We aren’t being honest with ourselves–or even the planet–if we’re walking around thinking that farm animals are being fed–or heaven forbid, stealing–food that is “better off” being fed to–or even starving–humans.
I’m surprised at the number of people who just don’t realize that there’s far more to over-simplistic sentiments like “animals are being fed crops that should go to [starving] humans” than what they’re reading about on various media sources.
Then again, with 98% of the population several generations from the farm, I shouldn’t be surprised one bit, should I?
Let me throw another wrench into the gears. Did you know that we throw out over one-third of what actually *is* supposed to go to us? Food waste is a dire issue folks, and yet ironically enough, we just don’t think about it often enough.
Particularly when the animal extremists try to push the sentiment that livestock are “eating most crops that are supposed to go to humans,” and quite a number of people believe this… while throwing out over a third of their plate of food into the garbage, or supporting grocery stores that throw out perfectly good food just because the Best Before Date says it’s going to go “bad” on that particular date.
Ironic? What do you think?
You know what I think? I think it’s beyond ironic. It’s insanity, and asinine as hell.
Technically my intention is not to be writing a blog on food waste, but rather on the feed-food debate.
The thing is though, my intention with bringing in the food waste caveat into the mix is to get you folks to start thinking about why livestock don’t exactly deserve the vilification that they’ve been getting.
Before I begin though, a disclaimer:
This is NOT a means to defend nor promote the continued existence of CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations) and their damaging and inhumane operating/production practices.
Instead, this is a means to set the record straight and to show that there’s so much more to the story than the vegan bumper-sticker slogans–or hell, even the industrial agriculture zealots–want us to believe.
Livestock have been demonized far too much in the last few decades, and we’re sick and tired of the half-truth bullshit. It’s well past time they–especially the cattle–be redeemed; They never were the problem in the first place, it has always been how they have been raised and managed.
It’s the HOW, not the Cow!!
Got it? Good! Now let’s continue.
The main running gambit of this feed-food issue is largely to do with monoculture, industrialized, commodity crops, namely cereals, large-grain (corn primarily), and oilseeds (mainly soybeans). The *other* crops like fruits, vegetables, nuts, and forages aren’t as important an issue here, mainly because they don’t get brought up in these kinds of discussions as much. Most fruits, vegetables, and nuts go to humans anyway, and not livestock. Forages (like grasses, alfalfa, etc.) , on the other hand, are obviously inedible to humans (I don’t think we’re going to see that change anytime soon) and will never enter the human food supply, so it’s no use to make as big a deal in discussions about them as much as the aforementioned grains.
The gambit of this feed-food debate also is largely to do with raising animals in confinement–the CAFOs or factory farms I mentioned above.
It doesn’t, however, have all that much to do–if any–with regeneratively-raised livestock, particularly ruminants. And it shouldn’t, however often grazing animals get dragged into this kind of debate all the time, it seems.
See, when you read statements like, “We could feed more starving humans if all these crops weren’t fed to farm animals,” you have to admit that at first glance, it’s one helluva blanket statement that directly implies that all livestock, regardless where or how they’re raised, are the number one enemies in the food security, food distribution discussion.
What’s probably the most irksome about such statements is that the purveyor of that statement is either too dumb or too willfully ignorant to even bother adding the last part of the sentence, being “…raised in factory farms.”
Of course, all everything needs to eat regardless where–or how–they live. It’d be awfully cruel to allow animals to starve to satisfy all the humans on the planet first, wouldn’t it? But that’s not the point. The point to this statement that is deeply implied is of two distinct things:
This statement brings to light a third element that I’ll bet most of you haven’t even thought of:
Industrial monoculture crop production fosters industrialized animal agriculture.
Mind blown? If you don’t believe me, then just keep on reading. Because everything is related in some way, shape, or form.
We Have a Distribution Problem… And Here’s Why
Did you know that the United States is the number one corn producer in the world? That’s right! According to some stats from 2017, America produced 14.6 billion bushels (or ~371 million tons) of corn. That’s just in one year alone.
That’s not all. Globally, in the same year alone, 1.07 billion tonnes (or 41 billion bushels) of corn was produced. With the USA being the largest corn producer (next to China, Brazil, and others), you can probably start to see where distribution can become a problem.
What about soybeans? Currently the USA is also in the number one spot for soybean production (at ~125 million metric tons); Brazil is a close second (~120 million metric tons). Globally, almost 340 million metric tons of soybeans has been produced in the past year.
What exactly are so much corn and soybeans produced for? The two biggest chunks are for biofuel (primarily ethanol production), vegetable oil, and animal feed.
The ethanol part is pretty self-explanatory. It’s the “green & clean” alternative or addendum to fossil fuels. It takes the corn kernel and crushes it, taking out the oil content of the kernel and basically refine and process it into combustable fuel. That’s just in a nutshell. In 2017, around 30% of corn consumed was used for ethanol.
Most soybeans are produced for their oil. About 85% of all soybeans produced get processed for oil.
The by-products of both soy and corn for oil and ethanol are mainly for animal feed. Not much is, or can be, further processed for human consumption.
So, what about animal feed? In the same year, almost 38% of the corn was consumed as feed, along with the residual.
As far as soybeans are concerned, depending on what sources you’re reading, between 70 to 80% of soybeans (including residual from oil production) is intended for animal feed.
Now, here’s where you need to pay attention.
Most, if not all, corn and soy goes to animals raised in confinement–factory farms. Very, very little goes anywhere else; none goes to regeneratively-raised livestock and poultry.
According to some industry data (such as the American Feed Industry Association), a third of corn goes to factory-farmed poultry, which includes broilers, layers, and turkeys. Another third of that corn goes to feedlot cattle, and a quarter to CAFO-raised hogs. Dairy cows (again, dominantly CAFO), get the rest.
What about soybeans? Poultry (broilers, layers, turkeys) receive over half of the total amount of soybeans as animal feed in the form of the by-product soybean meal. A quarter of soybeans goes to hogs, and the rest goes to dairy and beef cattle.
There’s still plenty of corn left over for export, for seed, and then to be turned into various food products, from high-fructose corn syrup to breakfast cereal. This is not much different for soybeans.
Now, why does a lot of corn and soy go to biofuel, oil, and animal feed
Actually, the better question to ask is, why has it become a “norm” for not only so much corn and soy to be produced but also be “demanded” for ethanol and oil production and to go to feeding animals?
I can only speak very generally and brief on the subject, because I fear that if I get started on something like this I could take this post way off track really quick. But here are my thoughts.
Here’s a Little History Lesson… and Other Things
Large, multi-national corporations like Bayer (which Monsanto merged into, so we can’t blame Monsanto for anything anymore), Cargill, Tyson Foods, and others, have such enormous power, influence and control on the federal government (particularly in the USA, I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s similar influence with Canadian government) that they’ve been able to significantly influence rulings on things like subsidies for crops, ag-gag laws, the works. It’s a way for the big guys to cover their asses and gather more control, more power, and more influence while the little guys suffer and fade away.
This isn’t anything new. I suspect this has been on-going since after the Second World War. It was the governments who have encouraged increased use of chemical fertilizers before, and especially after World War II, when they were left with munition factories that weren’t going to be used to create bombs anymore; thereby resulting in increased yields. Continued use of chemical fertilizers on the same piece of ground was said to guarantee continued high yields year after year. They weren’t kidding, either.
The more farmers caught on, the more grain entered the market.
At about the same time, there’s been the oil and gas quick expansion, influencing everything (including our daily lives) from the popularity of the automobile to use of plastic bags for lunches and storing food. (Actually, the advent of oil and gas was discovered just before the First World War; but it didn’t see a real significant take-off until after the war.) We see the results of such success every time we open the refrigerator or tap away at the keyboard of our laptops.
That excess grain that was coming in back then, before the advent of the CAFO, the question was what to do with it all? It was general knowledge that humans can only eat so much bread, or so much grits or breakfast cereal… we like to eat other types of foods too.
So they turned their attention to farm animals. They knew that historically, some livestock were supplemented with grain to keep them friendly, or help add a little more fat to the meat before slaughter. Well, apparently someone had the bright idea of designing confinement operations where the animals could just stay in one area, with the maximum amount of grains that could possibly be fed going in, manure and waste bedding going out. Simple!
Yes, folks, industrial animal agriculture is definitely a direct result of the industrialization of crop production. Not the other way around.
Such a designed system would’ve made the oil and gas folks happy. It meant more crude oil being taken out of the ground to go to more machinery that would need to be used to grow the crops, harvest the crops, and then take those crops, feed it to the animals, then use more machinery to clean out the manure and spread it back onto the fields.
But there’s been more and more crops being grown, more prairie and forest land converted to cropland to grow more crops, which meant that there came again the same problem as before: Too much grain in supply. Oh no, what now?
Not only could the humans only have so much (who cares about the poor who can’t pay into the large corporate cash cow [I’m being facetious]), but now the farm animals on CAFOs too! Again, someone came up with yet another “bright” solution: Biofuel.
And that’s were we’re at today in a nutshell folks.
So, What About This Distribution Problem?
With a significant influence of big corporate interest behind much of the grain production, and with markets and subsidies influencing grain prices–as well as food prices for us–the distribution problem lies with what–not who–is already in power. It’s not us as individual citizens. It’s not even President Trump. The power, as I hope you understood from above, lies with these corporate bodies that have been the pushers for industrializing agriculture.
Feeding the poor is not in these corporations’ best interests. People with money who can buy their stuff–regular middle-class folk like you and me– are.
It is also not in these large corporations’ best interests to switch from a degenerative animal agriculture system to a regenerative one; particularly one where ruminants are grazed on grasses that don’t require fossil fuels ($$$) to harvest. Encouraging the public to buy factory-farmed meat, swindling farmers into the “promise” of a “better way to make a living” (or whatever bullshit marketing excuses they pull out of their asses to get a farmer to spend a quarter million on a chicken house or hog barn that has a chance not even being filled), and purporting that the “best and safest practice for farmed animals” is the confinement operation with air filled with toxic levels of ammonia, fecal particulate, and feed and environment that guarantees animals are going to get sick and die sooner or later, is in their best interests.
Hell, it isn’t even in the large corporate interests to be Ethical Omnivores.
Regenerative agriculture and holistic management of grass-fed/grass-finished, and pasture-raised livestock is nothing short of the biggest enemy to the industrialized corporate body who has such a strangle-hold on how food and grains are distributed.
Really, are livestock to blame–let alone solely responsible–for consuming such a large portion of these grains? I didn’t think so. They look more like the victims that got forcibly caught up on one big f*cked-up, on-going, global scam.
If you still believe they are, even when you’ve stayed with me this far, I think it’s time to either go back to the beginning and start reading this post all over again, or… well, I won’t go there. Some of you may get offended that I’m “too mean.” Although that toilet suggestion was a rather good one… oh well.
Anyway, after distribution, comes the question of efficiency. And no, I’m not going to be doing this as a means to argue in favour of feeding grains or for CAFOs (see the disclaimer above). As a matter of fact, I believe that efficiency is partly irrelevant when it comes to raising animals, particularly with ruminants. Let me explain.
The Efficiency Argument, and Why Grains Aren’t Required
One of the proceeding arguments to, “We could feed more starving humans if all these crops weren’t fed to farm animals,” is that a certain amount grain is needed to produce a pound of meat–typically targeted at beef. Numbers tend to range anywhere from 6 pounds to the old 1950s stat of 15 pounds to get a pound of beef.
Of course, pigs and chickens seem to get away scotch-free because they’re definitely more efficient at turning grains into meat–something like 1 pound for 1 pound, there abouts–and they’re not so noticeable to the public as cows are… plus people love their chicken (and eggs) and bacon.
The other proceeding argument–or at least the assumption–is that cutting out the “middle man” (i.e., the farm animals), allows “free access” to all the grains and foods we could have, that we can “easily” get for ourselves.
Some folks like to add in the whole calorie comparison which I won’t bother with here. Besides, counting calories is really only about energy, which is of much less importance than something like protein. But I digress.
Let’s face it, in the end arguments like these tend to get the spotlight more focused on the ruminant herbivore than the monogastric/avian omnivore.
But, before I start getting into the whole ruminant topic area, let’s first look at the efficiencies–or lack thereof–of feeding farm animals feeds that… may or may not be suitable for human consumption in the end.
The Efficiency of Feeding Farm Animals
Historically, farm animals–pigs, chickens, turkeys, sheep, goats, cattle, horses–have been known for turning inedible foods and fodder into edible and nutritious sources for us humans. Today, it seems that element has been largely ignored.
The advocation and willingness to “cut out the middle man” hides some very important facts that are undoubtedly in the favour of the keeping, not to mention the very existence, of farm animals.
Without mentioning specific species, there are certain feeds and feed types that most people don’t realize are inedible to humans. These range from by-products to hay. Actually, a study through the FAO that came out in 2017 found that 86% of what is fed to livestock is inedible to humans. For a super-brief rundown, see the graphic below.
By-products that come from various industries are fed to livestock because there is no use for them in anything we humans eat, let alone even use. These include soybean meal, dried distillers grains, brewer’s yeast, fish meal, canola meal, soybean hulls, the list goes on. Basically, by-products are what’s left over from the extraction process to make various human-consumable products, from fuel ethanol to beer, or vegetable oil to high-fructose corn syrup.
The other reason that by-products are fed to livestock is because they can make far better use of this waste material than landfills can. With such high demand and high production for various products that require the processing and extraction from grains, there’s simply no way landfills can keep up with the continuous influx of waste material. Not only that, but the decomposition time needed to break these materials down into soil is just too long to keep up with supply, even if this were encouraged with bio-engineered bacteria. It would be an ecological and environmental disaster waiting for a place to happen.
For now, animals are our only solution to turn such by-products into something useful, until someone comes up with a bright–and preferably ecologically-sound–solution to make better use of such waste products than to have to put it through livestock and poultry.
What about the grains themselves? Isn’t most of the grains that go to livestock edible for humans?
Not quite. There’s a lot of grains produced that are considered “feed grade” which is a term farmers and grain shippers use to denote grain that is lower quality than what is desirable to go to humans for everything from brewing to milling for pasta, bread, and cereal, among other things. Typically the better quality graded grains (this includes oilseeds [canola, soybeans, etc.] and pulses [peas, lentils, etc.]) are what go to human consumption. The lower (or even lowest) quality grains are considered no better than feed for cattle, pigs, chickens, etc.
If you are a grain farmer, hearing that most of your harvest is graded as “feed quality” isn’t the kind of news you’d like to hear. Mainly because the price you’d get from it isn’t as good as if was better quality.
Crop breeders have also purposely bred different cultivars or varieties of corn, barley, oats, and others to be primarily of forage use for livestock.
This brings me to another part of the discussion: Feeds that use the whole plant.
Silages (chopped fermented fresh forage from seed to stem), hay (sun-cured and dried perennial forage), greenfeed (sun-cured and dried annual forage), and pasture forage (grasses, legumes) are feeds and fodder that utilize the whole plant (except for the roots). These types of feeds are definitely inedible to humans. When’s the last time you’ve seen someone–or done it yourself–chowed down on a hay bale? Or sat with the cows gorging on silage?
Let me put this into perspective. The only part of the crop that is deemed “edible” to humans, as far as grains are concerned, is the seed portion. On the corn plant, that’s only 20 to 25% of the entire corn plant (if you remove the cob and the leaves and stems and are left with only the kernels). For cereals, that’s just a little more (~50% with just the grains that haven’t been further processed for truly edible food). The rest of the plant that we don’t eat goes to waste, or is allowed to decompose back into soil.
But, who could better utilize those parts of those plants? Why, ruminants of course.
I think we humans are complaining about nothing if we’re so concerned about ruminants eating what we can’t even digest in the first place.
I’m getting ahead of myself because I want to save the ruminant part of the discussion until later.
Now, what about food waste?
Going back to the history books, both chickens and pigs were commonly used as basically “garbage disposal” care-takers when it came to dealing with kitchen scraps. Actually, they still are perfectly suitable for the job, they honestly haven’t changed all that much in the past 100 or so years, even with the advent of CAFOs. Not only that, but they love getting them; it seems, from what I’ve heard at least, the stinkier and more disgusting the table scraps are, the more crazy they are for eating it.
Why aren’t chickens and pigs used more often to turn food waste into meat and eggs? Either it’s not in corporate interests (see my thoughts above), or someone’s scared they’re not going to be making money from it if people started raising more chickens in their back yards and didn’t have near as much garbage to throw to the landfill. Laws also have a way of getting in the road of what has been old-timer common sense too…
If you want to keep talking efficiency though, those critters are the best food-waste converters we have; nothing can compare. I don’t know of anybody who has a “better” solution to turn table scraps into anything that isn’t compost or something a chicken or pig would otherwise eat. Not even the animal activists have thought up of anything yet. Slackers!
Table scraps aren’t good for ruminants though. They’re better off grazing and browsing fodder and areas that monogastrics and avians have little to no use for, except for rooting for tubers, and scratching/digging through cow-pats to get at some tasty grubs.
If we can come full circle right back to the grains argument, not even ruminants need grains.
Actually, a ruminant can’t even consider itself able to survive off a 100% grain diet like a pig or chicken can. Such a diet is certain death for a cow or sheep. If ruminants “need” to be fed grain, it has to be as a supplement along with hay, pasture grass or other roughage they can digest without much issue.
I will acknowledge that it is inefficient to put grain through a bovine or ovine when they’re not even suited for it, let alone they can’t even have a diet that is 100% of it. Why bother putting grain through cattle in the first place?
Ruminants Don’t Need Grain, They Need Forage
In the minds of those who support and promote feedlot cattle, grain is an “efficient, cheap, fast, and easy” way to fatten up cattle quickly for market in a short period of time. Or, as Joel Salatin has put it, “faster fatter, bigger cheaper.” It also allows cattle to be fattened for slaughter at any time of the year, not at a particular time of year (i.e., autumn) like that required to get good quality, REAL grass-fed beef (not the “grass-fed” beef that can be still raised in CAFOs).
Grain is used for the exact same reason as mentioned above for market hogs and broiler chickens–“faster fatter bigger cheaper.” Do hogs and poultry need grain? They’re not ruminants, they have simple stomachs that is not designed for the digestion of coarse plant matter like a cow’s multi-chambered one, so yes, in a way. If we take them out of the CAFO model, though, they don’t need nearly as much as they usually get in confinement, mainly because they’ll be getting enough nutrition from what they dig up, scratch up, and root up in more natural surroundings, not to mention they get food scraps from the kitchen table…
But cattle and sheep? Unless they really can’t get fat on grass due to poor genetics (or genetics that has robbed them of the ability to do well on forage alone), that grain isn’t necessary.
Ruminants have a multiple chambered stomach with a large fermentation vat (called the rumen) filled with billions of micro-organisms just waiting to help digest any kind of plant matter that comes their way. Some people consider cows and sheep compost bins with legs. Basically, partly-chewed and saliva-covered plants go in, manure comes out. (It’s not that simple but you get the idea.) The manure is further broken down and decomposed by everything from dung beetles to soil bacteria, and basically turned into soil.
Ruminants can’t digest plants–from grasses to tree leaves and even some branches–without the help of these tiny organisms in their rumens. They are the ones responsible for feeding the ruminant; the cow, though needs to ingest these plants in order to feed them, in order to feed herself. Without out the rumen bacteria, protists and fungi, she would starve to death. Or at least she’d have to turn omnivorous and eat other animals…
Thanks to these micro-organisms, they break down the plant matter to give her the energy and other nutrients she needs to be able to function, and to raise young, among other things. Even less than half of her entire protein needs come from these microbes when they die…
But does a ruminant really need grain? Like I said, maybe as a supplement, but otherwise grains just aren’t worth the trouble they can be.
Grain for ruminants is really a time-bomb waiting for a place to happen. Load a ruminant animal up too much (let alone, too quickly) on grain and they will either die of bloat, or die of grain overload (acute acidosis). Neither is a good way to go.
Bloat is when an animal can’t burp to release the gases that keep building up in the rumen. Often these gases are trapped in tiny, highly viscous and oily bubbles. The pressure from the rumen can build up so much that it puts pressure on the lungs to the point where the animal can’t breathe, and dies of internal suffocation. Bloat happens when there’s a sudden supply of highly-digestible matter (like grain, or even in a pasture scenario, alfalfa or clover) to the microbes, and they take full advantage of such a rich feast to the detriment of the animal.
Acidosis or grain overload is when the rumen gets very acidic quite quickly with too much starch introduced too quickly. This acid can and will build up because more acidic conditions favours acidic-loving bacteria which create even more acidic conditions in the rumen. Basically, the acidic substance enters the bloodstream and disrupts normal function of organs and such, killing the animal.
Both bloat and acidosis are very common maladies afflicting the feedlot animal, along with respiratory issues from dust and fecal particulate, and other things. This is why things like ionophores (a type of antibiotic) needs to be added to the feed regularly, and pen checkers are a required human resource to check if any sick or dead animals turn up to be treated or moved to the “dead pen” to be necropsied by the vet.
And that’s even when cattle are finally put on a 85%-grain diet the last few weeks before slaughter.
Nope, ruminants don’t need grain. They need forages.
It may seem inefficient to some when they realize that around 80 to 90% of what goes in a cow comes back out the other end. But in a regenerative system where these ruminants are being grazed practically year-round (even in the middle of winter), that’s a non-issue. That manure goes back to feeding the soil, feeding the microbes in the soil and the plants that are fed by the microbes of the soil.
That manure isn’t wasted. It’s used.
What’s a waste is putting ruminants on a feed source that they’re not meant to eat in the first place. Tell me, how dumb is such a thing to even do?
This is why ruminants need to be a part of a holistically managed, regenerative agriculture model, not the industrialized one. They’re far better suited for the job, and they’re better suited to be used for managing the very lands that need them.
And that is why we need these animals to eat some of these crops that we humans can’t even consume or use ourselves. It would also really help if we stopped blaming them for things they weren’t even responsible for in the first place…
Here’s the final thing as well: Even if these crops (which are destructive in every possible way, to the environment, to animals…. and to us) could get into the human food system, even if they are “human food grade” grains and pulses, they honestly shouldn’t. They are as inherently harmful to human health as they are for most animals on this blue ball we call Earth. But that’s another blog folks, so stay tuned!