How much grain does it take to produce a KG of Meat?
So you are ready to tuck into your utterly delicious looking bacon and eggs and your friend – possibly feeling resentful about the lack of mouth-watering aroma wafting from their cold crisp salad – drops this comment into the conversation: ‘Did you know that agriculture is responsible for 51% greenhouse gas emissions’ and ‘it takes 1 billion litres of water to produce a KG of beef?’
Ok, the last one is a silly exaggeration. But is this any more ridiculous than suggesting a beef steer, who drinks water then passes most of it within an hour, can somehow have ‘locked up’ 500,000 litres of water in its body by the time its slaughtered! This isn’t how it works.
The terminology that is being used is misleading and misguided. Such an animal would be enormous and I think the resulting steak would leave a lot to be desired!
In the case of water it’s true that industrial agriculture ‘uses’ vast amounts of water. Water is used in many ways; from the so-called ‘green water’ held in the stems of plants, the water used to irrigate the crops, produce the fertilisers, squirt the windscreens of the delivery trucks, to the water used in hosing down the abattoir when the final deed is complete.
The vital point to remember is that the huge figures often being thrown around are usually relate to grain fed animals in intensive systems. If an animal is eating grass and drinking from streams all its life, it will have virtually no negative effect on the water cycle.
I would also like to point out that most credible water studies show that although grain fed meat is very water intensive, it’s actually comparable to the amount of water used to produce many other foods like rice, nuts, coffee, sugar and chocolate – yes chocolate! Funnily enough, I don’t seem to come in for the same enthusiastic slander from the moral high ground when I’m drinking Starbucks.
I hear similar blanket accusations about the energy and greenhouse gases that are used to produce meat. Many people use figures that relate to intensively reared factory farmed animals to argue that eating meat is bad for the environment. These animals are fed cereals from irrigated, fertilised depleted soils regularly dressed with pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides. These animals eat foods that are unnatural and unhealthy, leading to regular and preventative medicine use. The meat from these animals is processed using chemicals and additives and formed into weird shapes then overpackaged and transported thousands of miles across the world. This meat couldn’t and shouldn’t be compared with that of a beef steer that has lived on grassland its whole life.
It’s like saying ‘all people eat £100,000 of vegetables in a lifetime and spend 3000 hours watching telly every year.’
It’s overgenerous to my Son who practically throws up when you try and make him eat a pea, and is rather unfair to my partner and I who don’t watch television at all. The statement doesn’t help my Son develop healthier eating habits or encourage the telly addicts to consider going for an evening walk or to pick up a book. It’s a useless statement that closes down a discussion which could really improve lives.
The best example of ‘bias fact throwing’ is featured in the wildly inaccurate and misleading film ‘Cowspiracy’ which deserves an entire rant to itself.
(You can read that here) The film uses the FAO ‘Livestock Long Shadow Report to explain that animal agriculture produces more greenhouse gases than the transport sector. They then regularly use an enormous figure for these statistics and suggest that 51% of global greenhouse gases are generated by agriculture. This 51%, by the way, comes from a paper written for ‘World Watch’ which the Authors presented to the FAO for review as part of the ‘livestock long shadow report’ review process. The FAO rejected the Authors methodology and proceeded to lower their figure from the original 18% to 14%!
A more credible organisation, the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) – a Nobel Prize-winning body of scientists who’s opinions are valued above all others on facts relating to global warming – released a report the following year stating that the WHOLE of agriculture attributes 10-12% of GHG emissions. It then shows enteric methane (cow burping methane) represents only 5.1% of overall emissions.
90% of energy used in agriculture comes from the ‘inputs’ mostly used in intensive and factory type farming systems. So here’s a radical thought:
Maybe we should look at the type of farming that is producing the meat we eat instead of just saying ‘meat is bad for the environment.’
I detest factory farming and all it represents, but the figures that get the most airplay are plain wrong. In this article, I explain why grazing ruminant animals can actually help REDUCE the overall GHG burden.
Another favourite throwaway ‘fact’ is that it takes 10kg of grain to produce 1kg of beef. In his book ‘Meat: A Benign Extravagance” Simon Fairlie investigates these figures in unbelievable detail, his reasoning is so compelling that he even managed to convince George Monbiot that an omnivore diet could be a sustainable option.
Simon Fairlie suggests that the conversion rates for grain fed animals vary considerably, for example, chicken and pigs have fairly low conversion ratios. When you calculate the conversion rates for the types of meat we are eating and account for the fact that half the world’s food comes from either grass fed systems or eats mainly human food by-products and waste, the figure comes out nearer 1.4:1.
Simon convincingly argues that if we ate half as much meat, use grass fed and ‘default’ animals for milk and meat and get far better at using our ‘waste’ products to feed farm animal omnivores, we could eat meat without having to feed the animals human edible food. I agree. I talk about this in more detail here.
I think the ruminant animals we eat, should graze on well-managed grasslands that are unsuitable for arable crop production or are in the grass ley of a mixed farming rotation system. This is the only way we can ‘make food’ from the grassland habitats and this is vital in a world with stretched food resources.
There isn’t any reason grazing animals should harm an important habitat if they are managed correctly. There has been dreadful damage done to our uplands and grasslands by poor stock management and overgrazing. These bad practices – often encouraged by government subsidies – have resulted in the loss of soil, reduced diversity and increased the likelihood of drought and flooding. We need to teach farmers how to farm regeneratively, not simply remove all livestock.
If a Doctor prescribes a patient medication that leads to terrible side effects they don’t declare; ‘sorry it was clear that medications don’t suit you, I am afraid there is nothing to be done’, ‘go home and hopefully you will recover.’ Usually, the Doctor will try a few different alternatives until the condition responds. What would be really amazing is if our medical professionals looked at what caused the illness in the first place, and supported a change in that behaviour – this ‘holistic’ approach represents regenerative agriculture.
Our landscapes can and should produce food AND support nature. On the farm I previously (jointly) managed, we used a herd of Belted Galloway cattle to manage a Site of Special Scientific Interest. The Cattle helped to increase diversity in moorland species, build soil carbon and reduce invasive bracken all under the watchful eye of Natural England – the results were excellent.
One-third of the food we produce worldwide goes to waste when 870 million people go hungry every day. 28% percent of the world’s agricultural area – is used annually to produce food that is lost or wasted. Omnivores such as pigs and chickens are wonderful at turning our waste into food in the form of eggs, chicken meat, and pork. It wasn’t that long ago that a high percentage of their food was made up of waste feed not suitable for human consumption.
Foot and Mouth Disease put a stop to using swill to feed pigs, but surely in our modern technological world, we could come up with a safe way of treating this waste and once again feed it to animals who can thrive on it.
In our modern homes, we have very particular ideas about what meat we want to eat and which bits of the animals we select as our favourites. I would take a guess that rabbit doesn’t feature on your weekly menu often, but chicken appears as a regular guest. What about pig’s head brawn or pressed ox tongue?
My Grandma loved these meats they form one of my strongest childhood food memories. We have shunned our broths, soups, stews and ‘funky bits of animal, for steaks, dice chunks of muscle meat and lean, clean meats. Our fascination with muscle meat is not shared by native cultures or wild animals; they inherently understand that the ‘weird bits’ are the most nutritious. This is why the fox who gets into your chicken shed only take the heads; they’ve got what they came for, they’ll only take the muscle meat if they are starving!
In 1950, we spent 33% of our household income on food and now we only spend 9% approximately. We no longer value our food. We’re disconnected from it and unconcerned about why it has become so cheap. My Grandad had an amazing productive vegetable garden at the back of their terrace house in urban Newcastle. From this garden and through the use of cheap meat cuts, preserving their produce and applying traditional culinary skills, my Grandparents provided an unbelievably nutritious diet to their five children on a shoestring. My wonderful Grandparents lived fulfilled healthy lives and both died in their mid 90’s.
Using all the bits up of an animal and making good use of seasonal fruits and vegetables is at the heart of sustainable eating. I talk about it more fully here. Food nowadays really still costs as much as it always did, but today the costs are out of sight. The £3.99 chicken doesn’t include the ‘true costs.’ The ‘true cost’ of producing our food are covered in your taxes when we clean up pollution, subsidise poor farming practices and provide medications for preventable diseases. And if we don’t pay for them now our children will certainly be paying the price later.
So, How much grain does it take to produce a KG of beef? None if the animal was only fed grass!