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Where’s the beef: fake meat or real livestock production?

Some misconceptions about meat and livestock production

According to a recent scientific report co-authored by two INRA researchers, Jean-François Hocquette and Jean-Louis Peyraud: “Even when they are based on scientific findings, most arguments put forward against meat are riddled with sweeping generalisations, oversimplifications and misleading ideas”.

By Pascale Mollier, translated by Inge Laino
Updated on 07/25/2017
Published on 02/20/2017

Sweeping generalisations

This involves lumping together all forms of livestock production into the same category.

For example, greenhouse gas emissions in the form of methane are sometimes attributed to livestock production in general, when in fact it concerns primarily the “belches” of ruminants.

Moreover, when it comes to the environment and animal welfare, not all livestock production systems were created equal. For example, there is a world of difference between American “feed lots”, where cattle are fattened quickly in pens with maize, and systems where cattle graze freely on mountainside pastures.

Feed lot in the USA. © Wikipedia Commons
Feed lot in the USA © Wikipedia Commons
. © INRA, SLAGMULDER Christian
© INRA, SLAGMULDER Christian

 

Oversimplifications

Figures must be handled with care… Ideally, the methods and conditions used to calculate figures should be specified each time, and their significance and scope put in perspective. For example:

- Water used in livestock production: what gets factored in?

Satellite observation of the water cycle. © INRA, Jean-Pierre Lagouarde
Satellite observation of the water cycle © INRA, Jean-Pierre Lagouarde

It is often said that it takes 15,000 litres of water to produce 1kg of meat. But this figure, obtained by the “water footprint” method, includes blue water (water actually consumed by animals and used to irrigate crops), grey water (water used to eliminate and recycle effluents) and green water (rainwater). The problem is, this method was designed for industrial sites and does not take biological cycles into account. In reality, 95% of this footprint corresponds to rainwater, stored in soil and evapotranspired by plants, thereby re-entering the water cycle. This cycle would continue even if there were no animals in the equation. Science tells us that it takes between 550 and 700 litres of water, and only 50 litres of useful water (1), to produce 1kg of beef.

- Greenhouse gases (GHG): compare the comparable

Often, figures that are incomparable get compared anyway. That is what happens when we are told that livestock production generates more GHG (14.5%) than the transport sector (14%). What we are not told is that these two figures are obtained by different methods. Calculations for livestock production come from the FAO, based on analysis models for life cycles that include different aspects of livestock production (2). Calculations for transport, on the other hand, come from the IPCC, which only takes into consideration GHG emissions from vehicles on roads (3). If the same analysis method as the lifecycle method were used, the figure would be a lot higher.

Good ideas that are not so good

- Eliminating livestock production cuts back on waste and the carbon footprint of human food

80% of food used to feed livestock is not fit for human consumption. Source: Global Livestock Environmental Assessment Model, FAO. © INRA
80% of food used to feed livestock is not fit for human consumption. Source: Global Livestock Environmental Assessment Model, FAO © INRA
It is worth recalling that 70% of ruminant feed rations is made up of fodder (grass, hay, silage) that is not fit for human consumption and comes from grasslands that have a high potential for carbon fixation. Similar findings have been reported in France (4).

It is also worth remembering that concentrated feed used for monogastric animals (pigs, poultry) and herbivores makes use of crop residue and by-products from the production of fruits and vegetables for human consumption or for biofuels (oilcakes, bran, grain husks, etc.).

 

- A drastic reduction in the consumption of animal products is good for human health

For an example of the negative effects of a campaign designed to stigmatise meat consumption, we turn to the USA. Between 1971 and 2010, US health authorities recommended that people cut back on animal fat in their diets. The result? An increase in sugar intake. At the same time, the prevalence of obesity in the USA made a giant leap, from 14.5% to a whopping 30.9%. In 2012, one out of ten US citizens was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. Today, it is no longer recommended that people reduce their intake of animal fat (5).

Only the excessive consumption of meat can be harmful to health, in terms of cardiovascular risk and colon cancer (see page 3).

Nevertheless, it seems reasonable to lower the animal protein/plant protein ratio (by weight) which in western diets exceeds international nutritional recommendations (see page 3). This growing trend toward less meat can also have a beneficial effect on the environment (see page 7).

- Growing crops instead of raising livestock makes better use of land

While it is true that 70% of farmland is used for livestock production, it must be remembered that it consists primarily of non-arable land consisting of pastures and grasslands (6).

Moreover, several studies carried out by INRA have shown the environmental benefits of grasslands. Grassland soil is richer in microbial biomass and biodiversity than soil used to grow crops; it stores more carbon, is 20 times less susceptible to erosion, and does a better job of filtering water (7). Several European research projects (8) have shown that carbon storage in pastures compensates for the equivalent of 30 to 80% of methane emissions from ruminants. Recent studies carried out by CIRAD have come to the same conclusions in subtropical livestock zones. Grasslands also harbour a diversity of flora that attracts pollinators.  

- Meat should be replaced with substitutes such as artificial meat and insects

The production of artificial meat in vitro is put forward as a way to get all the nutritional benefits of meat without having to breed animals. But this process has not yet been fully developed. It requires vast amounts of energy and uses drugs on a massive scale that are prohibited in livestock production (hormones, aids to growth, antibiotics, etc.). This raises concerns for human health, the health of crops, and the environment (see page 4).

When it comes to eating insects, this accounts for no more than 10% of food intake in the country that consumes the most (Zimbabwe). For now, insects are reserved for pet food.

 

(1) Useful water: quantity of water minus the source (consumed water), weighted by a regional water stress factor. The loss of one litre of water does not have the same impact in the desert as in the mountains, for example.
(2) Includes the production of food and inputs, the processing of food, transport, energy consumption, etc.
(3) Emissions related to manufacturing vehicles and the extraction, refining and transport of petroleum, notably, are not taken into account as they would be in the lifecycle method.
(4) B. Rouillé et al. OCL 2014, 21(4) D404. DOI: 10.1051/ocl/2014017
(5) Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020 – 8th edition.
(6) The Earth’s land surface is currently composed of 31% pastures and grassy areas, 11% farmland, 41% forests and shrubland, 17% other (FAO, 2010). Grassland areas therefore account for 74% of farmland (31%/42%).
(7) Genosol programme.
(8) Nitro Europe Programmes (2006-2011) http://www.nitroeurope.eu/, Animal Change (2011-2015). Read the article.

Contact(s)
Scientific contact(s):

References

Pierre-Michel Rosner, Jean-François Hocquette, Jean-Louis Peyraud. 2016. Is it still reasonable to eat meat today? Viandes & Produits Carnés 32, 2-5

Article also published by Pierre-Michel Rosner in Revue de l’Académie d’Agriculture. N°8, January 2016, pages 32-34.

Jean-Francois Hocquette is a research director at INRA’s Herbivore Joint Research Unit in Auvergne-Rhône Alpes. He is a scientific delegate at the High Council for Evaluation of Research and Higher Education (HCERES) and editor of the French journal  Viande et produits carnés (on meat and meat products).

Jean-Louis Peyraud is deputy scientific director for Agriculture at INRA.