Why Do Food Waste Advocates Give Meat A Pass? – Forbes

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that 30 to 40 percent of good food is … [+] wasted. That’s nothing compared to the 25 calories spent to produce just one calorie of beef.
I’ll admit it: I’m a people watcher. While sitting by myself at a local café recently, I witnessed one little slice of life that I keep thinking about. Two people at a table near mine, ostensibly on a first or second date, were finishing up their lunches when one asked the other if she wanted a box to take home the rest of her sizable salad. She declined, and her companion raised his eyebrows.
“You know, a third of all food goes to waste,” he said.
He went on to inexpertly explain what a carbon footprint is – all while inhaling the last bites of a meatball sub. I couldn’t help but wince at the irony.
He was technically correct, but his smug lesson completely missed a much larger point: the image that comes to mind when we think about “food waste,” i.e., tossing out good food for no good reason, is hardly a blip when compared to the wastefulness of the meat industry.
Bruce Friedrich, executive director of the Good Food Institute, a non-profit organization that advocates for alternative proteins – like plant-based and cell-cultured meat – illustrated this point during a 2018 TEDx talk. He opened his speech by handing one heaping plate of spaghetti to an audience member and tossing eight more into the trash, to a chorus of gasps and murmurs from a (justifiably) scandalized audience. He had a point, of course – most of us can recognize various reasons, economical and environmental, why food waste is bad. But one of the most egregious examples of food waste largely manages to escape popular attention: the production of meat.
It’s not even that livestock farming operations necessarily have wasteful practices (though there’s certainly plenty to examine there), it’s just that even under optimal circumstances, the production of meat, per calorie, requires considerable inputs to get any output whatsoever. Specifically, in the case of chicken, it takes nine calories of feed to produce one calorie of meat for the end consumer – that’s the ratio Friedrich was illustrating. And poultry is actually one of the more efficient types of meat, input to output (though it has other unique downsides).
The livestock industry has a metric to describe the efficiency of inputs versus outputs in raising animals: feed conversion ratios, or FCR. It’s not a per-calorie metric like Friedrich was using, but rather it refers to how much feed an animal needs to grow one kilogram. Chickens typically require between 1.5 and 1.9 kg of feed to grow 1 kg of body weight. Cattle, meanwhile, require between 4.5 and 7.5 kg of feed to grow just 1 kg, and pork falls somewhere between the two. It requires money and land to grow corn and soy, the crops most commonly fed to livestock. Those crops have their own carbon footprint from standard farming practices like soil manipulation and the use of fertilizer, not to mention costs of processing and transportation. And since animals need to eat anywhere from 1.5 to 7.5 times their weight in food, these inputs all get compounded, which is how we end up getting Friedrich’s figure that less than 10 percent of the calories used to raise meat actually end up on someone’s plate.
But the irony, as Dr. Jillian Fry, Assistant Professor of Public Health at Towson University, points out to me, is that the FCR is actually too generous: “It compares the weight of feed to weight gain, but only a portion of the animals are eaten by people. Depending on the species, up to 60 percent of an animal may be inedible to humans—the bones, guts, etc. That’s why using environmental footprints and comparing calories and protein in animal feed to calories and protein that enters our food supply is important. A third or less of calories and protein contained in feed make it to people as meat.” Any way you measure it, raising meat means putting in a lot more than you’re getting out.
It’s hard to blame individuals for not realizing any of this, given that even major food waste nonprofits skirt the issue entirely. ReFED, one of the larger and more recognizable organizations that focus on reducing food waste, makes an alarmingly misleading point on their website. They say that compared to produce, “seafood and meats are the most expensive food types and the two least wasted.” It’s pretty bleak to see an organization focused on “data-driven solutions” to food waste all but give meat a pass. Stuffing food into mouths instead of garbage cans might be good optics, but it doesn’t counteract the waste happening well before the food reaches consumers.
And the disconnect is much broader. Dr. Fry recently published a paper with colleagues that found very different framing of these two issues, food waste and sustainable diet shifts, in the media. “Our analysis of newspaper articles revealed robust collaborations and available funding for organizations working to reduce food waste, and journalists framed the issue as important and noncontroversial,” she says. “At the same time, coverage of the need to shift diets toward plants for sustainability often framed the issue as though it is open for debate, despite overwhelming evidence of the need to shift diets in high-income countries to address climate change, overuse of resources, and water pollution.”
The data backs her up. According to a recent study published in the American Journal of Health Promotion, the feed-to-food caloric conversion efficiency of beef is just 3 percent, with pork and chicken only slightly better at 9 percent and 13 percent, respectively. The study’s authors concluded that “all conventional animal meat requires more environmental resources than non-meat alternatives” (emphasis mine). And all of that waste adds up: in a 2016 study, researchers from Israel, the United States, and Switzerland found that replacing beef with a plant-based alternative could sustain as many as 190 million more people. But despite being a woefully inefficient product, the global beef industry is valued at $467 billion and growing. It just reeks of wasted food, opportunity, and most of all – money.
In our idyllic imagination, cows live on pastures throughout their entire life, grazing on grass which is indigestible for humans and thus actually creating calories. But the reality is that the vast majority of meat we eat doesn’t come from pasture-raised cows, it comes from cattle who spend a portion of their lives on grass, but the rest in industrial feedlots. In recent years, 77 percent of cattle came from large feedlots of 1,000 animals or more. And those cows raised at an industrial scale aren’t eating grass anymore; they’re eating corn, soybeans, wheat, and other grains – which their digestive systems aren’t even meant to process. It’s also worth noting that many more chickens are raised than cows, and both chickens raised for meat and eggs eat primarily corn and soybeans.
Now of course, it’s not as though we could simply shut down every livestock operation and redirect all of the corn, soy, and wheat grown for animals into food for humans instead. For one thing, humans both need and desire a variety of nutrients that those crops alone cannot provide. But it still begs the question: when almost 10 percent of the world’s population suffers from severe food insecurity, and when even relatively affluent populations are trying to pinch pennies thanks to inflation and rising gas prices, why are we pouring resources into growing food to feed livestock instead of people? Divesting from an industry that puts the majority of resources it uses to waste seems like an obvious way to feed the world more efficiently and cost-effectively. Our heavy investment in the meat industry has been called a “crime against humanity,” and though it sounds dramatic, it’s hardly an exaggeration. While the industry remains focused on making money off a grotesquely inefficient product, hundreds of millions of people are quite literally starving.
When local, state, and federal governments go after the issue of food waste, their focus is typically on the retail or consumer level – stores and individuals tossing out viable food. It’s not hard to see why – as Friedrich demonstrated – seeing fully formed meals going into the garbage is easily recognized as egregious because of how unnecessary and avoidable it is. The USDA estimates that between 30 and 40 percent of our food goes to waste at these stages, which of course is an upsettingly large proportion. But considering how much waste is just inherent to the process of raising livestock, to the point where only 1/9 calories used actually ends up in the finished product you pick up from the deli case, food waste in the more traditional sense is virtually a rounding error by comparison. If there are solutions we can take to reduce food waste at any point in the supply chain, we certainly ought to. (After all, as journalist Kenny Torrella notes in Vox, according to USDA data from 2010, Americans throw out 26 percent of meat at the retail and consumer level, which means hundreds of millions of animals enter factory farms unnecessarily.) But we stand the chance to make a much bigger impact by starting earlier in the production cycle: by reconsidering what we grow.
Wherever you stand on the ethics on meat consumption and the politics of climate change, the numbers don’t lie – it’s just not very efficient to feed the world by raising livestock. Rerouting even a fraction of the resources we currently pour into meat production toward growing plant-based foods could mean a massively improved return on investment for those in business, and on the consumer’s end, a fuller grocery cart for less money. If we could all be getting more for less, what are we waiting for?
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