only in terms of deforestation or conversion, but also on emissions, human rights, health, and animal welfare, and type of production system such as grass-fed or feedlot beef. Consumers are increasingly aware of the issues and want to be informed on the origin of what they consume.
We already know that the EU regulations on deforestation will be followed with somewhat different requirements by the United Kingdom and the United States. Possibly, China will also have environmental requirements at some point, which is why it is important that we all prepare and collaborate between different institutions.
On the other hand, I believe it is essential that there be more discussion forums, where regions such as Latin America can bring their perspectives regarding the social and economic importance of livestock, and the impact that this region has on Climate Change and the problems that face the world today.
Happily, I see that there are multiple organizations that are working on sustainable livestock, the challenge is to collaborate among all and join efforts. With IICA we are achieving it, and that is a great step.
The COPs also represent a great opportunity, where we can all come together and carry a consensual message with data based on science.
I think there is still a lot to do, but I feel that we are on the right track. The challenge is not to slow down, but quite the opposite, to be more efficient and open to working together towards the same goal, improving the sustainability of livestock.
This month we hosted a webinar on the EU deforestation regulation and the ways to comply for the cattle industry. We were joined by Gert van der Bijl, Sr. EU Policy Advisor, Solidaridad; Charlotte Zandbergen, Chief Marketing Officer, Zandbergen World’s Finest Meat; Maria Eugenia Periago, Sustainable Management and Production Program Coordinator, Fundacion Vida Silvestre; and Fernando Sampaio, Sustainability Director, Brazilian Beef Exporters Association (ABIEC).
From Gert van de Bijl of Solidaridad’s presentation, I understood that in terms of Europe’s deforestation ‘footprint’ beef is actually a small contributor, due in large part to existing controls on beef imports. So at the moment, the estimate is that beef imports represent around 3% of the deforestation that Europe is associated with through imports.
Other commodities are more significant, and some of them may not be on everyone’s radar. Rubber, for example, is actually one of the largest contributors to EU’s deforestation footprint. Others are likely much more familiar, including palm oil, soy and other crop commodities, and those can and are also involved in feed supply chains and therefore can also be implicated in livestock production.
From further conversations, it seems that as Europe has a deficit in beef production, and as Brazil is exporting a growing proportion of their beef (from a low of 20% to about 30% now) we would expect to see the 1% that they are currently sending to the EU grow in the future.
What EUDR will do is create a filter on that growth to make sure that it is deforestation-free. The assumption in Europe must be that this will lead to a decrease in deforestation, though I think that is less certain, unless others start using the same framework. Those others could include other importing regions such as the US.
China is the largest importer of Brazilian Beef, with the Middle East and Egypt below them. Rather than expecting those markets to impose deforestation conditions on imports, it is more likely that the finance sector could do so, which could end up having broader implications. If the finance sector adopts EUDR as a general requirement for investments covering commitments from countries with a perceived deforestation risk it could become very influential, in the way, for example, that SBTi is influential in climate impact.
Carbon Tunnel Vision
It’s likely that everyone has heard the phrase “Carbon tunnel vision” in the last year or two and some of us, myself included, have used it when talking about sustainability. I was being a bit flippant when I used it a couple of times earlier this year during presentations, but I have been reflecting on its meaning recently and think it requires a bit more exploration, because it underlines different people’s attitudes as well as telling us a bit about the sort of work they might do.
So what do people mean when they talk about Carbon tunnel vision? Here’s an example from the Stockholm Environment Institute: “Some oil and gas companies have begun to market their products as “clean” or “carbon neutral”. Such tactics are greenwashing at best and dangerous at worst. Not only has investigation after investigation exposed the carbon offset industry as highly unreliable, these company narratives create a distraction from the fact that we need to transition away from fossil fuels now to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.” So their concern is that by focusing on the idea of it being possible to net out emissions, we are missing the point that fossil fuel emissions are not actually cancelled by such an approach. Anything we can be doing to sequester carbon should not be netting out new emissions, it should be locking up legacy emissions. I feel that this is a good use of the term, because it is saying that supposedly “balancing the Carbon books” is more a road to perdition than a good intention. They reproduced this image by Jan Konietzko of Cognizant to emphasise all of the negative impacts of burning fossil fuels that are not primarily related to Carbon. It’s important that companies look more broadly than just balancing carbon when designing their sustainability strategies.
Many others have written on the subject since SEI, mostly with similar points to make; but more recently I have heard people in more practical roles, particularly in agriculture, using the “C tunnel vision” phrase and I sense that they are using it slightly differently. When I hear some people use the phrase, I sense that they are saying that not only are there other things to worry about, but also that Carbon is really not their concern. There are a few reasons for adopting that attitude, some I think better than others.
One reason, is that there are still many in farming and ranching who really do not think that their activities have contributed in any significant way to climate change. This view tends to be supported by those who emphasise the limited contribution of for example, direct enteric emissions, to climate change. There is some logic to this, because the percentage of overall emissions that comes from enteric emissions is small in relation to the total, and the question of their contribution to warming depends on which metric you use. However, I think everyone now agrees that climate change is caused by human activity and therefore, even if you don’t think your activity contributes hugely, it would make sense to do at least your “bit”. Then there are those who recognise the importance of climate change, but do not think that there is very much that they can do about it, and that most of their sustainability work is much more important to their operation than an individual focus on emissions for example. Again, I can see the logic on this, because for most producers adaptation is going to be a primary concern, while everyone needs to eat and will continue to do so, so productivity and efficiency are also priorities. In this case, I would add that many of the things that contribute to adaptation, productivity and efficiency, are also capable of contributing to mitigating climate change.
Maybe more importantly though, is the fact that people doing practical work find abstract talk about carbon frustrating. This is particularly true if the carbon they are supposed to be controlling is in the form of methane which they cannot even see or measure. On the other hand, people involved in desk based jobs tend to like to simplify things to abstracts, and of course accounting is bread and butter to many such roles. And so it is that while practical people see Carbon as overly simplistic and possibly just a distraction, the more theoretical people, including policy makers etc, think it is a useful way to bring order to the chaos of an overly complex world. So rather than seeing carbon as a tunnel through which they view the world, they believe they are seeing the world through a “prism” that helps them account for many issues using one element.
While that is a pretty facile distinction between two caricatures, I think it might help us when we are talking to different audiences. We have previously talked in our communications summit about tailoring the message to the audience, and that does not just mean the story we are telling, but the way in which we do so. Talking about carbon might be great for a room of policy makers or bankers, but a group of cattle producers are probably going to be more interested in talking about cattle, calving intervals, weaning weights, or grass, or water. Unless you’re paying for carbon of course; but then we get back to the whole balancing the books discussion we started this with, and the difference between insetting and offsetting.
To finish up – we have a Climate Goal, not a Carbon goal, and for some of our members that feels too abstract. I’d encourage all of us to think about how to make some of the abstracts we talk about more concrete, more real for all of our members, because when we all understand how those abstract things relate to our practical work, we are much more motivated to deliver on them.
Ruaraidh Petre, GRSB Executive Director
GRSB Featured on TopSoil Podcast
Ruaraidh Petre, Executive Director of GRSB was recently featured on the podcast TopSoil. Petre and Mitchell Hora discussed different types of regenerative grazing and how the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef began. To listen to the podcast, click here.
Regenerative Grazing & Its Range of Practices
The first meeting that led to the foundation of the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef was held in 2010. I think it is fair to say that at that time, top of mind for many of our founding members was the impact of the beef industry on tropical forests.
Deforestation was in the headlines then, as it still is today. There was less awareness of climate change as a global issue, and it was certainly less connected to food production than it is today.
The quandary facing us now is that we know the beef industry does not have to have a negative impact on climate or biodiversity, but that it often does.
We also know that climate and biodiversity are inextricably linked when it comes to the conversion of forests or native grasslands for pasture or feed production.
Our Hot Topic Discussion in March focused on the use of the term regenerative and its relation to Nature Positive Production. We heard several examples of how a range of practices can contribute to improved performance, biodiversity and reduced climate impact.
We know that livestock production systems in many parts of the globe are reservoirs of biodiversity, providing valuable mixed use habitat for wildlife alongside food production.
In Canada for example, cattle production is approximately 33% of Canada’s total agricultural land, YET it provides two-thirds (68%) of the wildlife habitat capacity. Those same ranches store a phenomenal amount of carbon in the soil and contribute to a healthy ecosystem. They are part of a climate and biodiversity positive food system.
We must be careful however, not to imply that all cattle production systems are climate and biodiversity positive. Management is critical to both outcomes, and it seems that often management that benefits biodiversity also benefits climate, as demonstrated in the film series “Roots So Deep” and the associated published research.
Adoption of systems that benefit climate and biodiversity is therefore one of the tools that we can encourage in order to help us meet our global climate and nature positive goals. The direct relationship between national roundtables and the cattle sectors in their countries is the mechanism that can deliver context relevant change.
In the calls for a reduction of global livestock numbers, we frequently see land take and the associated emissions cited as the reason for requiring a change. Encouraging systems that increase biodiversity, such as silvopastoral systems, where appropriate, is one strategy to meet our goal.
We should also take baseline emissions scenarios into account as compared to livestock grazing or mixed livestock and wildlife. This recent paper shows that emissions from wildlife can be equivalent to those from livestock, and that the loss in food production by removing livestock would not automatically yield any climate benefits.
Since livestock grazing systems also provide more wildlife habitat than croplands, it seems fair to conclude that in biodiversity, food security and climate terms, livestock production provides a useful compromise in many geographies when managed well.
There are a variety of actors that can lever change. While there is a lot of talk about carbon or biodiversity offsets that could earn producers extra money, I personally believe that we should be focusing more on insets. I cannot see the logic of selling the credit for your own good work to an organisation that continues to pollute with impunity, and thus losing the ability to make a claim about your own sustainability.
To make insets work, we need the whole value chain, including the financiers, to be involved in a system that rewards producers for the gains they make. Since many large corporations have made commitments that require reporting on scope 3 emissions, insetting is a rational choice. They will have to understand the emissions in their supply chain, anyway, and developing positive relationships with suppliers makes good business sense.
Furthermore, this leads to positive change that can make the supply chain itself more resilient, rather than outsourcing a solution to external parties.
Ruaraidh Petre, GRSB Executive Director
GRSB Featured on Ash Cloud Podcast
Ruaraidh Petre, Executive Director of GRSB was recently featured on the podcast Ash Cloud. Petre and Ash Sweeting discussed creating positive climate impact on the vast landmass under beef production. To listen to the podcast, click here.
To view the transcript, click here.
Animal Health and Welfare: Pain Mitigation
Since GRSB was founded, we have had a focus on animal welfare; see our Principle on Animal Health & Welfare and our goal to provide cattle with good quality of life and an environment where they can thrive. As such, we have recognised animal welfare as being one of the key areas of sustainability for the beef industry. Not only is welfare a key issue in the ethics and the societal acceptance of beef production, but it is instrumental in other aspects of sustainability, including the use of natural resources, emissions and efficiency, as well as farmer livelihoods.
In both our P&C and our Goal, we reference the World Organisation for Animal Health’s (WOAH) terrestrial code for beef cattle welfare; while WOAH is the global organisation for animal health and welfare, there are a wide range of challenges posed by different production systems, regions, breeds and categories of animals. Social stress related to stocking density is more likely in highly intensive systems, whereas extensive systems may expose beef cattle to predation risk, parasites or fluctuations in feed availability while hot climates are more likely to lead to heat stress. Different breeds may also have varying susceptibility to heat stress or disease while different categories of animals require different management. Solutions tailored to each context are needed to address their challenges and optimize beef cattle welfare.
Measurement of welfare presents its own challenges. Animal welfare audits tend to focus on resources, e.g. the facilities, equipment and management practices on farms. However, these audits don’t measure direct outcomes for the animals. Animal-based indicators that cover behaviour, physiology, health, hygiene, locomotion and body condition scores aim to provide more objective information on how the animals are coping with their environment and management.
While animal-based measures are the most direct way to determine welfare, they do require observation and even with sampling methodologies e.g. Welfare Quality® Assessment, this presents a challenge to move to scale. A combination of animal and resource based measures presents a way to set and measure targets. We know, for example, that transport and handling are stressful for cattle, leading to compromised immunity. Both preconditioning and personnel training in low stress handling can improve outcomes. We also know that the adoption of pain mitigation (anaesthetics or analgesics) improves outcomes for cattle undergoing painful procedures such as castration or dehorning, so this is a clear positive action handlers can take.
The Australian Beef Sustainability Framework, in line with the national red meat industry, aspires to 100% use of pain relief in unavoidable aversive procedures by 2030. Similarly, the European Roundtable on Beef Sustainability has a target for the use of pain relief for all surgical procedures, and all forms of castration, dehorning and disbudding. The Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef also has set a target to utilise practices that support animal welfare such as breed selection, polled (no horned) animals and pain relief. The challenge is that not all countries have registered products for pain mitigation in cattle. The US has no products for on-label use in cattle. The USRSB has a target that cow calf operations, transporters and lot feeders have BQA certification.
A logical alternative to the pain of dehorning is to breed polled cattle, and while this cannot be achieved overnight and may not be an option for everyone, GRSB member AACo in Australia has set a target to introduce the poll gene throughout their herd, and has already reached 25%. At the same time, AACo is working with key industry partners to develop an internationally recognised AHW certification standard for extensive beef production by 2024.
GRSB processor members are the next link in the chain after producers and also play a key role in cattle welfare, and just as producers are committed to good welfare, processors are also striving to achieve high standards. Cargill is recognised for their commitment to animal welfare by the Business Benchmark for Animal Welfare (BBFAW ) in Tier 2. JBS has developed a global scorecard with 19 indicators, developed against the five freedoms of animal welfare, which is being implemented across all of their operations. Similarly Tyson uses the Five Domains Animal Welfare Framework across its global operations and introduced the Tyson Foods FarmCheck® program to audit welfare on farm.
GRSB’s working group on Animal Welfare will be identifying more practical projects we can support to achieve our goal of providing cattle with a life worth living in an environment in which they can thrive over the coming years, as well as collecting more data on the achievements of our members in this area.
Ruardiah Petre, Executive Director
Nutrition and Its Role in Sustainable Beef
Nutrition is a hot topic at the moment, particularly in relation to sustainability of food systems. There are many calls for drastic reductions in consumption of animal source foods from such organisations as EAT Lancet, the WEF and others. There has also been support from our members for GRSB to bring nutrition into focus as a topic for further discussion and inclusion in our activities, and possibly in our goal setting.
Clearly, GRSB does not exist to promote beef per se. There are national organisations worldwide as well as alliances of meat producing countries that already do this. Our role is to ensure that the sustainability of beef production is continuously improving, so that it remains a trusted part of a thriving food system. The underlined part is taken from our vision statement, and is an entry point for any discussion of how we might tackle the issue of nutrition and consumption.
Though it is not necessarily our role to point out that, in fact, fossil fuels are the largest contributor to human induced climate change, it certainly is our job to make very clear that it is possible to produce livestock in ways that limit climate impact, are nature positive, and provide animals with a life worth living.
I consider that access to a full range of nutrients to maintain human health is equally important. In this context, recall the findings that Ty Beal presented at GCSB 22 in Denver. 48% of pre-school children in the UK already show a core deficiency, and 31% are deficient in iron. Those figures for the UK are worse than those for Ethiopia. For non-pregnant women in the UK between 15 and 49, 43% had a core deficiency and 21% were iron deficient. For the US, the same figures were 32% had any core deficiency and 22% were iron deficient. For Ethiopia while 49% of women had any core deficiency, only 9% were iron deficient.
Overall, the study estimates that over 370 million pre-school children and 1.2 billion non-pregnant women worldwide are deficient in micronutrients, which clearly point not only to inadequate food supply in some regions of the globe, but also inadequate dietary intake in countries where availability is not the limiting factor.
In a paper published this January in the Journal of Nutrition, Ty Beal and a number of colleagues concluded:
“Efforts by governments and civil society organizations to increase or decrease ASF consumption should be considered in light of the nutritional and environmental needs and risks in the local context and, importantly, integrally involve the local stakeholders impacted by any changes. Policies, programs, and incentives are needed to ensure best practices in production, curb excess consumption where high, and sustainably increase consumption where low.”
Such a message is better and more nuanced coming from GAIN, the Institute for Social, Behavioral and Economic Research, University of California, Stanford Prevention Research Center, Stanford University School of Medicine or the UN FAO than it would be coming directly from GRSB, but we must share this information with all of its nuance and make the point to policy makers that the food system is not just something that can be changed on a whim without consequences.
There are signs that the consumer recognises that nutritional value is more important than typically presented by advocates of a wholesale shift away from animal source foods. The Dutch consumer organisation has pointed out that very few “meat replacers” can be considered a healthy fit within their nutritional guidelines, and cite stagnating interest from consumers themselves in these products.
While some people undoubtedly consume more meat than they need, there are plenty of people in the world who could benefit from a little more animal source food in their diets; reducing availability will have a disproportionate effect on the poor. There are many countries and areas in the world that have very limited potential to produce human edible crops and the livelihoods of people, particularly the poor, in those countries often depend upon livestock.
— Ruaraidh Petre, Executive Director
Ruaraidh Petre, Executive Director of GRSB