Saturday, September 10, 2022

What I have done apart from farming

This is the last of four posts giving an update of what is going on in my life.

Apart from running the farm, writing books and articles and giving lectures, I also do consultancy work. The one I am busy with at the moment is about animal welfare in the supermarkets’ private brands, commissioned by the Animal Welfare Sweden. One thing that strikes me with this job is that most people say that consumers want more information and that transparency is important. Supermarket chains and various certification schemes collect a wealth of information about the suppliers and the agriculture production, almost all of it digital. Nevertheless, there is very little of this information that reaches the consumers, and even less for products under the supermarkets own brands. The truth is that a competitive market doesn’t like transparency at all. Instead if information we get storytelling.

Before that, I spent a lot of time making a report (Koll på kolet) on the carbon cycle in the Swedish food and agriculture system for the Royal Swedish Agricultural Academy (of which I am also a member). It was a big and tedious work but the results were very interesting. To see the total flow is a useful tool for increased understanding the system. The report and data is available here, in Swedish only. One of the many interesting results was that the metabolic food waste, overeating, is as big as what is normally called food waste at the consumer level. Based on estimates of real consumption, calculations based on human metabolism and sewage data as well as calculations based on the weight of the population I came to the conclusion that approximately 2,600 kcal are actually eaten per capita and day. This means that food waste before-the-mouth and overeating are of the same order of magnitude, around 600 kcal per capita and day.

The report also gives a comprehensive overview of the livestock system. A little less than a quarter of all feed is composed of grain and pulses, things that in theory could be eaten also by humans (in reality quite a big proportion is second grade which the food industry rejects). 61% of all feed is consumed by cattle, 11% by pigs, 9% by chicken, 3% by sheep and goats, 2% by pets, reindeer, deer etc. and, probably surprising, 15% by horses (which are only used for leisure or sports).

According to my research feed (carbon) efficiency in pigs is higher than it is in poultry, which seemingly contradicts the often heard statement of highest feed conversion ratio in poultry. Feed conversion ratio is mostly measured in kg feed used per kg of product. But this is a misleading measure as it favors the use of highly concentrated feed. In salmon farming for instance, soy protein isolate is often used, but it takes 3 kg of soy to make 1 kg soy protein isolate. By using soy protein isolate the feed conversion ratio is reduced to a third (you can read more about feed conversion ratio here).

The report confirms the low rate of feed conversion for beef where only around 5% of the carbon ends up in the meat. Almost half of the carbon is going back to the fields in the form of manure though. In the grasslands cropped for hay and silage (approximately 40% of the Swedish acreage) there is net sequestration of carbon and in combination with the recirculation of manure it explains why soil organic matter and soil fertility increases in farms with cattle. Some of the “inefficiency” of the low feed conversion ratio of cattle is compensated for by improved soil fertility and carbon sequestration. One could say that cattle is extremely efficient in building fertility and sequestering carbon in the agriculture eco system. Nevertheless, I find the efficiency discussions rather meaningless as the concept of efficiency is loaded with value judgments and assumptions. It also reduces our domestic animals to machines with no other purpose than being efficient, so it is a bit ironic that so many animal rights activists use the (in)efficiency argument against cattle or other ruminants.

Another interesting study I made some time ago was about the possibilities and challenges for reducing the use of soy in the Swedish livestock production. The report was a working document for the Swedish Society for nature conservation and unfortunately not publicly available. There is a lot of confusion about the production and use of soy, and in particular how much soy is grown for livestock feed. Apart from a very small share of the soy that is used as soybeans to eat or for the production of tofu and other foods, the soybean is processed into three different product, soy meal that is used for animal feed, soy oil which is used for cooking oil, biodiesel and industrial use and lecithin and food ingredient/additive. In the processing approximately 80% becomes soy meal, 19% soy oil and 1% lecithin. For the economy of soy processing and soy cultivation all fractions need to be sold and the price of soy oil is much higher than for the cake. The claims that almost all soy is grown for animal feed is thus quite nonsensical.

Nevertheless, as soy barely can be grown in Sweden there are good reasons for Swedish livestock producers not to use imported soy. Notably, most (56%) of it is used in chicken and egg production. Pigs eat 13%, in beef production very little soy is used (4%) in Sweden, more is used in dairy (24%) and in particular in organic dairy production. The reason for the latter is that there are fewer alternative feedstuffs on the market and that organic producers produce a larger share of their feed, mainly because there are few other alternatives in the market. By producing a larger share of their feed they end up buying more soy as that is the product that they need the most to reach high production. There are, however, organic dairy producers that use no soy at all and there are those that feed grass only.

The abandonment of the use of soy in Swedish livestock production can’t be discussed solely as a replacement strategy where soy is replaces by rape seed meal or any other protein feed. I proposed a battery of actions including:

-        Use of the by-products from wheat ethanol which is currently exported

-        Increase the share of grass in the ration

-        Reducing poultry production, maintain or increase ruminants

-        Increased production of pulses (which is miniscule in Sweden)

-        Increased production of rape seed

-        Increased production of biofuels with a protein rich by product.

The last two points would not be feasible in a scenario with a large share of organic production as rape seed is very difficult to grow organically due to pest problems and there would not be capacity for increased biofuel production from farm land if the share of organic production is high.

Well, those are the kind of jobs I do.

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