Where does our food come from? Pigs and poultry.

Broadcast on Ockham’s Razor ABC Radio National, January 6, 2013

People used to know where their food came from. They grew it and harvested it, or raised it and slaughtered it. However, the separation of people from their food sources has resulted in more than ignorance and misconceptions about how food is produced and has also resulted in massive waste. Returning to a more environmentally sustainable farm system would involve more than change the land, according to rural journalist Asa Wahlquist from Sydney.

Robyn Williams:  2012 saw plenty of discussion about emissions from cattle and pigs and about food waste. It was said that a third of the food we bought for Christmas and the festive season would end up in the tip. WASTED. What to do? Here’s Asa Wahlquist, winner of the Eureka Prize for writing on agricultural themes.
Asa Wahlquist:  When I was in primary school in inner Sydney in the late 1950s we lined up after lunch to walk between two bins. We placed our paper rubbish in one bin. The other was for food scraps which went to pig farms.  At home, our food scraps were fed to our chickens who supplied us with eggs. When they stopped laying my father would chop their heads off and we would have the very rare treat of chicken for dinner.
It’s probably illegal these days to chop the heads off chickens in the inner-city.  And people don’t need to resort to such measures to put chicken on the table. Chicken has gone from a luxury to an everyday food.
Andreas Dubs, the executive director of the Australian Chicken Meat Federation, calculates that 50 years ago chicken cost four times as much as it does today.  The extraordinary decline in the cost of chicken meat is due to the increased efficiency in the way in which the chicken converts feed into meat. In 1975 it took 64 days and 4.66 Kg of feed to produce a chicken weighing two kilograms.  Now it takes just 35 days and as little as 3.4 Kg of feed.
This is nothing short of a triumph for modern agriculture.  But there are several costs.  A growing alienation from the way our food is produced as chicken rearing moved from the backyard to industrial sheds; a dramatic increase in demand for grains and oilseeds; and all those food scraps that now pose a serious waste disposal problem.
In the coming year chicken meat consumption in Australia is expected to reach one million tonnes.  We now eat more chicken than red meat.  That shift incidentally, has registered on the national carbon footprint.  According to Ross Garnaut’s Climate Change Report, for every kilogram of beef 24 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent is produced.  Lamb produces 16.8 Kg.  The figure for port is 4.1 Kg of carbon dioxide equivalent per kilogram of meat and for chicken it is just 0.8 Kg.
Back in 1975, when I was studying plant breeding as part of a degree in agriculture, we visited a chicken farm.  As both of us – yes, we were a class of two, stood in a sea of chickens, our lecturer explained chicken genetics were as simple as plants.  But it was not quite as simple as that.  The rapid growth in chicken meat production per bird came at the expense of behaviour, leg strength and immunity.
A chicken grower I visited last year told me that 15 years or so ago his chickens were massive with tiny little legs, great big long toenails, no feathers on their backs and a very flighty temperament.  A major killer was scratches on the back of their unfeathered legs that became infected.  Nor did chicken farmers emerge unscathed.
But since then the emphasis has been on breeding for health and temperament rather than ever increasing size.  The result is a much more settled flock.  The chickens I saw last year allowed visitors to pick them up without incident and the farmer said he hasn’t had to use antibiotics on his chickens for ten years.
My family became pig farmers in a very modest way after they moved to the country to establish a vineyard.  My brother wanted a pig, so my parents purchased the champion sow from the local show, Big Julie. She was joined by our boar Kennedy and another sow who wandered in one day.  They were set up in open-air yards with access to a paddock where they could graze and we sometimes even created mud wallows.
Those pigs lived a very different life from the ones I observed on another university excursion.  This time it was the entire agriculture class, about 35 of us, mostly rowdy boys.  I still remember how they were all silenced as they filed into the piggery.  It was more factory than farm; the animals were confined, the mothering sows unable even to turn around.  Silently we observed the rows of tail-less pigs that would never see the sun, let alone ever be as happy as a pig in mud.
The first time it was my job to feed my brother’s pigs I was surprised to see meatmeal listed on the ingredients of their prepared feed.  Yes, pigs are omnivores.  One reason farmers detest feral pigs is they will kill and eat baby lambs.
Our family pigs ended up the way they all do.  Their yard was next to the shearing shed that became the winery and that was their death knell.  Our pork cuts had names for some time after that.  My father used to enjoy asking if we would like a slice of Kennedy.
In 2008 the price of grain doubled.  Aid agencies were unable to purchase all the grain they needed.  Some countries placed embargoes on grain exports and there were food riots in half a dozen countries. Grain production had fallen short due to a range of adverse climate events, including drought in Australia, as well as under-investment in grain research and development.
But there were two other factors at play.  Critics condemned the use of grain for fuel and questioned the large quantities of grain being fed to livestock rather than to people. As people’s standard of living rises they switch from grain-based diets to eating more protein.  Across China, Indonesia and other Asian countries the middle class is growing rapidly and with that the consumption of meat.
But all animals are not equal when it comes to converting feed into meat.  Beef requires 6 to 10 kilograms of feed to produce one kilogram of meat; lamb requires six to seven kilograms of feed; pork requires 3.5 to 4 kilograms, but chicken requires just 1.7 kilograms of feed to produce one kilo of meat.  That last figure goes a long way to explaining why chicken is now half the cost per kilograms of beef and why chicken consumption continues to rise.
But wait, feed does not necessarily mean grain.  Cattle and sheep can eat grass.  Traditionally chickens and pigs were an integral part of farms and households where their role was to produce protein from food scraps and farm waste. Today, disposing of food waste is a constant challenge, not to mention expense.  It ends up in dumps where it produces the greenhouse gas methane.
Pigs used to be fed swill which is generally defined as meat or meat products or anything that’s been in contact with meat or meat products.  This practice was banned in Australia in the 1950s due to the risk of diseases like swine fever and foot and mouth, which has not occurred in this country for over a century.  Both affect pigs, neither affects humans.
In Australia you can legally feed milk, eggs, fishmeal, manufactured dog and cat food, dry meat meal, non-meat bakery waste and fruit, vegetable and cereal waste to pigs if you jump through all the hoops, which include the possession of a so-called Pig Pass QA.  That effectively rules out all restaurants, hospitality and food service companies that have any meat products on their menu and makes it very hard for the remainder.
Tara Garnett from the UK’s Food Climate Research Network believes that although poultry and pigs are more efficient converters of plant energy than cattle and produce less greenhouse gas, they do have an environmental problem; they are more dependent on grains.  Instead she argues we should take what she calls an ‘ecological leftovers’ approach.  Rather than feeding livestock good quality grain, we should be feeding them by-products like molasses cake, brewer’s grains, vegetable residues and rice husks.
It does make sense to feed animals stuff we don’t or won’t eat; all that grain ruined by rain at harvest, the residues from food processing, the mountains of food waste.  In Australia household food waste alone amounts to 4 million tonnes a year, while Britons are estimated to throw out between 18 and 20 million tonnes of food per annum,
Simon Fairlie, a British journalist and farmer and author of Meat, a benign extravagance also makes the case for returning to feeding food waste to pigs.  He estimates that in the UK waste food could be used to produce one sixth of their total meat consumption.  But in the UK feeding food waste to pigs was banned in 2001 after the catastrophic outbreak of foot and mouth disease.
Until the 1990s only one third of pig feed in the UK consisted of grains that were fit for human consumption; the rest was made up of crop residues and food waste.  Since then the proportion of good grain in pig feed has doubled.  Fairlie says there are several reasons for this; the rules set by supermarkets and the domination of the feed industry by large corporations which can’t handle waste from many different sources.  But the most important is the ban on food waste that came in after the BSE or mad cow and foot and mouth crises.
The UK pork industry halved between 1998 and 2007.  Britons still eat the same amount of pork; only now much of it is imported.  Fairlie describes the feedlot beef industry in which cattle are removed from grazing on grasslands and instead fed on grain as, and I quote “one of the biggest ecological cock-ups in modern history”.  He argues “cattle are excellent converters of grass but terrible converters of concentrated feed like grain”.
Alan Bell, the former head of CSIRO Livestock Industries points out the use of grain to feed chicken and pigs must be factored into any comparison between the environmental cost of their meat and that of beef and lamb. Cattle and sheep have the distinct advantage of being able to digest grass, thanks to the bacteria in their rumen, but that also produces the potent greenhouse gas methane.  Cattle have been vilified for their emissions, but that’s only part of the story. 60% of the world’s farmland is grasslands; there simply is no other way to produce food from it apart from grazing ruminants.  Pigs and poultry don’t have rumens, so they need other more digestible sources of feed.
Bell argues that if you just assess the efficiency of ruminants in terms of energy they always come out worse because of their inefficient digestive systems.  But if you use a ratio of human inedible input to human edible output, then ruminants often come out on top.
Roger Campbell, the CEO of the Pork Co-operative Research Centre, tells me the pork industry would love to be able to make use of the food that we waste but it needs a system that eliminates any health risk to pig and to human.  And that means an agreement between a wide range of sectors, including vets, human health authorities and local government.  It is a problem way beyond just the pork industry.  It is, he says, a community problem.
Cattle, sheep, pigs and chickens, grass, grain and food waste are all part of a complex picture.  Change one part, for example by giving up eating beef, or ending the feeding of food waste to pigs and the impact is felt elsewhere in the system.  The great tragedy is most of us now live in cities and we are too far removed from the farm to see or feel these changes. Or, I fear, to make informed decisions about how our meat is produced.  After all, when was the last time you fed your vegetable scraps to a pig?
Robyn Williams:  Never. Only birds. Asa Wahlquist.

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