Complicated Truths: Beef cattle nutritionist encourages ag industry to speak for itselfWritten by Christy Martinez
Cheyenne – According to beef cattle nutritionist Gary Sides, all the things in the modern world that are known as “culture” or “civilization,” including technology and medicine, are only possible because of a modern agriculture system that allows society to expand to areas outside food production.
“All the people who live in the city don’t have to farm or ranch for a living. They depend on you to provide them food so they can take their creative juices and pursue other skills,” Sides told attendees at the Wyoming Farm Bureau’s annual symposium Nov. 10 in Cheyenne.
Although modern food production has allowed people to work outside of agriculture and still have food to eat, he says much of the urban population is fearful of the food that U.S. farmers and ranchers produce.
“The fear and skepticism is because we in the agriculture industry have not told our story. We’ve neglected to tell the public three and four generations removed from the farm about how our food is produced and why it’s produced that way, and why it’s the safest food ever produced in the history of mankind,” said Sides.
Sides encourages people in the ag industry to be educated and engaged in discussions with those who know little to nothing about agriculture so they may promote modern agriculture and what it brings to the culture.
He said that’s easier said than done in a culture with a five-minute attention span where “simple lies are more palatable than complicated truths.”
“A simple, really quick lie carries more weight than something more complicated that takes longer to tell,” said Sides, giving greenhouse gas emissions and their role in global warming as an example.
“We have done a terrible job in explaining how ag works,” he continued. “In 1940 it took one farmer to feed 19 people, and in 2011 it takes one to feed 155, and that’s a conservative estimate. If we had to feed the U.S. today with 1940s agriculture, then 150 million people would starve to death in our country.”
In the 1950s there were 95 million head of cattle in the U.S. that produced 12 billion pounds of carcass beef each year. Sides said that, today, there are 95 million head of cattle that produce 25 billion pounds of beef, and that there is two-thirds less carbon dioxide produced and two-thirds less land and feed required when compared to organic, natural cattle and the 1950s.
Further, Sides noted that U.S. cattle farmers and ranchers provide a quarter of the world’s beef with 10 percent of the cattle, which consume 10 percent of the world’s grain. Contrary to the UN report on greenhouse gases from four years ago, which claimed U.S. livestock produce 18 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases, Sides said a study from the University of California-Davis reevaluated those numbers and found it’s actually less than three percent.
He added that the dairy industry has quadrupled milk production over the same time period.
“Today, dairy cattle produce 63 percent more milk with 58 percent fewer cows, 70 percent less manure, 65 percent less water, 90 percent less land and 63 percent less carbon dioxide. That’s what modern agriculture does for the whole environment, besides increasing production,” explained Sides.“With 1950s technology we could only feed half of the current population,” said Sides. “People in California, Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and George would starve. So, when people tell you they want to go back to the old-time methods of food production, they’re speaking out of complete ignorance. It’s not an ethical solution.”
Sides said the practice of using hormones in beef production reduces land requirements by two-thirds and reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent. He points out that a non-implanted, non-treated steer contains eight nanograms of estrogen per pound of beef, while a steer with an implant raises that by three nanograms, which is one part per billion. In contrast, a tablespoon of soy oil contains the equivalent of 1,000 nanograms of estrogen and a pregnant woman produces 90 million nanograms of estrogen per day.
“Estrogen allows us as a species to continue living. We’d die without it, but the European Union has declared it a carcinogen so they can ban our beef from their shores,” said Sides. “One birth control pill contains the same amount of estrogen as 125,000 pounds of beef from implanted steers.”
Of antibiotics, Sides said the chart of life expectancy in the U.S. rose and fell dramatically until penicillin was developed in 1942.
“Large sections of our culture are terrified of antibiotics, but for the first time in history we have a molecule that will kill the single-celled organisms that have killed humans since the dawn of history. We use them in our livestock because it keeps them alive,” said Sides.
“If we had to rely on organic foods to feed the globe, we’d feed about four billion people, and there are seven million on the globe right now,” noted Sides. “Populations will increase to nine million by 2050, and we’ll need a 50 percent increase in food by 2030 and 100 percent by 2050. We’ll need as much food in the next 50 years as has been consumed in entire human history.”
“There are two ways to meet growing food demand: take more land from nature, or produce more per acre and per animal. There are no other choices, unless we depopulate the globe,” said Sides. “Globally, if we farmed today like we did in 1960, the world would need additional square miles the size of South America.”