The Case for Really Reliable Research

Did you know that the divorce rate in Maine has a 99.2% correlation with the amount of margarine consumed in the state, and that the revenue generated by arcade games has a 98.5% correlation with the amount of computer science doctorates awarded in the US?

correlation between margarine and divorce in Maine
Data sources: National Vital Statistics Reports and U.S. Department of Agriculture

Correlation does not equal causation. Margarine doesn’t cause divorce in Maine, and arcade revenue has very little to do with computer science degrees in the US. These are all examples of why researchers shouldn’t use correlation to determine causation.

Research

When I was in high school, my English teacher assigned our class an argumentative research paper. These were usually our biggest assignments of the year. We had to take a stance on a topic and defend it with sources.

The first step to a research paper is the actual research. So, the school library directed me to a few databases they said would lead me to “reliable sources” for any topic. Naturally, I wanted to write about agriculture.

When I logged on to the database, I was appalled to find that the top result in all of my searches was not from a “reliable source” but from PETA, a known animal activist group with the goal of destroying all animal agriculture. How could this be the case? How could this false and biased information be on a database referred to as “reputable” and “reliable”?

Unreliable Resources

Although I found reliable resources for my paper, I dug through several pages of unreliable sources and biased research before I found anything I could use.

Sure, my teacher had discussed how to avoid websites with childish graphics, excess ads and poor design because they were likely unreliable. However, my classmates and I received no information about how to find reliable research as opposed to biased research.

Qualities of Reputable Academic Research

Here are some things to look for that demonstrate high quality, unbiased research:

  1. A clear statement about the methods used to test what is being studied
  2. A clear list of questions the researcher wants to answer
  3. A definition of the subject being studied. Does the definition match what is accepted in general society?
  4. A list of the processes including controls or instruments (like tests or surveys) used to study the subject
  5. The study should be easy to replicate. Research is replicated too demonstrate that the results are more than just outliers.

Additionally, these are some general characteristics of biased, unreliable research:

  1. Research looks for something that is not there
  2. Plagiarism
  3. Falsifying data or misrepresenting data to prove a point (i.e. claiming correlation equals causation)

Research needs to be reliable

If someone told you that Nicolas Cage movies caused people to drown by falling into their pools, you’d tell that person that they were crazy. But when it comes to the food we eat, correlation is often accepted as causation, when in fact, claiming that correlation equals causation in any case, is just as ridiculous as the correlations in this blog post.

correlation between Nicolas Cage movies and Pool Drownings
Data sources: Centers for Disease Control & Prevention and Internet Movie Database

Why is it so hard to find reliable research for Ag?

We live in the information age. Most people can become partially educated on any subject through a quick Google search and 10-12 minutes of scrolling. Unfortunately, it can be very difficult to get accurate information about agriculture on the internet.

This may seem strange, but think of it this way: less than two percent of the population in the US are directly involved with agriculture, and less than one percent are involved with animal agriculture. That’s less than 3,272,000 people who are responsible for feeding 100% of the population. That’s the equivalent of Los Angeles being responsible for producing food for our country and the world. So, it makes sense that it can be difficult to get accurate information out there, especially while most of that small percentage of people are busy producing food 365 days a year.

So, next time you see a statistic or a claim, look into how the research was done before you make conclusions based on numbers. And if you have specific questions about agriculture, consider asking a farmer before you start Googling!

All posts are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of the Animal Ag Alliance.

What Gets Your Goat? Actually, A Lot

One of my best friends and I are very different people. I’ve worked on my family’s farm and have been showing our animals for years. I sign up for any activities relating to agriculture I can find. She, on the other hand, didn’t exactly grow up in the city, but when I once let her visit one of my cows, 30 seconds was enough for her to get her farm fix.

It seems like a good time to mention that this friend is now in the process of applying to law school. She knows more about politics than I ever will or want to. The takeaway here: each of us has our different strengths, things that we do better than the other. This is a principle that we learn in elementary school and see play out in our every day lives. But have you ever thought about how it applies to livestock?

Cattle are a great example of one species with different skills. You have probably noticed before that some cows appear thinner and others are, as the name implies, beefier. The resulting difference between beef and dairy cattle is the result of years and years of selective breeding for different traits. Farmers breed cows and bulls with leaner muscling together to develop even better beef, and others breed lines of animals known for higher milk production. Makes sense, right?

Beef cattle like this one are bred to convert feed into lean muscle mass, but dairy cattle use more of their energy into milk production.

So what about the goats?

If you came here because of the cute goat picture, don’t worry, we’re getting there. Did you know that goats are diversified just like cattle? All around the world, meat goats are bred for their muscle and dairy goats are bred for their milk. Let’s take a deeper look at what exactly that means.

Dairy goats make the milk (and cheese and…soap?)

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), there were 373,000 dairy goats in the U.S. in 2017–a 61 percent increase from 2007! Dairy goats are the fastest growing livestock sector in the country, but Americans are just catching on to the trend. In many countries, dairy goats are the choice for milk production because they are smaller and easier to maintain than dairy cows. Goat’s milk may even be more comfortable to consume than cow’s milk for some people. Carrie Liebhauser is the marketing director of LaClare Family Creamery in Wisconsin. “Goat’s milk isn’t free of lactose but it’s lower, and the fat globules in goat’s milk are much smaller and break down more easily,” she says.

All this is to say nothing of the tremendous goat cheese market that has exploded in recent years. Many flavors of soft feta can be found in nearly any supermarket now, and some dairy goat producers have innovated their own special varieties. Goat cheeses cook differently than cow cheeses, and a gourmet culture has evolved around goat’s milk foods. But if the taste isn’t really your thing, you can still support goat producers. An assortment of soaps and lotions are popping up at many farmer’s markets.

There are six main breeds of goats raised for milk production in the U.S., all different in their colors, sizes, and traits. Saanens are the highest-producing breed at an average of 2,500 pounds of milk in a single year! That’s enough milk for about 250 pounds of fresh chevre.

Goats
Dairy goats are growing in numbers all across the U.S. (Photo: American Dairy Goat Association)

Goat meat a new staple?

Using goats for meat is less common in the U.S. than in many other places, because chevon is a popular part of cuisine in North African, Middle Eastern, and African diets, just to name a few. But demand has been growing in American and European cultures over the past few decades, dispelling the ideas that goat is “tough” or a “barnyard meat.” There’s still a lot of room to grow, though. Goat meat has been cited as a great source of lean protein, even lower in cholesterol and fat than other red meats. Still not convinced of the benefits of goat? Check out this article.

Most goats raised for meat in the U.S. are Boer goats, a breed native to South Africa that didn’t make it’s way to America until 1993. Boer goats are fast growers and easy to maintain, making them ideal for meat production. Their African heritage also makes them hardier for more harsh environments. A 2012 USDA study found that about half of all goat operations in the west were focused on meat production versus dairy (as opposed to only a quarter of goat farms in the northeast).

Goats
A herd of South African Boer goats.

A bit of everything

Now we know that not all goats are created equally. From cheese to burgers, goats have the potential to become a major livestock species. In that regard, Americans can take a page out of the rest of the world’s book.

All posts are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of the Animal Ag Alliance.

What is a “Factory Farm”?

Factory Farm. Industrialized Farm. Corporate Farm. What do all of these repetitive, synonymous terms mean, and are they really all that bad? Where do people who use these terms draw the line? In their eyes, when does a small, family farmer become this vilified corporate monster? What is the true definition of a “factory farm?”

Having grown up on a farm, I’d never thought of our operation as a “factory farm.” The very phrase comes with such a negative connotation that most people in agriculture shy away from it. Frankly, farmers think of the term “factory farm” as incredibly offensive as it is mostly used by activists trying to paint larger farms in a negative light. But does the definition of the word “factory” line up with the connotations that now come with it?

Turkey farmers care for their animals by using modern technology to improve animal care.

Factory and Farm Definitions

First, let’s define the terms. Merriam Webster defines “Factory” as “a building or set of buildings with facilities for manufacturing”, or ” the seat of some kind of production.”

Farm” is defined as “a tract of land devoted to agricultural purposes”,”a plot of land devoted to the raising of animals and especially domestic livestock” and/or “a tract of water reserved for the artificial cultivation of some aquatic life form.”

Agricultural practices are supported by peer reviewed research.

Now, if we put the two together and search the term “factory farm” we get, “a farm on which large numbers of livestock are raised indoors in conditions intended to maximize production at minimal cost” or “a large industrialized farm.”

Analysis

The section that I find most intriguing is the “examples of this word in a sentence” portion of the website. For the term factory we have “the new factory will create hundreds of much-needed jobs.” The term farm had two examples, “Running a farm is hard work” and “She grew up on a dairy farm.” But, when we go to the term factory farm and look for an example sentence the first one available is, “More than 50 billion land animals suffered and died on factory farms this year” and “The overwhelming majority of animals raised for food are still raised on factory farms, where 50 billion animals lived and died this year.”

There was not a single example sentence for the term “factory farm” that discussed the hard working farmers and how 1-2% of the United States population is feeding 100% of our nation.

Why is there such a leap in meaning when we put two seemingly benign words together? First farmers are hard working people, next they’re the cause of death and suffering for their animals? If you find this as fishy as I do, keep reading.

So what is the goal of a factory?

Lets take animals out of the equation for a minute. Instead let’s discuss a factory that manufactures ball point pens. Disclaimer: I am in no way an expert on the manufacturing of ball point pens.

Factory
Factories aim to create high quality consistent products at a low cost!

If I was a manager or owner of a ball point pen factory, I would want to hire good people who would work hard at their jobs, to minimize costs and maximize outputs so that the factory could be as efficient as possible, and overall make high quality writing utensils to sell in places like Staples, Target and Walmart.

While doing these things, I would have to abide by regulations so I would not cause environmental harm with my factory while still producing the product to meet the demand.

Simply put, factories aim to create high quality, consistent products in an environmentally and economically efficient way.

Business Structure

Now it’s time for some economics. I hear the term “corporate farm” a lot, and I want to talk about what that actually means. Just because a farm is a “corporate farm” doesn’t mean they’re not also a family farm.

As I’ve mentioned, farms are businesses. The ultimate goal is to make at least a little bit of a living doing what we love: caring for animals and providing nutritious and safe food for the rest of the population.

But, there are different ways to classify your business that determine tax and legal considerations. To put it simply, there are Sole Proprietorships, Partnerships, Corporations and Limited Liability Corporations (LLC’s).

A sole proprietor is someone who owns an unincorporated business by themselves. A partnership is exactly what it sounds like; two or more people who run a business of some sort. A corporation is slightly more complicated in that it essentially forms a separate entity to take on the liability of the business (Walmart is an example). An LLC is a combination of a corporation and a proprietorship.

Just because a business chooses to become something more than a sole proprietorship doesn’t make that business any less family run. All it does is change the way that business goes through taxes and insurance and liability.

The point is, corporate farm does not mean it cannot also be a family farm. Family farms may appear as LLCs, corporations or sole proprietorship’s.

“Factory Farm”

So, now that we’ve looked at the goals of a factory and discussed the types of business classification, lets go back to discussing “factory farms.”

In my opinion, there are two ways this conversation can go: either every farm is a factory farm, or there is no such thing as a factory farm. Spoiler alert: they both end up at the same conclusion. Farmers and and ranchers are generally good men and women.

Dairy farm
Farmers work with veterinarians to keep their animals healthy.

They do have similar goals to that of a factory. Farmers want to produce high quality, consistent products. They care for the land and the environment because they live there too.

On the other side, because every farm has the same goals of a factory, is there need for terminology with such a negative connotation?

97% of United States farms are family owned. That number includes farms of all sizes, practices and industries. I have traveled to some of the most agriculture-intensive states and visited farms ranging from 40,000 cows to 30 goats. I had the opportunity to speak with each owner, and I can tell you that the commitments to animal care and a safe and nutritious end product were the same.

So, the next time you hear some one criticizing “factory farms,” take a stand. Ask yourself to look at the farm from an unbiased standpoint! You could even reach out to the farmer and ask about their business structure and their commitment to animal care.

All posts are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of the Animal Ag Alliance.

Trusting turkey farmers

The Animal Ag Alliance team recently participated in a staff outing to celebrate Casey’s graduation from George Mason University with a master’s in strategic communication – congrats, Casey! We spent the morning at Go Ape!, a zipline and tree-top adventure experience.

Everyday trust

This adventure included five different obstacle courses, about 20 feet above ground that all ended in a zipline to return to the ground. Half way through one of the courses, I notice the tree I was headed to wasn’t too big around. It was holding up two obstacles (the one I was on and the one I would be headed to next), a platform, me and all of my coworkers. It had a BIG job. I started to wonder if I should trust the tree to hold everything up. And then I started to wonder if I should trust the engineers, builders and safety inspectors. Then I started to wonder if there were even any safety inspectors. Had we done adequate research on this place?!

Go Ape Course
Going Ape!

At that point, pretty much my only option was to keep going, try to put these thoughts out of my mind and trust the system.

Trust. We put trust in people everyday. And we ask others to put trust in us. I trust the people around me, people I’ve never met, and even people I probably don’t know exist. People driving cars around me, pilots, people testing drinking water, farmers, doctors, and the list goes on.

I’m fortunate to have met hundreds of farmers and ranchers so putting my trust in them is easy. I’ve seen first-hand the care many farmers take to put food on our tables. I know farmers care for their animals, their land and their employees.

My visit to a Minnesota turkey farm

In honor of Turkey Lover’s Month, I’d like to share some insights I learned from visiting a turkey farm and a cranberry bog. (Turkey and cranberries are great year-round, not just at Thanksgiving!)

On a visit to a Minnesota turkey farm, I learned:

  • They are always looking to making improvements. As we walked around the barn, those leading the tour pointed out some areas where they thought they could do better and changes they would implement before the next flock arrived.
  • Turkeys grow without added hormones or steroids.
  • Farmers prioritize biosecurity to keep the birds healthy. The farmer proudly shared the flock we were visiting was healthy and did not need to be treated with antibiotics. If a flock does get a disease that can be helped with antibiotics, they use them to get them healthy as quickly as possible and to help keep the birds as comfortable as possible.
  • A baby turkey is a poult. This is a good tidbit to know before chatting with the president of a turkey company. Definitely do NOT call them chicks!
Turkey farmer
Turkey farmer checking on his birds.

Visiting a cranberry bog

Most of the farm tours I do are livestock or poultry farms, but it was awesome to visit a cranberry grower. Here are a few takeaways from that visit:

  • Just like livestock producers, he talked about the importance of sustainability and keeping the land healthy for future generations.
  • He puts a lot of attention toward giving the cranberries the exact nutrients they need to thrive.
  • He seeks advice from outside experts and consultants.
  • It’s pretty cool to harvest cranberries! It’s just like the commercials!

You can find farmers too!

Not everyone knows a farmer, but connecting with farmers is easier than you may think. If you have questions, check out 6 ways to ask a farmer or industry leader. Farmers and ranchers are all over social media these days. Check out our list of farmers to follow. And don’t forget to celebrate Turkey Lover’s Month!

Separating Cows and Calves: The Real Story

Animal agriculture has become one of the most controversial topics when it comes to food. Misinformation spreads like wildfire, and some may find it difficult to make peace with eating animal products without all of the facts.

dairy calves enjoy the perks of growing up with dairy farmers to care for their every need
Dairy calves enjoy the perks of growing up with dairy farmers to care for their every need.

I am a student at one of the most “vegan friendly” campuses in the United States, according to the Princeton Review. Ironically, my school also has one of the top animal agriculture programs in the world. As a student studying animal agriculture and science at such a diverse university, I have found that one dairy question takes prevalence over all others: “Why do dairy farmers take the baby calves away from their mothers?”

Cows are different than people

There are two main reasons why newborn dairy calves don’t stay with their mothers: for their safety and their health.

To answer this question, I’d like to remind you of the very real and often forgotten fact that cows and people are very different. Cows do not exist in a family unit like most people do. They are herd animals, meaning that they are most comfortable with other cows their age and their size – their herd-mates.

Cow instincts

When a cow has a baby, her herd instinct doesn’t just disappear so that she can fulfill the joys of motherhood. For the first hour or two after the calf is born, there is a clear connection between mom and baby. At my family’s dairy farm, we keep the calf with its mother for this part. The mother licks off her baby, which aids in stimulation and getting the calf up and moving.

However, after this initial period, the cow becomes increasingly anxious. She wants to be with her herd mates. Cows are not big fans of change, and I think that we can all agree that giving birth is a pretty big change.

This anxiety puts the calf in severe danger. The cow often forgets about her calf. She walks or runs around, searching for her herd-mates and becomes extremely stressed. This can lead to the calf getting stepped, sat on, or injured in a variety of ways.

Big mama, big problems

The average adult dairy cow weighs about 1,500 pounds, while calves are born weighing between 60-90 pounds. Speaking from my own experience, once a calf has been crushed or stepped on by her exponentially larger mother there is not much we as dairy farmers or even veterinarians can do. It is heart wrenching and terrible to see this happen, and far too regular when calves are left with their mothers for too long.

Immune system health

Here, we circle back to the fact that humans and cows are different, especially when it comes down to biology. Human mothers have a different type of placenta–the sac around the fetus– than bovines. And all of the complicated biology of different placenta types boils down to this: when a human baby is born, it already has an immune system with a semi developed immune response. It may be immature, but it’s there. When calves are born, they do not have an immune response to fight off infection.

This causes them to be at a much greater risk for just about everything found outside of their mother’s uterus. Their mother, however, will produce a special milk called colostrum that will (ideally) contain everything the calf needs to start it’s immune system. But, if the calf tries to nurse off of the cow it can be put at risk.

First, cows can sometimes not be the cleanest animals. As dairy farmers we can give them clean beds to lay in, clean their barns two to three times a day and the list goes on and on. The bottom line is, if they want to lay in the dirtiest part of the barn, they can and they will, and they often do. And if the baby calf nurses on a dirty teat before it’s fed colostrum, it could get very sick.

Second, if the calf is suckling, we have no way of knowing if the calf is actually getting quality colostrum, or any colostrum at all. Sometimes cows get sick after giving birth, and that could effect the quality of her colostrum.

Misconceptions

Calve are fed by dairy farmers
Calves are fed by dairy farmers so that they get the right amounts of nutritious milk!

Finally, I want to address one of the most common misconceptions I hear about why the cow and calf don’t stay together: “if they don’t separate them the calf will drink all of the milk and there won’t be any for them to sell.”

Calves get fed milk or milk-replacer. Milk-replacer is the equivalent of feeding your baby formula instead of breast milk – it’s a personal choice. Cows naturally make more milk than a calf will drink on its own, so the choice to feed replacer versus milk is one made by each individual farm.

The best of both worlds

The bottom line is, things can and often do go wrong when the calf is left with the cow. But dairy farmers are trained to be good care takers to their animals, including the babies. That means that we feed them from a bottle or bucket to make sure they drink their milk and that it comes from a clean place. We are also able to monitor them very closely until their immune system develops, and continue to do so as they get older.

The primary job of dairy farmers is to keep their cows healthy and well cared for. Cows that are not taken care of don’t produce quality milk, so it really is in our best interest to have the cow’s best interest in mind. Calves are the future of every dairy farmer’s herd. So the same concept applies. Healthy calves grow up to be healthy cows. Caring for the calves ourselves prevents them from being injured by their mothers, and enables us to care for them in a controlled environment.

Calves and cows are separated because it is best for both their health and safety. It allows the cow to return to her happy place – her herd – and gives the calf an opportunity to begin life its with its best hoof forward! We, the farmers, can make sure the calf gets clean and nutritious milk. Farmers can tell if the calf gets sick and give it the best care possible. We can do all this while providing a high quality, all natural, nearly perfect food.

Happy Dairy Month!

Happy Dairy Month
Don’t forget to celebrate Dairy Month with all your favorite dairy products!

Cell-based Meat, Part 5: Consumer Perception and Acceptance

Welcome to the last post in my 5-part series blog about cell-based meat! In the first four posts, I discussed what people are calling it, how it is produced, its predicted environmental impact, and how it will be regulated. Now, in my final post, we will explore the crux of the issue: are people going to be willing to buy and eat it?

Consumers have been looking for transparency in the food industry for decades. They are increasingly interested in where their food comes from and how it is produced. I believe communicating this will be just as important for cell-based meat.

There is no better cautionary tale of this lack in communication than the demonization of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Public acceptance is a concept built by individuals’ acceptance, which varies wildly depending on knowledge and life experiences. Whether we are talking about GMOs or cultured meat, the way people perceive the food (is it safe? dangerous? natural? healthy?) is dependent on many, many factors. The Michigan State University Food Literacy and Engagement Poll covers this topic.

All this work to create a product and bring it to scale is only worthwhile if people are willing to buy it. In this regard, public perception is important, which is why the discussion on naming the product is such a big deal. In a market moving from processed foods to “all natural,” I cannot think of anything less natural than lab-grown meat. It has a sentiment referred to as the “yuck” factor. While Americans have expressed scruples about cell-based meat, other countries like India and China are more willing to embrace it.

Cost

Another concern is making the product cost effective. Many media outlets have implied that we should expect cell-based meats on market shelves this year (2019), but this seems very optimistic. Each pound costs thousands of dollars, though companies are working to reduce prices. Compare this to conventionally-produced meat bought in your local grocery store. Our trusty scientific article says, “Muscle cell culture media are expensive, in fact prohibitive on the large scale, therefore, the manufacture of a sustainable, animal-free, affordable media is a major challenge.” In other words, “All of this is moot if we cannot produce it economically. If it cannot be competitive in price, it will not be competitive on the market, though it looks like we are headed in that direction.”

Will bringing home the bacon look different?

There are also questions of bioethics, religious implications (does this mean we could have kosher bacon?) and stem cells. The prospect of cell-based meat forces us to alter our world view, or at least question it a little bit. What constitutes meat? What constitutes food production, or farming, or agriculture? Is this the answer to vegetarian prayers – the ability to consume meat that was not the result of slaughter? Or will we learn that the world is full of trade offs?

Thank you for following my blog series! I am interested to see how this technology develops and how the issues unfold. And now, the question everyone wants to ask, the only one that really matters: would you eat it?

Cell-Based Meat, Part 4: Regulation

After plant-based beverages were allowed to use the term “milk” by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the animal agriculture industry was wary of how cellular agriculture would be regulated, named and marketed. In April, “federal regulators came up with a compromise: The FDA and USDA will oversee cell-based meat, with the USDA in charge of the production and labeling. But Congress may yet try to take FDA out of the oversight process together, and leave the USDA in charge of regulating the most fundamental change in meat production since people began raising animals for food.”

Why the confusion?

The FDA and the USDA have distinct roles and functions. Officially, the purpose of the FDA is to “ensuring the safety, efficacy, and security of human and veterinary drugs, biological products, and medical devices; and by ensuring the safety of our nation’s food supply, cosmetics, and products that emit radiation.” The USDA “administers programs to help American farmers and ensure food safety for consumers. USDA aid includes distributing price supports and other subsidies to farmers, inspecting food processed at agricultural facilities, working to expand overseas markets for U.S. agricultural products, and providing food assistance and nutrition education.”


The FDA regulates more than just food and drugs. It also regulates medical devices, cosmetics, tobacco products, veterinary medicines, and more.

Unfortunately, cellular agriculture does not fit easily into either of these sectors. What the product is called and how it is labeled and marketed will have impacts on how it needs to be regulated. In an interview with NPR, Mark Dopp, North American Meat Institute’s senior vice president for regulatory affairs and general counsel said, “If these products are going to be marketed and sold and represented as meat, then the companies that make them should meet all of the other regulatory requirements that some company making ground beef out there has to meet today.”

Cell-based meat companies are also eager for regulation. Industry needs regulations to grow. Without regulations, anyone could sell the product, potentially causing sickness and disease, and the public will not trust the product. Without regulations, cell-based meat companies would have difficulty selling and marketing their products.

What is the compromise?

Under the agreement, FDA will oversee cell collection, cell banks and cell growth. The USDA will then take it from there to oversee how the food is produced and how it is labeled.” I am still not sure exactly how this will play out. Given that this is an emerging technology, I think there may be some details to iron out between now and when the product is on the market.

Cell-based meat, Part 3: Environmental Impact

Environmental stewardship is an important aspect of agriculture. Creating a sustainable system that can feed the world nutritious food in a way that is efficient, cost effective, and does not harm the environment is a challenge modern agriculture works hard to tackle. There are many examples of the improvements farmers have made over the past decades to reduce their carbon footprint. They continue to work toward that goal, but some people claim that this is not enough.

Many supporters of cell-based meat claim cellular agriculture is the answer. However, large-scale cellular agriculture does not yet exist, so the discussion is largely hypothetical. Still, the question is worth asking: is cell-based meat more environmentally friendly than conventional meat?

A Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) on the production of cell-based meat does not exist (yet). The reason: production is on a small scale, so it is hard to judge the impact of something when you don’t have all the details. Without an LCA, it is difficult to claim the product is more or less environmentally friendly than another product.

Starting with what we know

We know the environmental impact of various animal products. These industries have been established for decades and their inputs and outputs are (relatively) easy to measure. In addition, farmers, governing bodies like the EPA, and other entities have taken careful measures focus both on current impacts and how to continuously improve. However, if you were to Google this topic, you would find a few different numbers being used, though they measure different things. Let’s take a look at them.

Animal Agriculture’s Environmental Impact Compared to Other Industries

EPA – United States

3.9% – The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) calculated the total greenhouse gas emissions for 2016 in the United States. Agriculture accounts for a total of 9 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. This number includes crop cultivation, livestock, and fuel combustion. Livestock production accounts for 3.9 percent.

According to the EPA, total agriculture accounted for 9% of total greenhouse gas emissions in the United States in 2016.

Also, the EPA has a wonderful tool called The Data Explorer that allows you to make graphs with their data. You can play with it here.

FAO – United Nations

14.5% – The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is an international organization which measured the greenhouse gas emissions of industries across the world, not just the United States. They determined that the global GHG emissions for animal agriculture is 14.5 percent of the total GHG emissions. One of the reasons it is higher than the EPA’s 3.9 percent is because of America’s innovation. U.S. farmers and ranchers’ commitment to environmental stewardship and sustainability has led to more efficient practices. This allows farmers to raise bigger, healthier livestock and poultry with less land, feed, water, and energy than other countries in the world.

You may notice that this number (14.5%) is slightly higher than the FAO’s estimate for transportation, which is 14 percent. Many activist groups use this to claim animal agriculture is more harmful than all of transportation. However, it is also important to notice they calculated these numbers differently:

  • “For livestock, they considered every factor associated with producing meat. This included emissions from fertilizer production, converting land from forests to pastures, growing feed, and direct emissions from animals (belching and manure) from birth to death…However, when they looked at transportation’s carbon footprint, they ignored impacts on the climate from manufacturing vehicle materials and parts, assembling vehicles and maintaining roads, bridges and airports. Instead, they only considered the exhaust emitted by finished cars, trucks, trains and planes. As a result, the FAO’s comparison of GHG emissions from livestock to those from transportation was greatly distorted.”
  • 18% – This number initially appeared in a statement made by the FAO in 2006. It was a mistake that was later redacted and corrected. However, since published, this number has persisted, especially among animal activist groups.

Comparing Environmental Impact of Different Foods

When comparing any two things, it is important to know what you are comparing. In the case of animal agriculture, different species and different animal products have different environmental impacts. The environmental impact of beef tends to be greater than pork which, in turn, is greater than chicken. This will be more important when we try to compare them to cell-based meat.

There is a reason cows and sheep have higher impacts compared to other foods, even other meats. Cattle are ruminant animals, meaning they have a unique digestive tract which allows them to consume plants humans cannot digest. This is possible with a symbiotic relationship with microorganisms in their gut which breakdown these plants. The process releases methane, which is why cows are known for producing more methane than other agricultural animals. It is what allows them to “upcycle” plant byproducts with low protein content into meat. This helps with food waste and allows ranchers to raise cattle in areas that cannot grow crops for human consumption.

Briefly: Nutrition

Even though cattle have a higher environmental impact, they have a higher nutritional impact as well. Red meat (such as lamb or beef) has more micronutrients like vitamin B12 compared to white meat. Meat, in general, has a higher concentration of protein and some vitamins and minerals per calorie compared to plants. In order to get the same 25 grams of protein that is in one three ounce serving of beef (170 calories), you would need to consume 1.66 servings of black beans (which would be nearly 400 calories). In order to get the same calcium in an eight ounce glass of milk, you would need to eat six cups of kale.

Animals: More than Meat

Animals produce more than just meat. As you can see in the picture below, other parts of the animal are used for other products. The energy, land, and water used to grow muscle tissue in a cow also grows other types of tissue that can be used for other products.

However, cellular agriculture has a potential answer to this. There are two types of cellular agriculture: tissue engineering (which we discussed in Blog 2) and fermentation. Fermentation-based cellular agriculture (can we make an acronym for this? FBCA, maybe?) uses bacteria, yeast, or algae to produce organic molecules, including protein and collagen. Potential applications include milk, eggs/egg white, animal horns (to reduce poaching) and leather. Like cellular agriculture, this industry has a long way to go, especially in regards to public acceptance, but I thought you would like to know about it.

Cell-based Meat Models

Supporters of cell-based meat claim that it is better for the environment. They base this claim on beliefs that it will use less water, available land, and energy, and produce less GHG than conventional meat. These beliefs are based on hypothetical models. At this stage, it is difficult to compare the environmental impacts of large-scale conventional meat production and large-scale cell-based meat production since the latter does not exist yet. Thus, there is no Life Cycle Assessment to support or refute these claims. “The scale required for making cultured meat a commodity will be the largest ever for tissue engineering,” and there are many aspects which have not been tested at that scale.

Models trying predict the environmental impacts vary and the sustainability of cell-based meat is highly dependent on where the energy to produce it comes from. When you read these articles, pay attention to which species they are comparing and whether they assume we will continue to use fossil fuel or sustainable energy sources in the future, as well as the bias of the source. Other considerations: does the model include a cleaning phase? What is the medium used to grow the cells? How is the media produced? An article supporting cell-based meat may cite more ambitious models and compare cell-based production with the use of sustainable energy sources with beef. One the other hand, an article supporting conventional meat may compare cell-based production using fossil fuels to poultry.

Land and Water Use

Most models show potentially lower land use in cell-based meat compared to conventional animal agriculture, although the amount of land varies from species to species. Raising chickens requires less land than pork or beef. According to FAO, 70 percent of the land we use for animal agriculture is unsuitable for crop agriculture.

Many articles criticize animal agriculture as a cause of deforestation, reducing biodiversity and carbon sinks. However, cattle can be an important part of regenerating native grasslands in desertified land areas. By grazing on the grass, the cows encourage new growth and prevent the buildup of dead plants. This enables the deep roots to live from season to season and soak up water. Cattle trampling, defecating and urinating on the soil increases soil richness and encourages plant growth. More plants and more plant roots absorb water, preventing the cycle of drought, flooding, and erosion that occurs in these areas.

Similar to land use, most models say cellular agriculture could potentially use significantly less water than animal agriculture.

Energy Use and GHG Production

Any discussion on energy use is highly dependent on how we create electric energy. For conventional meat production, the energy source will not impact the energy output much. For cell-based meat production, it will be the fundamental factor.

This number is also dependent on energy sources. Some articles are also considering the differences between methane vs CO2. Methane (the GHG that comes from belching – not farting – cattle) has a much greater impact in the short term than CO2. However, it only remains in the atmosphere for 12 years, as opposed to CO2, which can remain in the atmosphere for thousands of years. Thus, the long term effects (when looking over millennia instead of decades) could (theoretically) be worse for cell-based meat. In the words of one study: “We conclude that cultured meat is not prima facie climatically superior to cattle; its relative impact instead depends on the availability of decarbonized energy generation and the specific production systems that are realized.”

Conclusion

This does not mean the numbers are not worth reviewing at this stage. It just means reality may look very different from the estimates. Based on current evidence and models, “The overall picture is that cultured meat could have less environmental impact than beef, and possibly pork, but more than chicken and plant based proteins… However, cultured meat technology has significant scope for innovation that could reduce the energy requirements below those used in these assessments, and subsequently could deliver better environmental outcomes than these models predict.”

So, back to our question, “Is cell-based meat better for the environment?” The short answer: We don’t know yet. The slightly longer answer: It depends on its large-scale efficiency and how we produce energy in the future.

Cell-based Meat, Part 2: How Is It Made?

Even more mysterious than what we should call cell-based meat is how it is produced. Cell-based meat is grown in a lab using cellular agriculture. Cellular agriculture is based on tissue engineering, which is best known for medical uses (called regenerative medicine) including bone, cartilage, heart, pancreas, vascular and cancer.

Intro to Cellular Agriculture

Tissue engineering requires a group of stem cells which are replicated and grown in a lab. These stem cells are taken from the biopsy of a living animal (so the process still requires animals). All cells – grown inside an animal or outside it – have requirements in order to grow correctly. Muscle cells require nutrients, oxygen, energy, waste removal, and cell adhesion, as well as the chemical, biological, and mechanical signals to grow. In a living animal, the circulatory system provides for most of these requirements. Also, they are connected to many other cells to communicate and work with to find food or a mate, avoid predators, etc.  In a lab, this means growth media and scaffolding.

Cultured meat process

Media

Since the technology is still developing, the media used to grow the cells is a bit of a mystery. Most contain serum – blood without blood cells – usually from cows or horses. Serum contains vital amino acids, fatty acids, vitamins, growth factors, hormones, and more to support growing cells. There have been studies on creating serum-free media, though they are not to the point they can economically remove animals from this part of the process.

In addition, muscle cells and fat cells are grown separately, not in a matrix like they are in an animal. In order to create a hamburger, the stem cells from the biopsy of cow muscle are separated into muscle stem cells and fat stem cells to grow independently of one another. Some researchers are using this as an opportunity to encourage these fat cells to produce more omega-3 fatty acids, adjusting the omega-3:omega-6 ratio. Once they grow and develop, they are combined to create a meat-like product. It should also be noted that vitamin B12 and heme iron, two essential nutrients found in meat, do not come directly from muscle tissue: heme iron is found in blood and vitamin B12 is a byproduct of bacteria in the gut of the animal. Both of these nutrients would need to be added to the final product.

Petri dishes

Scaffolding

A moment of honesty – tissue engineering scaffolding is not something I fully understand or feel comfortable explaining. To describe this part, I will rely on the words of experts:

“(S)uccessful scaffolding for 3D skeletal muscle formation is currently animal-derived due to… cell adhesion, fibre alignment and comparability to an in-vivo environment… To date, the only successful muscle tissue constructs have been a few hundred microns in thickness, which is acceptable for minced but not whole muscle cuts. Cell sheets are being explored for thicker tissue construction, however, for highly structured and organized tissues the engineering of highly perfused scaffolds would be required… Cells, not surprisingly, grow best on material found in the body such as collagen, which is common used in cell culture systems as a substrate… It is possible, but somewhat more difficult to grow cells under serum-free conditions or using serum replacements; however, this is itself an area of research that is yet to produce a comparable and affordable alternative.”

In summary: even with animal-derived scaffolding, scientists are a long way from producing a thick rib-eye or a pork chop. However, Aleph Farms has produced small, thin slices of meat.

Other considerations

In a hamburger, quality and texture can easily be altered by adding or removing fat. However, whole cuts of muscle are different. There is a reason a filet mignon has a different taste, texture, and mouthfeel than a rib-eye. Muscle:fat ratio differences play a part along with where the muscle is grown. The muscle grows differently based on where it grows on the animal and how often the animal uses it. This influences connective tissue, fat content, muscle type, and other factor that impact the quality of the meat. Perhaps these parameters can be adjusted in cellular agriculture, but it is not a topic I have seen discussed.

Conclusions

I hope this gives you a better idea of where the this food comes from and how it is produced. In the next part of this blog series, I will explore potential environmental impacts and if cell-based meat can meet supporters’ expectations.

Activists are spinning scripture with Lent around the corner

We’ve seen animal rights activists dress up in costumes, storm NFL football fields, protest inside grocery stores and do just about anything to gain attention for their cause, but many people don’t know about their efforts in an unexpected area. With Lent around the corner and activist groups calling for the Pope and others to give up meat, now is the time to become familiar with how animal rights groups are “spinning scripture” (in the words of Paul Copan, PhD, Professor and Pledger Family Chair of Philosophy and Ethics at Palm Beach Atlantic University).

Animal rights groups using religion to petition people to eat less meat is not a new tactic, but it has been gaining traction in recent years. The Humane Society of the United States and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals are two groups with established faith outreach or religion programs.

“Activists re-translate God’s mandate to say something different in their favor” and “cherry pick certain phrases and give them a spin not aligned with the author’s intentions,” said Walter Kaiser, PhD, President Emeritus and Distinguished Professor of Old Testament and Ethics at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary at the Animal Agriculture Alliance’s 2016 Stakeholders Summit.

So, why are they targeting people of faith?

  1. They have sustained beliefs – so once they believe something, they are more committed.
  2. They traditionally contribute more money to charities.
  3. Animal issues appeal to their sense of compassion.
  4. Giving money may help appease guilt associated with knowing animals die for their benefit (guilt that activist groups drive and foster).

Lent is a religious period before Easter in which people of faith refocus their lives on God. It is often characterized by giving up things to help rid oneself of distractions and selfish desires. Unfortunately, Lent is currently being used by animal rights activists to spread misinformation about animal agriculture.

Activist messaging is getting into the hands of children during Sunday School and into sermons as they persuade church leaders. As overwhelming and frustrating as this is, there is hope. Wes Jamison, PhD, Associate Professor of Public Relations at Palm Beach Atlantic University and ordained minister said, the Bible “gives you permission [to use animals] and applauds you for doing so. You have the truth on your side.” The Alliance has resources available for discussing this sensitive topic in your communities – contact us at info@animalagalliance.org for more information.

Wes Jamison, PhD at 2016 Stakeholders Summit

American farmers gratefully receive God’s bounty and graciously share that bounty, using their God-given skills to multiply the harvest.

Raising food is a way of life that requires dedication and a lot of hard work. Farmers and ranchers working to raise the food we all eat, recognize this as both a duty and a privilege. While farm families comprise just 2 percent of the U.S. population, they strive to provide food to 100 percent of the people in our nation. Through innovation, determination and support, they are responsible for the safest food supply in the world.

Good stewardship of God’s gifts demands that farmers make the most products for the most people out of the least resources.

Livestock production is responsible for only 4 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Each industry is doing their part to reduce its environmental impact and use of natural resources. Take the beef industry for example. Since 1977, the beef industry decreased its water use by 12 percent and land use by 33 percent. It was also able to reduce its feed input by 19 percent and carbon footprint by 16 percent. Today’s ranchers produce 20 percent of the world’s beef with just 6 percent of the world’s cattle.

The pork industry has reached similar achievements. Since 1960, the pork industry has reduced its water use by 25.1 percent. It also decreased land use by 75.9 percent, energy use by 7 percent and its carbon footprint by 7.7 percent.

We farm animals because they take creation we can’t use and convert it into things we can; that’s the very definition of biblical stewardship!

Cattle are great recylers. They are able to eat parts of foods that humans cannot digest and turn them into nutrient-rich milk and beef. Citrus pulp and peels, pits and seeds from fruits and vegetables, cottonseeds and grasses are a few things added to a cow’s diet.

Farms and ranches are also able to recycle manure into organic fertilizer for nearby crop fields. Contrary to popular belief, farmers help produce much more than meat. By-products from animal agriculture are in everything from pet food to fireworks, ensuring nothing from the animal goes to waste.

To learn more about animal agriculture, check out the Sustainability Impact Report of animal agriculture in the United States.

Sustainability Impact Report