LET US ALL JUST BLAME THE POOR OLD COW

There was a time before the days of widespread dietary guidelines where people started the day not on muesli and skimmed milk but on pig fat and onion. It was a time when a skinny latte was not even a twinkle in someone’s eye. It was an era of cooking with dripping and lard and when we made steam puddings with beef suet as nobody had even dreamt of offering a palm and sunflower-oil based vegetarian suet. It was when ice cream contained dairy fats and not palm or coconut oil. Yes, as shocking as it sounds, those days did exist.

All this began to change when it was concluded that saturated fats were bad for you. Apparently, those of animal origin were worse. The consequence was that many of us grew up being told butter was bad and margarine was good and we should select the low-fat or zero-fat dairy option whenever possible. For years, the nutritional advice was to eat less fat and to replace the energy supplied from the fats with carbohydrates. It appears that times are now changing and some of the fats are being rehabilitated. At the same time, we are beginning to ask if eating too many carbohydrates and, especially, sugar may have significant and [apparently] unforeseen health consequences. Important as this evolving and controversial story is it is not the focus of this article.

To the best of my knowledge, back in the ‘60s and ‘70s as animal fats became ‘unfashionable’ the food industry had to identify alternatives. Thus, the emergence of trans fats [(from Wikipedia): Trans fats… are a type of unsaturated fats that are uncommon in nature but became commonly produced industrially from vegetable fats for use in margarine, snack food, packaged baked goods and frying fast food starting in the 1950s… Trans fat has been shown to consistently be associated… with increased risk of coronary heart disease]. As with animal fats, trans fats eventually fell by the wayside leaving the food industry hunting around for another option to use within so very many food products. Palm oil has proven to be that alternative.

It is safe to say that two major beneficiaries of the dietary changes that have seen animal fats replaced with vegetable fats have been soybean oil and, later, palm oil. Setting the nutritional issues aside, these changes have not been totally benign from an environmental perspective. The expansion in soybean and oil palm has had consequences but ones that rarely get mentioned at a time when ruminants [especially cattle] get such a bad press from the climate change lobby [see my earlier post, ‘Are some cows now more equal than others?’].

Soybean is a major source of vegetable oil. The soybean is ‘dual-purpose’ but, historically, two-thirds of its value [ref. soymeal.org] comes from soybean cake [thus it is often referred to as a protein (for animal feed) crop]. For reference [soymeal.org], about 17.5% of the bean is extracted as oil and 80% as meal. Consequently, a greater emphasis is placed on the use of soymeal for poultry, pigs and cattle rather than oil even though soybean oil production has risen from nearly 16 million tonnes in 1990 to nearly 43 million tonnes in 2014 [FAO]. The emphasis on meal is why meat and dairy production is often seen as resource-hungry and a major problem with respect to climate change. Apart from years of nutritional advice that favoured vegetable over animal fats, animal fats are now often believed to be bad for the environment and our climate.

A great deal of importance is placed upon cattle and climate change so one would expect that most soybean meal was fed to cattle. Usage in the USA is, however, estimated as “approximately 48% of the soybean meal is used in poultry feeds followed by 26% in swine feeds, 12% in beef cattle feeds, 9% in dairy cattle feeds, 3% in fish feeds, and 2% in pet foods” [Cromwell in soymeal.org]. The figures highlight just how much soybean is actually used for poultry and pig feed.

Are the climate-change concerns about soybean meal use in cattle because they are less efficient converters of the meal into human-consumable protein than intensively-reared, confined poultry and pigs? One would of course like to see the question answered in terms of cattle that are predominately herbage-fed and those that are grain-fed [the research may be out there but the author has yet to find it]. As stated earlier, all cattle are not equal and especially if one considers their possible role in carbon-sequestration and grasslands regeneration. Meanwhile is sufficient scrutiny being placed upon pigs and poultry?

Poultry as a white meat is often promoted as the healthier option but is it, if the usage of soybean meal in the USA is typical of wider global usage, also the environmentally-friendly choice?

To quote the World Wildlife Fund [panda.org], “unfortunately, the expansion of soy to feed the world’s growing demand for meat often contributes to deforestation and the loss of other valuable ecosystems in Latin America… in South America, almost 4 million hectares of forests are destroyed every year, 2.6 million of them in Brazil alone… [it] can largely be blamed on heavily soy-dependent livestock farming… limiting consumption of animal-based food products, particularly meat, is one thing people can do to help end this devastating trend”.

To add some background, using the FAO production figures [which date back to 1961], the global area devoted to soybeans was nearly 24 million hectares in 1961. By 2014 it had risen to nearly 118 million. Over this period Argentinian production has risen from 1,000 to 19¼ million hectares, Brazil from 240,000 to 30¼ million and the USA from 11 million to over 33½ million. Therefore, one can also see that Argentina has seen a massive expansion; presumably at the expense of its Pampas grasslands rather than rainforest [and thus it does not attract the same attention]. If, however, one considers that carbon loss from grassland converted to tillage as a major source of atmospheric carbon, how great has the impact of Argentinian soybean expansion been? And is the loss of carbon-sequestering, pasture-based cattle-farming only made it worse?

Who buys soybeans or its meal? In 2013 World trade in soybeans was 103 million tonnes [USA exports accounted for 38%, Brazil 42% and Argentina 8% [the latter processes most of its beans)]. Of this nearly 60% goes to China [which processes beans rather than imports meal and oil]. Some 62 million tonnes [FAO] of soymeal was traded internationally of which nearly 25 million [40%] was imported into the EU. Argentinian exports accounted for 35% of global trade, Brazil 21% and the USA 12% [FAO]. For reference, Argentina is 100% GMO, the USA 93% and Brazil 92% [GMO Compass].

What would be interesting to know is what proportion of soymeal imported into the EU was used for poultry, pig and cattle [dairy and beef] feed. In the context of EU imports, Ireland is a relatively small importer of soymeal. In 2013 it imported about 415,000 tonnes [FAO]. By 2015 [CSO] this had risen to nearly 450,000 tonnes of which about two-thirds came from Argentina. For what is it used?

As highlighted earlier there are environmental issues around land use for soybeans in South America. For some food consumer and those in the supply-chains that provide for them there are also other issues with soya; namely the use of GMOs and the associated use of the glyphosate herbicide. Whatever farmers and scientists think about these technologies; the situation is that many consumers [often premium-paying] are concerned about their use and are willing to pay to avoid them. The question for a country like Ireland that aspires to be a premium foods producer is, does it wish to take account of these consumer preferences or not?

A while ago I read an article from the USA that asked whether Irish butter was GM-free. It may be promoted as grass-fed but is it also produced without the use of GM feeds [i.e. soybean meal]? When one reads about UK and German supermarkets looking at only stocking livestock products from animals that are fed GM-free diets, the GM-issue should be of major concern to Ireland. Is there a correlation between Ireland’s target markets for, for example, developing the Kerrygold brand and consumers who wish to eat a GM-free diet? One can believe that these consumers are poorly informed but can you create a sustainable business by ignoring the wishes of your target consumer?

To return specifically to soybean meal usage, should we be looking at our consumption of poultry meat more than we are? Chickens bred for intensive, confined systems grow at an incredible rate. Are they fuelled by protein-rich diets to do so? Are we consuming vast amounts of soymeal to feed our desire for cheap chicken-derived protein? And should we also be considering the broader issues like bird welfare and antibiotic use? If one compares chicken-based protein with that from grass-fed, largely free-range, cattle production, are we targeting the wrong protein producing systems?

Another major protein feed imported into Ireland is palm kernel extract [PKE]. This is the reside left after extracting the oil from the palm kernel. The palm kernel itself being the minor proportion of the palm fruit [from which most the palm oils is derived]. In this case PKE is the by-product of producing palm oil. Its availability has, nonetheless, increased significantly in recent years as the demand for palm oil by the food industry [as trans fats usage has declined] has risen.

In 1961 the global palm oil area was 3.5 million hectares [FAO]. By 1990 this had risen to 6.1 million hectares. It exceeded 10 million hectares by 2000 and over 18.5 million in 2014. In 1990 palm oil production was about 11½ million tonnes. By 2014 it was nearly 54½ million. Palm oil has seen a recent and dramatic increase in usage and it is one that is driven by the demand for palm oil as a vegetable-fat. It is probably the greatest development resulting from the substitution of animal fats by vegetable fats in the human diet [a consequence of decades of nutritional guidelines]. The question is, has this change been a benign one for our environment and our climate?

To say that there is concern about deforestation in regions like South-East Asia due to the expansion of oil palm is an understatement. Not only is there the carbon emissions from forest clearance itself but there are the issues of habitat loss and species extinction. There are now sustainable palm oil initiatives but are they doing more than scratching the surface? And our demand for palm oil seems to be insatiable and it has major environmental costs. Is it a cost that can be traced back to our nutritional-guidelines-driven switch to vegetable from animal fats [with an intervening digression into trans-fats along the way]? Is it an unforeseen but costly consequence?

It was only a few weeks ago that Professor Keith Woodford [Lincoln University] raised the issue in his blog of PKE usage in New Zealand. The country’s dairy industry has taken massive advantage of the increasing availability pf PKE in its wider geographic region. In 2000 New Zealand imported 539 tonnes of PKE [FAO]. By 2013 this had risen to 1.6 million tonnes! Ireland, by contrast, imported an eighth of the quantity in 2013. Now PKE is a genuine by-product of palm-oil production [simply nobody would grow oil palms for animal feeds, the yields are just far, far too low] but that aside, Professor Woodford still considers it necessary for New Zealand to look at how it can protect its grass-fed, sustainable image from being undermined by its use of a potentially ‘toxic’ [from an environmental image perspective] imported animal feed. Ireland needs to watch this space.

Here I have highlighted issues surrounding two sources of animal protein feeds; both have environmental question marks. One would strongly recommend that, in the context of promoting Ireland as a sustainable, green premium-foods producer, their sourcing is reviewed. It is a review that should also be taken further in terms of animal feed imports; the overall tonnage is not limited to circa a million tonnes of proteins as [in 2015] a similar tonnage of food processing by-products was also imported. And then there was nearly another million tonnes of maize… Ireland’s livestock farming is highly import dependent in terms of feeds, fertilisers and fuels and it could have implications when it comes to selling the country’s green, sustainable image. One accepts that Irish farming, with its limited land resources, needs to import what it cannot produce but it is important to ensure that the input supply chains are also verified as ‘sustainable’.

There looks to be several positives appearing concerning cattle farming at present; albeit for cattle farmed in a certain way. There is a lot of talk of ‘grass-fed’ but, as stated in a previous blog, it will become insufficient to be selling products that are loosely-defined as ‘grass-fed’. There is also the Omega 3 / Omega 6 issue that favours grass-fed over grain-fed. And then there are farmers who are working on grassland management techniques focused on sequestering carbon. And there are researchers and practitioners who belief that it is possible to use cattle to regenerate ancient grasslands and restore arid areas. The author believes that the coming years will reveal that cattle farming is not all bad, far from it. It is just that we must be selective about how we farm cattle and, many people say, some societies must eat less meat per se. They must simultaneously place a greater value on meat itself.

Having started by writing about nutrition, I will come full circle and mention the current ‘rehabilitation’ of the animal fats. At least it has happening for some, if not others. It is now, at least, a point of controversy. I would recommend reading ‘Big Fat Surprise’ by Nina Teicholz; it takes to task many decades of what has become the conventional thinking on nutrition. It asks just how far reaching have been the health implication of those guidelines and our replacement of animal fats with vegetable fats and fats with carbohydrates. I cannot adequately summarize here what Nina Teicholz has to say, but for anyone with interests in the production of grass [herbage is a better descriptor] -fed meat and dairy products, it should be obligatory reading.

Further, I would add to the obligatory reading list ‘Defending Beef’ by Nicolette Hahn Niman and ‘Grass-fed Nation’ by Graham Harvey. For herbage-focused farmers they are a triumvirate of books when it comes to creating a vision for the future. By reading them together, one can see how nutritional guidelines have impacted upon the health of whole nations and massively influenced the direction of the farming and food industries.

When supported by rising consumer wealth, the nutritional guidelines have had environmental consequences as we have used soybeans to fuel the growth of, in particular, poultry meat production and palm oil to provide for the needs of a food industry in a post-trans-fats era. They have also impacted upon animal welfare and especially bird welfare as we have switched to white from red meat. These are consequences that are often go unmentioned; they are extrapolations of my own and they come from joining the dots of what is a complicated issue. They are, however, issues that herbage-focused farmers need to understand when everyone appears to be blaming the poor old cow.

is not saying that cattle production does not have its issues. Should we be eating so much cheap beef? Maybe we should be eating more pulses directly rather than converting them into proteins via farmed livestock? Maybe we should be asking ourselves more rigorous questions over the merits of confined versus free-range livestock farming. And, although I have highlighted, the environmental consequences of soybean and palm oil production, we should not ignore the impact of cattle farming on, for example, water quality or carbon emissions in general. And we should be asking ourselves just how resource hungry is grass-based farming when it is reliant on man-made fertilizers rather than nitrogen fixed by legumes. Everything is not rosy in the garden, but it is also not as weed-infested as some would like us to believe.

opportunities that changing thinking on nutrition could be immense for Ireland’s ruminant-based agriculture. They will, nonetheless, not be realized by believing that a generic-Irish, slap-a-sticker-on-it, sell-what-we-have approach will work. It is not what will convince the target consumer to pay the premium necessary to allow the structure of the Irish farming industry to remain. As I often state, for that to happen we need to see a premiumized farm-gate price. That could happen given that premium-paying consumers are going to increasingly demand credible traceability and a fuller understanding of the farming system behind the product [and providing them with anything less will risk another ‘horse-gate’]. The foundations of that credibility must be created on the farm with farmers making the changes necessary to deliver on what the consumer aspires to. And when one views it from such a perspective one also realizes that the opportunities can benefit the farmer; that is if they are their leadership are willing to go out and grasp them before others do.

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