In order to grow massive amounts of corn and soybeans, two crops at the center of the U.S. food system, farmers in the Midwest typically apply hundreds of pounds of fertilizer on every acre they farm. This practice allows food companies to produce, and consumers to consume, a lot of relatively cheap food.
But that fertilizer can leach through soil and wash off land, polluting our drinking water, destroying our fishing rivers, and turning a Connecticut-sized chunk of the Gulf of Mexico into an oxygen-depleted hypoxic zone, suffocating aquatic life.
Despite environmental groups, non-profit organizations, and the government pressuring farmers in the Midwest to clean up their act, this multi-billion dollar problem has continued to fester for decades. Now some of the world’s wealthiest food companies are concerned about how it could hurt their bottom lines, and they are beginning to join the effort.
“No parent wants to give their kid a glass of milk in the morning that may be linked to these issues,” said Brooke Barton, senior program director for the water program at Ceres. “The biggest risk for these companies is their reputational risk of being associated with toxic algae and hypoxia.”
Ceres helps some of the biggest investment groups understand the environmental risks associated with the companies in which they invest, and has recently turned its attention to the threat of water scarcity caused, in part, by pollution from the agriculture industry.
Fearing a potential backlash from customers, companies like Coke, Nestle, General Mills, and Unilever, maker of Hellmann’s mayonnaise, are beginning to pressure farmers to reduce their contribution to water pollution.
Unilever, which needs a lot of soybean oil to produce its Hellmann’s mayo, launched Sustainable Soy in partnership with the Iowa Department of Agriculture, Archer Daniels Midland, and the non-profit organization, Practical Farmers of Iowa. The campaign for Sustainable Soy comes complete with an advertising campaign featuring the wholesomeness of Unilever’s soybean farmers. The company hopes to enroll 250 farmers and 285,000 acres of Iowa cropland by the end of the year.
While the U.S. Department of Agriculture has guidelines and a certification process for “organic,” no such program is in place to clarify what it means for a farm or a food product to be “sustainable.” Unilever, which has a sustainable agriculture code (pdf) that outlines practices it expects its farmers to adhere to, said for them, it boils down to “continuous improvement.”
“How can they get better yields? How can they use less fertilizer? How can they just better overall improve their practices?” said Stefani Millie, a senior manager for sustainability at Unilever’s U.S. division.
On the path towards improvement, there’s always a first step. For farmers in the Sustainable Soy program, it’s the very basic step of figuring out what they’re doing that could be contributing to the problem.
To convince farmers to share their farming practices, which they protect like a trade secret, Unilever is offering them an extra ten cents for each bushel of soybeans they grow. In exchange, farmers report things like how much fertilizer they spray, what kind, and when. Unilever lays this private information on top of public information about the land’s soil type, proximity to streams and rivers, and the slope of their hills. The result is an environmental footprint of each one of the farmers’ fields.
Though the farmers and their land remain anonymous, Unilever shares this information with the entire group, which allows farmers to see how the fields on their farm compare and how their farm as a whole stacks up against their neighbors’. The result is a little friendly competition that, Millie said, could lead farmers to invest in improvements.
“They can look and see that maybe they’ve got one field that’s using more Nitrogen. And they can go back and say, “Why is this different from my neighbors?” Millie said. “Hopefully it will trigger some of those thoughts and have them investigate to continue to improve their practices.”
Craig Pfantz, who farms more than 2,000 acres of corn and soybeans in State Center, Iowa, signed up when Unilever launched Sustainable Soy three years ago.
“I like it,” Pfantz said. “What got me into it? To be honest? The ten cent premium.”
Now, he says the knowledge he’s gained is more valuable. For instance, Unilever’s environmental footprints of his fields have given him a clearer picture of his farm’s “problem spots.”
Rounding a corner covered in seven-foot tall stalks, Pfantz’s pickup dips into a valley and then climbs a slope. At the top, he idles his truck in the middle of the road, leans against his steering wheel and points through the rain-spattered windshield towards a steep hill covered in forest green soybeans.
“You get a combine on that kind of slope and you’ll wonder, “what am I even doing here?” Pfantz said. “It probably shouldn’t even be farmed.”
Hills like this are prone to erosion. During heavy rains, they wash away fertile topsoil along with the phosphorus Pfantz sprays on the ground to fertilize the crop. Despite utilizing a number of conservation practices—no-till, side-dressing his nutrients, terracing, and grass waterways to slow down the rain—his rolling ground is still vulnerable to washing away.
That’s a financial loss for Pfantz, who spent money on the fertilizer that runs downstream. There’s also the long term cost of the quality of his soil deteriorating, jeopardizing the value of the land which he’ll eventually pass down to future Pfantz generations.
He thinks out loud for a moment, considering what it would take to convert these patches of ground back into small grains, maybe even pasture. But it doesn’t make economic sense.
“It boils down to profit,” Pfantz shrugs. “The whole agricultural system has been developed around corn and soybeans, so we have to make what we have work.”
Pfantz, committed to reducing his environmental footprint, is signing up for the second step offered to farmers in the Sustainable Soy program. This year, he’ll plant a cover crop of cereal rye on his most vulnerable ground. The crop, which he’ll plant after harvesting his corn and soybeans this fall, will spend the winter soaking up extra nitrogen and holding down his phosphorus and soil.
For the next three years, Sustainable Soy will help Pfantz pay for this conservation practice. After that, he’ll have to foot the bill himself. But, Pfantz believes it’ll be worth it.
“You have to look at cover crops as a long term investment—like putting money in the bank,” he said. “You’ll maintain the sustainability of the land which will make it productive for future generations.”
While Pfantz is making some tangible improvements on his farm, there’s a difference between real progress and good PR for the food company pushing him in this direction.
“Ultimately for this to be credible with consumers,” said Brooke Barton from Ceres, “The companies need to show that there are real changes over time in production impacts. Water quality improvements, soil health improvements, this is the end game.”
To really have an impact on water pollution in the Midwest, companies will need to push more farmers from information gathering to action. And just as farmers react to a little coaxing from companies to do a better a job—companies react to pressure from consumers.
Should we eat meat? That’s the big question, which — for this series — I’m asking three different ways: in terms of environmental sustainability, morality, and practicality.
Today, to begin: Can meat be sustainable?
In any comparison of the environmental impact of meat eaters and plant eaters, we have to start by noting that plant eaters have a powerful ally on their side: physics. Every time energy moves from one state to another, a little is lost along the way. Flip on an incandescent bulb and only 8 percent of the electric energy turns into visible light — the majority of energy is lost as infrared light and heat. Convert the calories in corn into meat by feeding a chicken, and you’ve got the same problem.
In even the most efficient, high-tech farms, it takes a pound and a half of grain to grow a pound of chicken — because that chicken is constantly radiating heat and burning energy to move around. The picture gets worse if you just look at the parts of the chicken that people like to eat. The scientist Vaclav Smil, who has a reputation for objective number-crunching, considered this basic issue of thermodynamics in his book, Should We Eat Meat? Evolution and Consequences of Modern Carnivory, and came up with this table:
LW = live weight, EW = edible weight, MJ = mega joules of energyVaclav Smil
According to Smil’s calculations, you need 3.3 pounds of feed to get a pound of chicken meat, 9.4 pounds of feed for a pound of pork, and 25 pounds of feed for a pound of beef. It’s simply more efficient to eat plants than to feed those plants to animals and eat meat.
This efficiency problem puts meat eaters way behind from the beginning, and it extends from energy to every other resource. Look at water use, greenhouse gas emissions, pollution, land-use footprints, and just about anything else, and it’s always going to make more sense to grow grains for people to eat rather than for animals to eat. To take just one example, scientists looked at the amount of nitrogen fertilizer that flows into rivers and creates dead zones in oceans: They calculated that a kilogram of red meat put an average of 150 grams of nitrogen equivalent (in various fertilizers) into waterways, versus 50 grams per kilogram of chicken and less than 3 grams per kilogram of grain.
This idea, that meat is environmentally unfriendly, has been the conventional wisdom since 2006, when the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization published a report called Livestock’s Long Shadow. Which is why I was surprised when Frank Mitloehner, a UC-Davis animal science professor who is leading an update of the FAO’s livestock assessment, told me that the idea of eliminating animals from our food system was ridiculous and, actually, unsustainable.
“Agriculture cannot be sustainable without animal agriculture,” he said. “That is something I’m sure of.”
There are two key points to consider, Mitloehner said. First, most of the feed that livestock eat is not edible by humans. Globally, just 18 percent of animal feed is made up of grains or other crops that people might otherwise eat. The rest is crop residues, grass, and waste from milling grain and other food processing. And so, despite the inefficiency of converting calories to meat, animals are able to give humans access to energy that they wouldn’t have been able to access otherwise.
The second, issue, Mitloehner said, is that what I’d been thinking of as the “waste products” of animal agriculture are actually valuable resources. The manure animals produce is vital for agriculture (especially organic agriculture). “If we were to reduce the fertilizer animals produce by 100 percent, we would have to double or triple the amount of chemical fertilizer we apply, and we just don’t have that,” Mitloehner said.
In addition, every part of the animal that we don’t eat as meat — the skin, bones, sinew, organs, and fat — is used in some way. The artist Christien Meindertsma demonstrated this beautifully with her book Pig 05049, in which she followed every part of a slaughtered pig to its final use. Extract from pig hairs are used in baking bread, bone ash is a key part in train brakes, gelatin is used to filter your beer, elements from blood are used as edible food glue — Meindertsma found 185 products in total. If we were to eliminate animal agriculture, we’d have to find new supply chains for these things, and each would come with its own environmental footprint.
Livestock is especially important to poor farmers. Animals are often a key part of the agro-ecological system and provide high-quality nutrients to the people most likely to go hungry — more frequently in the form of dairy than meat. In some of the poorest areas of the world, people need cattle because manure is their only source of fuel. In his book One Billion Hungry: Can We Feed the World?, Gordon Conway lays out the benefits of livestock animals, which can be easy to forget when you’re rich and comfortable:
-Contribute 40 percent of global value of agricultural output
-Support livelihoods and food security of almost 1 billion people
-Provide food and incomes and consume non-human-edible food
-Contribute 15 percent of total food energy and 25 percent of dietary protein
-Provide essential micronutrients (e.g. iron, calcium) that are more readily available in meat, milk, and eggs than in plant-based foods
-Are a valuable asset, serving as a store of wealth, collateral for credit, and an essential safety net during times of crisis.
-Are central to mixed farming systems, consume agricultural waste products, help control insects and weeds, produce manure and waste for cooking, and provide draft power for transport
-Provide employment, in some cases especially for women
-Have a cultural significance, as the basis for religious ceremonies
But anyone reading this probably is relatively rich and comfortable — at least rich enough that it may be a bit mindboggling to think you might need a cow so you could burn its dung for energy. For those of us living with easy access to energy and cheap calories, would it make ecological sense to reduce our meat consumption? Probably.
I called up Rattan Lal, one of the world’s leading soil scientists, to ask him what he thought about meat eating. I wanted to talk to him because there’s been a lot of excitement about the idea that cattle grazing on grassland could actually be carbon negative — that is, we might need more animals, not less, to combat climate change.
Lal, director of the Carbon Management and Sequestration Center at Ohio State University, had told Washington Post journalist Tamar Haspel that we shouldn’t expect cows to save the world. Haspel wrote:
He says one metric ton per hectare is a reasonable estimate of the maximum [carbon] that grazing can sequester in a place like Ohio, where growing conditions generally are favorable, and a half-ton would be more realistic in drier areas. He supports grass-fed beef but says carbon sequestration “can’t completely compensate for the greenhouse gases in beef production.”
I wanted to double check — was there anything else? Some way that animals are crucial for soil health? When I spoke to Lal, he said it just came down to basic logistics. “In the next 40 years, there are 2.3 billion people coming to dinner. We have invited them — they haven’t made the choice to come. It is our moral duty to insure that they are well fed. The luxury of having so much meat as we do in the U.S. will become less and less feasible as population grows.”
Animals are a key part of the agricultural system, but the people who eat the most meat — the rich of the world — almost certainly need to eat less to make the global food system sustainable, especially as billions rise out of poverty and begin demanding their share.
Smil came to the same conclusion. He says that we should aim for an average of 33-66 pounds of meat per year. The French eat 35 pounds a year, while Americans eat 270 pounds of meat. If we got down to the French level, Smil’s calculations suggest that everyone around the world could have their share of meat, and we could still reduce the farmland used to grow feed from 33 percent of all cropland to 10 percent — with huge environmental benefits.
So can meat be sustainable? The answer, based on the evidence I was able to assemble, seems to be: Yes, but only in moderation. And because we are currently eating so much meat, those who give it up altogether are probably making the most environmentally friendly choice of all.
Next, I’ll tackle the morality of meat eating. And then I’ll turn to what’s probably the most important question of all: It’s fun to debate what we should do, but it’s more important to figure out what we can do, realistically. So after looking at morality, I’ll look at the most pragmatic ways to improve meat production.