Raising the steaks

Raising the steaks

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Raising the steaks - the need to value beef.
Below is an excerpt of my 2014 thesis for my masters on my chosen topic, beef.

Personal Introduction
This thesis topic stemmed from my love of cows. I have always had a deep admiration for cattle and I believe them to be highly intelligent animals. Cattle are one of the world’s most successful species on earth (Doherty, J 2013). In his book, Beyond Beef, the Rise and Fall of the Cattle Culture, Jeremy Rifkin traces the deep-seated significance of cattle in human culture; from being one of the first animals that humans domesticated in Mesopotoamia, to its importance in drafting for the production of crops, to providing food for human consumption, to becoming a sacred animal representing a goddess of abundance in India (Rifkin, 1993). Cattle have been there throughout the entire timeline of human history. I believe more credit should be given to the humble cow and its contributions.

However, I also love eating beef. When properly produced, beef is one of life’s greatest joys.

Then my eyes were opened to the fact that we are currently facing the biggest environmental and humanitarian crisis of our time, with much being blamed on the production of cattle. The more I learnt, the clearer it became, we must change the way we raise and consume  beef. But does this mean committing to veganism or vegetarianism? Surely we can find a way to enjoy meat but eat it more sustainably?

This question is where my thesis topic was born.

Using my background in communications, marketing and public relations, combined with my Masters degree in Food Culture and Communication, majoring in Food, Place and Identity, I am proposing the simple idea of valuing the beef we eat by consideration of its qualities. This idea was further supported by my internship at Daylesford, a sustainable organic farm in the UK. It was there that I got to see the opportunities, success and therefore possibilities of valuing the beef we eat.

To conduct research for this project I visited and interviewed over 15 beef producers, who all farmed different breeds of cattle in different way. I conducted interviews with anyone involved in the industry that was willing to share their opinions; I spoke to butchers, restaurateurs, meat distributors, slaughterhouses, internationally renowned chefs, beef graders, retailer owners and marketers. These interviews were either conducted on site, via email, on the phone or over a dinner of beautiful, high quality beef. Part of my research involved visiting a small family run slaughterhouse up in the North of England. I saw it as an important link between cow and beef that I needed to experience. Whilst confronting, it highlighted the sacrifice cattle give, and confirmed the need to value beef. Quite interestingly, I did also try to approach a number of industrial producers and supermarket suppliers. No response was given. A suggestion is later given by Alex Renton on why transparency is so murky in the industrial systems.

The more stories I consumed, the more people I talked to, the clearer it became. The overall message was the same. Eat beef, but eat less and eat better.  

Whilst talking about the global impact of producing cheap beef, this paper will look specifically at producers in Italy and The United Kingdom with an additional focus on Australia. This is due to my experience in Italy throughout my master’s study, my time spent in the UK via my internship (and the ease of communicating with producers that speak the same language) and of course due to my nationality being Australian.

This paper is not about feeding the world, but by recognizing beef as a valuable source, a celebrated high quality food, we are not only encouraged to acknowledge and pay respect to the animal but also to those in the food system that provide it – the farmers, the distributors and the butchers. Furthermore, by identifying its value, we will be less inclined to waste it. Not only would this new-found consideration be beneficial for our heath, but it is also good for the environment and, if eating less of it means we are able to afford better quality meat, from producers who care, then it is good for the cows too.


The need to value beef
There are 59 billion animals alive at any one time, farmed for their meat. The world’s domestic cattle weigh 16 times as much as all the wild animals on the planet put together. 60% of the globe’s agricultural land is used for beef production, from growing grain to raising cows. Alex Renton, 2013

Livestock’s impact on the environment is already huge, and it is growing and rapidly changing. Global demand for meat, milk and eggs is fast increasing driven by rising incomes, growing populations and urbanization. Henning Steinfeld, 2006

In the Western world, we eat too much meat. The quest for ever cheaper meat has caused a web of water and air pollution that is not only damaging human health but also the climate and the earth’s biodiversity. (Sutton, M. 2013). Changing the way we eat meat is probably the most significant and urgent step we need to take to eat more sustainably. However, eating sustainability doesn’t necessarily mean committing to veganism or vegetarianism or even hard and fast rules on what we can and cannot eat.  In fact, these approaches not only seem unrealistic but impossible to expect from the average consumer. As Colin Sage puts in his paper, Making and Un-making meat: Cultural boundaries, environmental thresholds and dietary transgressions, it is hard to imagine under prevailing norms how this (veganism) might become a more widespread feature of contemporary eating. (Sage, C. 2014) In addition, Jeffery Pilcher, in his book, Food in World History, points out that “a world of six billion simply does not have the option of abandoning modern agriculture entirely and embracing a romanticized peasant past” (Pilcher, J 2006). It is clear that we must change the way we produce food and the way we consume it. So the question is how to move forward, despite these challenges.

This paper focuses on beef and the need to value it. For most people beef is beef but what if we approached it in a different way? What if we took more consideration of how we buy and eat meat? What if factors like origin, terrior, seasonality, sex, breed, pasture, feed, and age came into play? Imagine thinking about a cut of beef like we would a fine red wine. Would it make us stop and think about that piece of meat? The animal that gave it to us, the producer that bred it, the distributor that put it on our plate. Would we then have more consideration for it?

The aim of this paper is to show that beef has qualities that can give people a greater perspective, understanding and knowledge when buying and eating beef. In ancient times, slaughtering an animal for a feast was a ritual that celebrated the animal's life and death, and could feed people for a week. Meat was not an everyday product. It was valued, savoured and shared. Food activist and journalist, Michael Pollan suggestions that "We need to go back with our meat eating, to a point where meat was special, because for our health and the health of the environment we can't continue to keep eating meat the way we are." (Pollan, M. 2013). The idea of eating less but eating better becomes relevant.

But let’s start with modern cattle.  These are not the happily grazing, grass-eating cattle that we see occasionally scattered along the lush countryside. No, these are cattle that spend their short lives crammed into steel pens called feedlots fulfilling the demand for cheap meat. There is no shade, no shelter and no grass on the ground, only dust. They are fed a mixture of 15kg per day of corn, liquefied fat (possibly rendered from animal carcasses), protein supplement (comprising molasses and urea), silage and antibiotics (Sage, C. 2011). In his book, The Omnivores Dilemma: The search for a Perfect Meal in a Fast-food world, Michael Pollan concludes that the latter are critical in keeping the animal healthy  - or, at least healthy enough until its slaughter after five months – as the diet puts enormous strain on the animal’s capacity to digest a diet it was never designed to consume. (Pollan, M. 2006). The problem doesn’t stop with the welfare of the cow. While the cow converts this daily intake of foreign food, it evidently converts a great deal into waste. This not only seeps through into the groundwater but it also runs off to streams, oceans and lagoons creating dead areas which are no longer ecosystems for life (Sage, C. 2011). Animal agriculture is the leading cause of species extinction, ocean dead zones, water pollution, and habitat destruction (Steinfeld, et al 2006). UNEP in their 2013 report of industrial agriculture warns, "Unless action is taken, increases in pollution and per capita consumption of energy and animal products will exacerbate nutrient losses, pollution levels and land degradation, further threatening the quality of our water, air and soils, affecting climate and biodiversity." (UNEP, 2013). As uncovered in the documentary Cowspiracy, livestock and their by-products account for 51% of all worldwide greenhouse gas emission, whilst the more publicised issue of fossil fusels sits at a mere 13%. (Cowspiracy, 2014)

Then there is the issue with water. In his book, Environment and Food, Colin Sage puts the water impact of intensely raising beef into terms that we can grasp more easily, “it takes around 15 cubic metres (m3) of water to produce 1kg of beef” (Sage, C. 2011). Rifkin goes one step further and explains that a “single boneless steak requires up to 5,540 litres of precious water to produce” (Rifkin, J. 1993). In another hard fact to swallow, global meat consumption has been estimated at 228 million tonnes (FAO, 2009) and is expected to double by 2050 to 465 million tonnes. Given that livestock currently accounts for 40% of global grain production (Sage, C 2014) by 2050 livestock will be consuming food that could feed 4 billion people directly (Carolan, M. 2011).

Many believe that the horrors of feedlots and slaughterhouses are exaggerated but animal behavioral scientist, Temple Grandin reveals shocking and unnecessary horrors that are going on to meet the demand for cheap beef. She reported “deliberate acts of cruelty occurring on a regular basis” at 32% of the industrial slaughterhouses she visited in the US, including a worker dismembering a fully conscious cow; and suspending large cattle and veal calves upside down by one hind-leg with no religious justification” (Grandin, T. 1999). In another case in 2012, the U.S. Department of Agriculture temporarily closed Central Valley Meat Co. after reviewing video footage from the animal rights group Compassion Over Killing, which said it had captured images of torture and intentional cruelty to cows (Los Angeles Times, 22 Aug 2012). As a response to the public outcry of horrific footage of cattle being beaten, whipped and kicked prior to being slaughtered in Indonesian abattoirs, The Australian Government placed a temporary ban on live cattle exports in 2011. Further, as recent as 2 February 2015, The Food Standards Association in the UK was forced to close a Yorkshire abattoir after video footage emerged off workers “kicking, hacking and sawing at animals’ throats, taunting and frightening animals by waving knives, smacking them on the head and shouting at them and one worker even standing on the neck of a conscious cow and bouncing up and down” (The Guardian, 3 Feb 2015).  Alex Renton, in his book Planet Carnivore: Why cheap meat costs the earth (and how to pay the bill), concludes that “the business of meat production is secretive; if it were public, it would lose customers. Cheap meat means corners cut on safety, health and welfare: humane treatment generally slows down a production line ” (Renton, A. 2013).

Lastly, the process of global dietary convergence featuring high levels of meat consumption is having a detrimental effect on human and environmental health (Friel et al 2009, Cannon 1999, Sage, C 2014). Cancer, heart disease and obesity have all been associated with high-level consumption rates of modern day beef.

There is a clear need for change in the way we treat, produce and eat beef. Whilst it is important to outline the problems associated with the over-consumption of beef, this paper will not delve any further, for that will result in a paper itself, and these global challenges have been written about extensively. Other important topics that will not be discussed deeply here, due to the scope of this paper, (although it has been considered when forming this argument) is the reasons for the growing consumption of meat and the problems associated with feeding the world. The green revolution changed many things world-wide including the way cattle are raised, slaughtered and processed. (Pilcher, J. 2006). Another contributing factor was that “eating large qualities of meat has become a cultural imperative throughout much of the world, having become a sign of affluence and modernity and a right of consumer choice” (Carolan, M. 2011). Whilst this paper argues for beef to be considered a high quality product and therefore may be viewed as a symbol of wealth, it encompasses more than just status of eating beef. It is about eating better quality beef via consumer education, transparency, consideration of qualities and connection with the producer. A case study examining the cost of eating beef in an average UK household as been conducted to demonstrate that the idea of eating less, but eating better is open to more than just the affluent. This is found in the appendix of this paper (appendix 1).

For full paper, please drop me a line. Lizzie


A year in Italy

A year in Italy