Monday, 25 October 2010

mega dairy in Lincolnshire

I watched Countryfile on BBC1 last night. The main subject for discussion was the proposed American style mega dairy in Nocton in Lincolnshire. Animal welfare and ecological problems were the main reasons for objections to the proposed farm. The most important objection, however, is something that was not mentioned at all. Ever larger amounts of the world's crops are fed to animals instead of to people. This sort of farm, new to Britain, is taking us further in the wrong direction.

On the programme last night Adam Henson went to America to see one of these massive dairies and interview Gordie Jones who runs one of them. Gordie said something that in itself was true, and gets to the nub of the issue.

One of the challenges, in the next 40 years, we'll have 9 billion people on this planet. In the next 40 years we have to make as much food as we've made since the beginning of time on a planet-wide scale.

The problem is that intensive dairy farms where cows are fed maize and soya instead of grazing on grass are not net producers of food. Consider it in terms of inputs and outputs. The most important input is cattle feed. Cattle feed is mostly maize and soya, with some wheat and barley. Grains and soya beans. We don't grow maize and soya in Britain, so it has to be imported. The output is milk and meat.

We feed large quantities of grain and soya to animals to get small amounts of milk and meat. Doesn't matter whether you measure it in terms of calories or of protein. You get less out of it than you put in. One statistic I've got is that it takes 6 to 8 kg of grain to produce 1 kg of beef. Some sources say that it is even more than that.

If people couldn't eat maize and soya, then the best thing to do with it would be to feed it to domesticated animals like chickens, pigs and cattle as we mostly do now. However, maize was domesticated in Mexico thousands of years ago as a starchy staple for humans. Soya beans were domesticated in East Asia thousands of years ago and are an excellent cheap protein source as well as starch. Cattle were domesticated so that they could eat the grass that we could not and then we could eat them or drink their milk.

You may say that people don't want to eat maize and soya beans. I would much prefer to eat beans and vegetables cooked together and flavoured with chili and coriander in a maize flour tortilla than a cheeseburger. Soya beans taste much the same as any other bean but they are probably the healthiest bean. They can also be eaten in the form of tofu or tempeh.

Gordie pointed out that people want cheap food. This is not true. If people wanted to eat cheaply they could become vegans. Animal protein is the most expensive form of protein. I am not a vegan, I am not even a vegetarian. I eat meat sometimes but I only eat it when I know that I am going to enjoy it. That might mean more expensive meat or it might not. If I pay twice as much for some tasty chicken as for tasteless intensively-reared chicken then I might eat half as much. That way I'm not paying more for my meat.

People think that they need lots of protein. They are mistaken in that. In Britain and the USA people, even poor people, eat at least double the amount of protein they need and often three times as much as they need. Grain derived foods such as bread, pasta and rice are typically 10% protein. They can provide as much protein as someone needs, and throw in a few beans and you can be sure you have enough protein.

In Britain and the USA people are used to fast food and processed food. They are used to the taste of fat, sugar and salt. They can learn to enjoy food more, save money and improve their nutrition. All at the same time.

Another thing that Gordie said was that people seem to like traditional dairy farms but they don't want to pay for them. He made fun of these small farms, likening them to a 'Fisher Price toy', and said they are 'not sustainable any more'. However, if the cows on small farms are fed on grass, and grass is the only thing that will grow on that land, then that farm is a net food producer and can help to feed the world, including the poor. Unlike Gordie's farm that makes unhealthy food for affluent Americans while poor Mexicans go hungry because they can't afford the maize to make their tortillas.

Jay Rayner on the Channel 4 programme 'Food: What Goes in your Basket' said this about intensive farming. He was talking about the increases in the price of meat and how people will respond to them.

There has to be a way of sourcing animal protein for people at price people can afford. Which leads me back to intensive farming. It's cheap meat that answers a need. The solution? There have to be improvements to provide indoor animals with a better life. But whatever you think of it, I think it's a necessary industry and it's not going away. All we can do is make it more palatable.

No. We cannot continue to feed 50% of the world's wheat, 80% of its maize and 90% of it's soya to animals. We cannot feed ever larger amount of crops to chickens, pigs and cattle. There are billions of these animals. It is an inefficient system. It is a system that converts large amounts of healthy food into a smaller amount of unhealthy food at the same time as making it more expensive. Saying that these mega farms are efficient is like buying a 4 x 4 car and saying it is efficient because it is the least gas-guzzling 4 x 4 on the market.

Jay said that people will respond to increases in the price of meat by eating less free range and organic meat and more intensively-reared meat. Some people will do this. Others, the more informed ones, will eat less meat and more bread, pasta and rice. Not only will they not pay more for their meat but their health will benefit too.

We can feed 9 billion, but it won't be on burgers and shakes. These new dairy and pig farms are taking us in the wrong direction and should not be allowed.

The Indpendent did an interesting article about the proposed dairy farms in Lincolnshire and pig farm in Derbyshire in June this year.

I am aware that before maize and soya are used for animal feed they usually have the oil extracted. Some would say that animal feed is a byproduct of the vegetable oil industy. However, maize has more starch than oil I would think and some protein. Soya contains protein, starch and oil. I would say the vegetable oil is a byproduct of the animal feed industry. In any case vegetable oil has very little positive contribution to make human nutrition. Oil from maize and soya is high in omega-6 which is not good and is used in processed foods, fast foods and unhealthy fried foods in the home.

I am also aware that much wheat is not suitable for bread or pasta making. In a cold rainy year wheat may not have developed sufficiently for human consumption. This does not alter what I have said, we should be eating more wheat not feeding half of it to animals.

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