Eating Animals

Beef.

Beef is one of the most popular meats in Australia – we hoe down on roughly 22.8kg per person per year, which is on par with Brazil and the USA. The area of grazing land operated by beef cattle/sheep businesses was estimated to be more than 336 million hectares; over 40% of the total area of Australia. [1]
Yet beef comes with one of the worst eco-report cards. Here’s why…

COWS + GREENHOUSE GAS EMISSIONS

Agriculture emissions represent approximately 16% of Australia’s National Greenhouse Gas Inventory – second only to the energy sector.[2] Emissions from Livestock contribute approximately 70% of total agricultural emissions and include methane from enteric fermentation in livestock (58% of all methane comes from agriculture and has 25 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide), nitrous oxide (76% of all nitrous oxide comes from agriculture and has 297 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide), manure management, rice cultivation, agricultural soils, savanna burning and field burning of agricultural residues.[3]

Beef cattle accounted for 45% of these agriculture emissions in 2013–14.

Both cows and sheep belong to a class of animals called ruminants. Ruminants have four stomachs and digest food in  their stomachs instead of in their intestines, like humans. They produce methane as a by-product of this digestion process (enteric fermentation) in the form of burps, breathing and farts; methane is a greenhouse gas that is 25 times more potent than CO2 and thus is a significant contributor to global warming. This enteric methane is the largest single source of agricultural emissions, contributing 65.3% of agricultural emissions (9.6% of national emissions).[4]

In Victoria alone, around 40% of all agriculture’s methane emissions are from dairy cattle, with beef cattle and sheep contributing 30% each. For example, the energy lost from one dairy cow in a year represents enough methane to power a six-cylinder LPG car for over 1,000km,[5] which highlights the potential for scientific advancement in how these emissions could be captured and used.

COWS + WATER INTENSITY

It is difficult to find accurate data on the water intensity of beef production here in Australia, however, the global average water footprint of beef is 15,400 litres per kg, which is predominantly green water – water from renewable sources – (94%).

The water footprint related to animal feed takes the largest share with 99 per cent of the total, while drinking and service water contribute just one per cent to the total water footprint.

It is very difficult to provide a blanket assessment of the water intensity of beef production because there are so many variants. In a grain fed system, the grain must be grown and transported, with much of this grain being grown in irrigated systems. Whereas grass fed beef may exist solely on pasture that has being fed by rainwater, although irrigation systems may still occur on these farms.

There is also the water used in processing and packing meat, which often is not accounted for. So although a fixed figure may not be available it is clear that there is a much larger water requirement for raising beef than other meat products and vegetables.

In Julian Cribb’s book, The Coming Famine (p.190), he calculated that using the same land area, you can obtain 12 times more food from vegetables than from legumes and 5 times more food than from cereals. If you factor in the amount of grain needed to produce meat, a single hectare of land can produce 29 times more food in the form of vegetables than in the form of chicken meat, 73 times more than pork, or 78 times more than beef.

GRASS FED VS. GRAIN FED

In Australia, most cows raised for meat go through a two-stage feeding process. For the first part of their lives, they are raised on pasture (grass fed) where they roam around eating grass and hay from bails set up by the farmer. For the final stages (roughly 50-120 days/10-15% of their lifespan) they are ‘finished’ on grain – that is, they’re moved to feedlots where they are housed in close confines and are only fed grain in order to speed up their weight gain and get them ready to sell to market much faster.

According to the Australian Lot Feeders Association approximately 40% of Australia’s total beef supply and 80% of beef sold in major domestic supermarkets is sourced from the cattle feedlot sector.

There are around 450 accredited feedlots throughout Australia with the majority (60%) located in Queensland, followed by NSW with 30%, Victoria with 7% and the remainder shared between South Australia and Western Australia.[6]

For lot feeders to be able to market their beef as ‘grain fed’, feedlot cattle must be fed a predominantly grain based diet for a nominal number of days. For example, cattle destined for Australian retailers will spend between 60-80 days in the feedlot whereas cattle destined for hotels and restaurants both in Australia or overseas may spend on average up to 130 days in the feedlot. The current average time cattle spend in Australian feedlots is 95 days.[7] Adherence to this requirement is delivered through the industry’s independently audited quality assurance program, the National Feedlot Accreditation Scheme (NFAS).[8]

Feedlot/Grain Fed beef has increased in popularity both in Australia and for export due to the industry’s ability to consistently meet market requirements in terms of quality and quantity (irrespective of seasons or droughts).[9]

The environmental argument for and against grain feeding

Many studies (often industry funded) argue that grain feeding is more environmentally efficient as the animals are fattened up quicker, live shorter lives and thus aren’t around for as long to belch out all that methane.

At the end of the day it’s an individual choice as to whether or not to eat meat or where to purchase it from. At Sustainable Table, we believe that if you choose to eat red meat you should opt for small amounts of grass-fed beef and lamb, preferably organic, from a small-scale farm.

This is in part due to the ethics of raising animals in an environment as close to how they would in nature. There’s also the risk of much more going wrong when thousands of animals are housed in close confines. For example, a 450kg steer produces 29kg of wet manure and urine each day, so a large feedlot with 30,000 animals produces 870,000kg of excrement every day! [10] If this waste is managed incorrectly it can seep into ground water, or run off into creeks and rivers, encouraging toxic blue-green algae blooms. When housing animals in such close confines there is also an increased risk of outbreak of disease, the potential for land degradation, pollution and related effects such as erosion, nutrient run off, groundwater contamination, greenhouse emissions, odour, dust and noise.

The efficiency and sense in growing all this grain and transporting it to feed animals when it could be used for human consumption and to tackle issues of hunger must also be challenged. According to the Queensland Department of Primary Industries, it takes 7.45kg of feed to produce 1.1kg of weight gain.

Raising animals in such a way seems at odds with nature, even if the environmental gains have been argued and proven in some instances. It can also be argued that these systems have been analysed in isolation, as you would a factory or machine, rather than seeing cows as animals that belong to a balanced ecosystem where whole farm ecology is taken into account. The feedlot industry has also been successful in raising more cows, more quickly, thus encouraging greater consumption of beef, which in turn poses significant environmental and human and animal health risks.

Buying from farmers’ markets, through Community Supported Agriculture or other systems that focus on connecting producers with eaters is the best way of ensuring the animals have been raised in a way that aligns with your environmental and ethical beliefs.

How to source 100% grass fed beef

For grass fed cattle producers wishing to use ‘Pasture fed’ as a marketing claim, the peak representative body for the grass fed cattle industry, Cattle Council of Australia has a ‘Pasture fed cattle assurance system (PCAS)’. The standard requires;

‘Cattle to have never been fed separated grain or grain by-products and have continuous access to graze pasture with the diet. The Diet is derived solely from forage consisting of grass (annual and perennial), forbs (e.g., legumes, Brassica), browse, or cereal grain crops in the vegetative (pre-grain) state for the lifetime of the ruminant animal, with the exception of milk consumed prior to weaning.’

The PCAS also has an additional set of assurances that producers can subscribe to, which verify that the animals have had a lifetime free from Hormonal Growth Promotants and lifetime free from antibiotics.

Buying from farmers’ markets, through Community Supported Agriculture or other systems that focus on connecting producers with eaters is the best way of ensuring the animals have been raised in a way that aligns with your environmental and ethical beliefs.

The difference between organic and grass fed beef

Organic beef can be sourced from the grass fed beef production chain, however the vast majority of grass fed producers are not certified organic or biodynamic. This is because they may still use chemicals for fertilizer, weed and insect control, and for animal health management.

If you are looking for meat that has been produced without synthetic chemical inputs then look for organic certification logos, shop at an organic butcher or buy from a producer at a farmers’ market or direct from those who can assure you that they follow organic / agro-ecological farming principles (see Organic Beef for more info).

The difference in flavour between grass and grain fed beef

Grass fed beef is appreciated for its texture and flavour. In a pastured environment the cow’s diet will vary according to season, rainfall and access to different types of forage, which will thus impact the flavour of the meat and create more variation. This is embraced by some as a sign of nature at play, however, grain fed beef has grown in popularity, particularly in the hospitality sector, due to its consistency of flavour and quantity.

Grain fed beef often achieves more marbling and a slightly smoother texture

COMMON TERMS TO UNDERSTAND

Adapted from the choice article, What’s your Beef?

Grass fed or pasture-raised beef
Beef that has been pasture fed is known for its intense flavour and firm texture. It is supplied from cattle that have spent their life grazing pastures and eating grass or other forage. Grass fed beef may still come from cows that have spent some time in a feedlot or eating a grain-based diet, but it must be for less than 60-100 days – Consumer and producer sentiment around this indicates that it is misleading and damaging to grass fed producers – Aldi found themselves in hot water over promoting grass fed beef that had existed on some grain recently.
For grass fed cattle producers wishing to use ‘Pasture fed’ as a marketing claim, the peak representative body for the grass fed cattle industry, Cattle Council of Australia has a ‘Pasture fed cattle assurance system (PCAS)’. The standard requires;

‘Cattle to have never been fed separated grain or grain by-products and have continuous access to graze pasture with the diet. The Diet is derived solely from forage consisting of grass (annual and perennial), forbs (e.g., legumes, Brassica), browse, or cereal grain crops in the vegetative (pre-grain) state for the lifetime of the ruminant animal, with the exception of milk consumed prior to weaning.’

Grain-fed / feedlot beef
The industry standard requires cattle to remain in a feedlot for 100 days (young steers for 70 and heifers for 60) in order to be sold on the domestic Australian market as ‘grain fed’.
Organic beef
The Australian Certified Organic Standard covers both Australian Certified Organic and Organic Growers of Australia. Farms, abattoirs and butchers can apply for certification. Feedlot feeding of livestock isn’t permitted – although in certain cases farming systems that are ‘naturally ideal’ for finishing livestock may be allowed when the natural environment isn’t suitable for fattening animals. To be labelled organic, beef must only eat feed that is certified 100% organic – meaning it has been grown without the use of synthetic agricultural chemicals including pesticides, fungicides and herbicides, placing emphasis on soil health to maintain production systems.
Certified organic meat must also be free range, and in the cattle industry it prohibits the use of hormone growth promotants (HGPs), limits vaccine use and there are also strict rules about antibiotic use. Live export is also prohibited under organically certified operations. [11]

Biodynamic beef
Biodynamic farming incorporates organic principles and places emphasis on maintaining balance in the soil, noting the importance of caring for not only animals and plants, but also the soil from which they are able to grow.

No added hormones (hormone growth promotants – HGPs)
Beef from cattle that haven’t been injected with slow-release hormone growth promotants (HGPs) – a common practice to speed up fattening before sale. The World Health Organization and the Australian government allow the use of HGPs in animals for human consumption, but the EU doesn’t.
HGPs can improve growth rates by 15-30%, but it reduces marbling, which contributes to flavour. Coles has stopped selling fresh beef with HGPs, and Woolworths also offers some HGP-free beef products.

ETHICAL CONCERNS AROUND RAISING COWS FOR CONSUMPTION

Image left: ABC | Image middle: Weekly Times | Image right: Australian Lot Feeders Association

Age of slaughter and the slaughter process

Regardless of how well an animal has been cared for during its life, the reality of eating animals is that they will be killed long before they would die naturally, and the process of sending them to slaughter can involve long road journeys and a stressful death.

In the case of cattle, they are normally slaughtered at the age of 12-18 months when their natural lifespan is 15-20 years.

According to CHOICE, the regulation of abattoirs happens at a state or federal level, depending upon whether the abattoir is used for export or domestic purposes.

Export abattoirs require a Department of Agriculture Vet to be on site during the slaughter process, but domestic meat abattoirs are only required to employ an internal animal welfare officer.

Although best practice standards are always the aim, there have been countless exposés on what really happens at abattoirs and there are times where animals suffer unduly due to malpractice, human error or the sheer size of the beast being slaughtered.

Animals Australia is currently calling for CCTV to be fitted at all abattoirs to protect animals from further cruelty. See here for full details of the most recent investigation.

Feedlots

Feedlots are designated areas that intensively house cattle in open pens and feed them a diet of grain to fatten them up quickly for slaughter. Grain fed cattle spend 10-15% (60-120 days) of their lives in feedlots.

The main animal welfare concerns around the feedlot production system is that cows are unable to exhibit their natural behaviours or exist on a diet they would traditionally find in nature, thus impacting digestion and possibly increasing stress.

Inadequate shelter for animals in feedlots is also a concern. Some do offer shade, but it’s not a legal requirement. According to a CHOICE article, about 60% of cattle in all feedlots currently have access to shade, with the remainder existing in more temperate climates.

Accredited feedlots are audited on an annual basis for animal welfare, environmental and food safety issues. The program is independently owned and managed. Government representatives manage any issues that arise. But the audits are only announced to the feedlot owners, and results are not made public.[12]

In addition, cattle may be transported vast distances to slaughter, thus adding to animal welfare concerns.

Transportation

The increasing centralisation of abattoirs in Australia means more cattle are facing lengthy journeys. The Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals: Land Transport of Cattle specifies mature, fit cattle may be transported for 36 hours without water. This can be extended to 48 hours if animals aren’t showing signs of fatigue and the weather is mild. Despite this, some research has found cattle are considerably dehydrated and noticeably tired after 24 hours of transportation.[13]

Live Export

Two thirds of Australia’s beef production is exported to over 100 international markets, both via domestic slaughter (94%) and live export (6%).[14] The primary markets for exported Australian livestock are South-East Asia, the Middle East and North Africa.

In 2014 Australia’s export of live beef cattle for feeder, slaughter and breeding purposes totalled 1,294,036 head and was valued at A$1.294 billion, with Indonesia being the largest market accounting for 56% of the total of Australia’s live cattle exports (including dairy cattle).

With just 6% of the export market, live export is a relatively small trade, but it is one that has captured the attention of animal welfare groups and concerned consumers alike for the harsh conditions on ship and the often inhumane transportation and slaughter practices at destination countries.

There has been account after account of ships breaking down, causing animals to endure and often die in stifling circumstances. Beyond that, once animals are sold at market at the destination country they are often transported in abhorrent conditions and killed fully conscious without stunning. Particularly with cattle, it is often a challenge for workers who are not used to working with animals of such size – countless footage has been captured of cows’ tails being broken and being bludgeoned to death with sledge hammers in the absence of more appropriate equipment.

For more information on the live export trade and the animal rights issues within, visit:

Animals Australia

Animals Australia has been campaigning to ban live export, you can see footage, learn more and pledge your support here.

RSPCA Australia

Join the RSPCA in demanding a transition away from live animal exports to an expanded chilled and frozen meat trade.

Voiceless

Australia’s live export trade is arguably the worst in the world because of the high number of animals exported and the extreme distances they travel. Learn more…

QUESTIONS TO ASK WHEN CHOOSING TO EAT BEEF

  1. Has it been produced locally and is it grass fed and organic?
  2. When did I last eat red meat and is there a good plant-based replacement?
  3. Can I request a less popular cut to save pennies and to ensure the whole animal is being used?
    i.e. tritip, chuck, silverside, brisket + shin

Image source: BBC Good Food

References

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