What's in the news right now about environmentally sound, socially responsible and economically viable beef value chain.

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Executive Director's Message

The Economist recently published a "retreat from meat" briefing, which contained a number of issues that I think deserve further consideration. I sent a considerably shorter version of this mail to the economist, which was not published.

In the light of the IPCC report issued in October, everyone with a basic grasp of climate change and the risks that we are facing understands the imperative to action. No industry can consider itself exempt from the need to change, improve and adapt.

We have seen an enormous increase in the number of articles in both mainstream and social media decrying livestock as a major contributor to climate change, and "Retreat from Meat" continues this trend with little analysis of the data behind the issue. Enteric emissions are now discussed widely as one of the major causes of climate change, though very few commentators actually understand the sources and the fate of atmospheric methane or go beyond repeating the mantra that they must be stopped. Celebrities such as Richard Branson and Leonardo DiCaprio add to the clamour despite their individually enormous climate footprints.

Firstly, no consideration is given to the range of emissions per kg produced. Global figures are used to make comparisons despite the fact that there are carbon neutral ruminant production systems, and there are systems that produce up to 490kgCO2e per kg of meat. Taking a mean is disingenuous, it does nothing to inform a consumer about the impact of their diet, nor target assistance to areas where the largest problems are. Consider that at present nearly 2/3 of the world's ruminants produce less than 1/3 of the meat. That level of inefficiency comes with a large environmental cost. If we look at where those 2/3 are; Africa and Asia, and then consider that these are the areas where both the herd and demand for beef is growing fastest, you will understand that preaching lower production or consumption in developed countries is not going to provide the solution we urgently need.

Although it's difficult to be precise about sources of atmospheric methane, we do know that the concentration has increased over time, and that the increase has tracked the rise of fossil fuel use, including the plateau in concentrations in the late 1990s and early 2000s when Russian gas extraction slowed (articles 1, 2, 3, 4) . Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, which means that fugitive emissions from natural gas and oil extraction are a serious concern, because they add an initial high warming potential gas that breaks down into CO2 and water over time, giving a net addition to atmospheric CO2 from fossil sources. Equally, the release of large amounts of CH4 from methane hydrates in polar seas and from melting permafrost is a grave concern, as they are also of ancient origin and will accelerate as polar regions warm.

Ruminants are different. The CH4 they are producing is of recent origin – it degrades back to the same CO2 and water that the grass they eat took out of the atmosphere a few days ago. CH4 degrades over a period of 10–12 years, so the only new contribution enteric emissions make to warming are the additional methane compared to what was produced 10–12 years ago. Whereas countries in the developed world are producing more beef from fewer animals at a lower CH4 per kg (Canada, Australia, Europe), and are actually contributing to a reduction of methane in the atmosphere, countries where the herd is expanding are contributing to an increase. But those same countries where the herd is expanding, are the least efficient producers. We urgently need to work with them to improve productivity per cow, and methane emissions per kg of production.

Further improvements in CH4 emissions come from a more digestible diet. Enteric methane comes largely from the breakdown of cellulose, and the higher the quantity of poor roughage in the ruminant diet, the higher the emissions will be. Very large improvements can be made simply through diets – on pasture and browse, the inclusion of legumes such as clover is significant. Recent research has also identified means to modify rumen flora including inoculation and the use of additives derived from algae or tannins, leading to reductions in CH4 emissions of up to 60%. Finally, there is now even a clip on device for grazing cattle that can capture methane as it is belched out, and oxidise it back to CO2 and water. While activists call for "re–wilding" of rangelands and pastures, they fail to appreciate that the enteric emissions from deer, elk or bison or other ruminants are no different to those from cattle.

Finally on methane, it's real role in climate change has been misrepresented. Firstly, research published in Nature showed that reductions in short–lived gases like methane do not buy time for later CO2 reductions. Drastic action on CO2 from fossil sources needs to be taken now. It is quite clear from the Carbon Majors report fossil fuels are the driver of climate change, and without them, this whole discussion would not be taking place. Additionally, because STCPs including methane have been accounted for as CO2 equivalents we overestimate their impact on climate (see also plain English article here). An American driving 15,000 miles per year causes GHG emissions equivalent to eating over 2lbs of beef per day, but rather than weaning ourselves from this fossil fuel addiction we are asked to radically alter food production systems to the detriment of our own nutrition and abandonment of large areas of productive land.

In terms of land use, the comparison of production in terms of calories per hectare is meaningless. Very clearly ruminant production systems are based predominantly on grazing systems, and land devoted to grazing is almost always marginal for crop production due to soil, topography or climate. There are exceptions, such as the natural rangelands that have moved from wild herbivores to cattle production, and in many of those we see crops encroaching rapidly into natural grasslands such as the prairies of north America. In general however, grazing systems exists because growing a range of human edible crops is not possible.

The nutritional value of production should not be measured in calories, nor should it be based on area; comparing the productivity of rich alluvial silt in a delta with poor sands in an arid zone tells you nothing about the potential of the land. Talking about the "opportunity cost" of producing ruminants that derive 86% of their ration from grass, is to suggest that humans could eat that grass themselves. A far more useful analysis is to look at human edible feed. This article by several authors from FAO and ex–World Bank demonstrates clearly not only the important nutrient contribution that livestock make in return for the human edible feed they consume, but also the equally important contributions they make to livelihoods of rural poor throughout the world, disregarded by your article. They conclude that 1kg meat from ruminant systems requires 2.8kg of human edible feed and that in monogastric systems 1kg of meat requires 3.2kg of human edible feed.

Life cycle analyses look at environmental burdens and comparisons between LCAs are used in the way your article compared calories from plants to those from meat. Comparing nutritional value of products is more informative in relation to the land used. This study does this for a range of animal proteins, showing that ruminant systems perform well in comparison to monogastrics. This can be extended to crops as well.

Livestock also make very important contributions to cropping systems, playing a key role in maintaining soil fertility and structure. Extensive livestock systems in marginal areas also preserve habitat and biodiversity. We need to increase integration of crops with livestock to reduce dependence on fossil fuel based inputs.

On the issue of health it is worth noting that the very large PURE study covering over 135,000 individuals from 18 countries on five continents showed that a diet high in carbohydrates (more than approximately 60% of energy) but not high in saturated fats, was associated with higher risk of death. Additionally it was found that "People who consumed a diet emphasising fruit, vegetables, nuts, legumes, fish, dairy products, and meat had the lowest risks of cardiovascular disease and early death. Regarding meat, we found that unprocessed meat is associated with benefit."

Thus limiting refined carbohydrate intake should be a priority, while dairy foods and unprocessed meat can certainly be included as part of a healthy diet. Weight for weight, meat is nutrient dense in protein and energy, but because of this nutrient density we need less of it than alternative sources of protein.

The anti livestock agenda is driven by a mixture of acquiescence and a desire not to significantly change lifestyles amongst wealthy western populations and activism from those who have chosen not to eat meat for ideological reasons. As with many such ethical questions, defining eating meat as " immoral" is as arbitrary as the opposite point of view, except for the fact that only a tiny minority of people believe it to be immoral.

Over a billion people on the planet, many of them poor people in less developed countries depend upon livestock for at least part of their livelihoods, and the majority of the planet depend upon livestock as a source of high value protein. 70% of the land we have for food production is simply not capable of producing human edible crops – in some countries, almost no land is. In the coming 30 years we will gain another 2 billion in human population, mostly in the areas where livestock production is currently least efficient.

These are also the regions where population and income are driving the largest increases in meat consumption. Now is not the time to condemn more people to poverty and malnutrition, it is time to invest in improving our performance, in ways that we already know are possible.

Members may also appreciate Frank Mitlohner's recent article in Newsweek.

Thank you!

Ruaraidh Petre
Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef
Executive Director
 


Please also note that the Proceedings of the Proceedings of the Global Conference for Sustainable Beef 2018 are now available online.

Global Regions Report Beef–Sustainability Progress
John Maday, AgWeb | October 25, 2018
When the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB) formed in 2012, participants quickly realized sustainability goals, practices and and measurements would need to reflect regional differences in beef–production environments. Practices deemed sustainable in tropical environments could differ significantly from those in colder regions, and vice–versa. Even within a country such as the United States, production environments vary widely between regions, such as the subtropical Southeast versus the arid West.

Read the full 2018 GRSB Sustainability Report.

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