FOOD TECHNOLOGY

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Sunday November 19, 2017

As retailers continue to buy into the "sustainable food" message, farm organizations are responding by arguing that using technology permits more food to be raised using fewer resources, which improves sustainability. Advances in productivity driven by technology in beef production over the past 30 years, for instance, have reduced the carbon footprint and overall environmental impact of its production, argues Washington State assistant professor of animal science Jude Capper. Comparing the environmental impact of the US beef industry in 1977 to 2007, she says, shows that improvements in nutrition, management, growth rate and slaughter weights have significantly reduced the environmental impact of modern beef production. That technological boost improves beef's sustainability, she argues.

“These findings challenge the common misconception that historical methods of livestock production are more environmentally sustainable than modern beef production,” said Capper.

How sustainable can technology be?A recently released study by Greenpeace International, however, challenges the notion that efficiency improvements can make modern meat production sustainable. It should give grocers a stark reminder of how far apart the two ends of the spectrum are when it comes to compromising on an acceptable “sustainability,” and how unacceptable their most profitable category remains to a segment of society.

Greenpeace’s 36-page report, Ecological Livestock, identifies what the 2.8-million member environmental-activist association believes are the practical options for reducing livestock production and consumption to fit within ecological limits the world will face by 2050. Although it targets Europe as the best example of the Developed World’s contribution to livestock-based environmental damage, the writing on the wall should be clear to American beef retailers, as well.

Greenpeace’s definition of “ecological farming” could have come right of the Beef Checkoff program’s sustainability project: It “…ensures healthy farming and healthy food for today and tomorrow, by protecting soil, water and climate, promotes biodiversity, and does not contaminate the environment…” And in case you’re tempted to dismiss Greenpeace's recommendations as simply vegetarian-driven, take note that the report actually concedes a necessary role for livestock and meat production in a sustainable system: “Ecological livestock integrates farm animals as essential elements in the agriculture system; they help optimise the use and cycling of nutrients and, in many regions, provide necessary farm working force,” it says. “Ecological livestock relies on grasslands, pasture and residues for feed, minimising use of arable land and competition with land for direct human food production, and protecting natural ecosystems within a globally equitable food system.”

Yet the similarity in definition of the end masks a vast divide in the means to get there.  The very marvel of increased efficiency farm groups hold up as evidence of its sustainability condemns it in the eyes of the organization’s report:

“It is often suggested that gains in livestock production efficiency, for example by technological advances, will compensate for growth in livestock numbers, and thus ameliorate its impacts. However, given projected livestock expansion by 2050 and current impacts on safe operating space of the planetary boundaries for biomass and biodiversity, nitrogen and greenhouse gases, the magnitude of efficiency gains would have to be disproportionate to be sufficient. For example, [one study] calculated that efficiency gains would have to be between 136 percent and 433 percent to maintain livestock impacts within acceptable impacts level.... The magnitude of these efficiency gains makes them very unrealistic within the next 50 years.  … the livestock sector will effectively double in number in the next decades, and its impacts will also multiply. Technological advances and gains in efficiency will not be sufficient to limit unacceptable damage to our planet’s resources.”

What's the bottom line, according to Greenpeace?

Only a “drastic reduction in livestock numbers,” coupled with a system in which livestock only remove the amount of resources they put back into the system, and in which the higher productivity of the entire food system (not just individual parts, like beef production) with minimal inputs, will suffice as "sustainable." In order to meet the realistic goal of simply holding livestock production at year 2000 levels by year 2050, Western Europe would have to cut its consumption of meat by more than three times current levels. Although Greenpeace doesn’t do the math for us in the report, that target would require U.S. consumers to cut their meat consumption to fully one-fourth of current levels.

What would 'sustainability' do to your meat sales?

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