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Capper: animal agriculture faces false perceptions

Written by Saige Albert
Denver, Colo. – “The environmental impact of products isn’t something that will go away,” said assistant professor of dairy science in the Department of Animal Science at Washington State University Jude Capper. “It is out there all the time. It doesn’t matter whether you read it in the New York Times or Time magazine, there are always articles about climate change or using less water and energy.”
    In a presentation to participants of the International Livestock Congress in Denver, Colo. on Jan. 10, Capper looked at combatting the public’s perception that beef is bad for the environment.
Misleading information?
    “The anti-ag activists understand that sex sells,” explained Capper. “By using these images, they hope to get the point across to the less educated consumer.”
    Capper referenced misleading advertisements, books and some misleading data, saying they have power to persuade people who are not educated about agriculture.
    As an example of how misleading data can be, Capper asked ILC participants to consider two vehicles traveling an equal distance over five hours, one of which burns 70 gallons of gasoline over that time and the other burning 10 gallons. When asked to choose the more environmentally friendly vehicle, Capper said that most consumers would choose the latter.
    “The problem is that this is just the production process,” explain Capper. “The point of the transportation industry isn’t just to move vehicles, it’s to move things. We have to look at this example on an output basis, rather than per head.”
    Capper continued, noting that the first vehicle, burning 70 gallons of fuel, is capable of transporting 50 passengers, yielding more “people miles” when compared to the other vehicle, only capable of transporting four people.
    “It is about the output in this example. To assess total environmental impact, we have to look at everything,” emphasized Capper.
Meatless Monday
    The concept of ‘Meatless Mondays’ emerged about three years ago, and it also utilizes misleading data to influence consumers, noting that, with the idea that animal agriculture might be bad for the environment already instilled in peoples’ minds, it is easier to influence their opinions by using misleading data.
    “The Environmental Working Group is a non-governmental organization that put out a report in July 2011 that was heavily publicized and present in almost every international publication, saying beef and lamb are very bad,” explained Capper, noting the nature of the information provided implied the report was scientific and unbiased.
    She added that data can seem much more significant than it actually is, saying, “If every person in the United States went meatless every Monday for a year, the perception is that would have a significant impact. If all those people went meatless for Monday, that would only cut our total carbon emission by 0.44 percent.”
    “To think that we can make a huge difference frankly does not make sense. That’s a really small number,” continued Capper, noting that cutting meat from the diet also has a number of other impacts.
Unanticipated impacts
     Consumer choice, animal by-products and the human impact on the environment is another factor to be considered by switching to a plant-based diet, consisting of lentils and beans, for example.
    “It’s not all about meat,” said Capper, asking, “What happens to all those other things we get from animal by-products? Where do we get those products without animal ag?”
    “We’ve got to think about the consequences from humans as well as animals,” Capper added, “because humans make methane, too.”
Improvement in the
industry
    Though skewed data is prevalent and difficult to combat, Capper noted that there is room for improvement in the beef industry.
    “As a beef industry, we have a huge opportunity to cut our total carbon footprint by improving our efficiency on-farm,” said Capper. “Beef yield per animal has gone up fairly constantly over the 30 years since 1977, and if we follow that trend, it can keep going up.”
    Capper looked at 1977, when it took five animals to make the same amount of beef that four animals could produce in 2007.
    “In 1977, it took an average of 606 days to get from birth to slaughter. In 2007 it took about 482 days. We have saved about 112 days per animal,” said Capper. “If we multiply that out to include those five animals, it took 3,020 animal days in 1977, compared to 1,928 days in 2007 to make the same amount of beef by improving growth rate and yield per animal.”
    Capper continued, referencing a study done to include the entire beef process from birth through the arrival of the animal at the slaughterhouse, saying that looking only at finishing animals doesn’t include the bulls, cows and heifers that are an integral part of beef production.
    “If we compare to 1977, beef yield per animal has improved by 31 percent. We only need 81 percent of the feed, 88 percent of the water and 67 percent of the land to make one unit of beef,” said Capper of the study, adding that overall, the carbon footprint of beef was reduced by 16 percent over the 30-year period.
Beef production systems
    Beef production systems are another area that frequently comes under fire by anti-agriculture activists. With the data she shared, Capper noted that every beef production system has a place in the industry if it is environmentally responsible and socially acceptable.
    “To produce the same amount of beef as 2011 in a grassfed system as in a conventional system, we would need an extra 64.6 million animals in the grassfed system,” commented Capper. “If all U.S. beef was grassfed and if we could convert overnight to that system, we would have to increase land use by 131 million acres, or 75 percent of the land area of Texas.”
    Capper continued, “That would increase our greenhouse gas emissions by 134.5 million tons of carbon – the equivalent of adding 26.6 million U.S. cars on the road.”
More than carbon
    Though the carbon footprint seems to be the hot topic in evaluating the environmental friendliness of agriculture today, Capper said that water will be the next big issue in the industry.
    “In 2002, in parts of America, north Africa, South America and Asia, there was not enough water to support food production, and that will get worse and worse and worse,” said Capper. “Water will be the next big issue that is put into use by anti-animal agriculture groups.”
    An article in National Geographic looked at the amount of water required to produce each pound of beef, showing 1,799 gallons of water required per pound of beef, as compared to only 468 gallons per pound of chicken.
    “The data looks very science-based, until you read more,” Capper pointed out. “The data says that, in an industrial beef production system, it takes an average of three years before the animal is slaughtered. That number is just insane.”
    In analyzing the data further, Capper noted that the animal that required nearly 1,800 gallons of water for its production only gained an average of 0.8 pounds per day, compared to the U.S. average of 2.95 pounds per day.
    “That number, 1,800 gallons, went out in National Geographic, read by millions of people around the world,” said Capper. “Ninety-eight percent of people have no idea about beef, and it become really dangerous.”
    “Numbers have power, and make people think it must be true,” added Capper. “We have to work on a proactive basis, not at being defensive, but in improving efficiency to give safe, affordable and nutritious beef to the consumer every day.”
    Saige Albert is editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..