My beef with plant-based protein’s half-truths

The plant-based protein industry vilifies beef with half-truths, misleading statistics, and narrow-minded perspectives. Consumers must hear from beef producers and farmers of a more viable path to better beef before getting caught in the hype and profit of media outlets and plant-based food companies.

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The Economist recently shared a Daily Chart entitled: Switching to plant-based protein could increase America’s food supply by a third. In support of this assertion, it compared the opportunity costs of producing beef rather than broccoli and noted that beef production takes 80% of agricultural land and produces 18% of the world’s calories. 

Four years ago, I didn’t know much about beef production, farming, or agriculture in general. I was an average consumer living in a big city with many preconceived notions about meat and livestock. Since then, I have immersed myself into this world as an academic, a journalist, and most importantly, a farmer, but I can still clearly recall the mindset of an average consumer. 

Along the way, many things that would once surprise me about how we make beef in this country are now germane. But the one thing that continues to rattle me on a daily basis is the profound lack of knowledge that we have as a society about meat production. 

As we continue to debate the proper role of livestock in our food system an awful lot of people who have never set foot on a farm are trying to educate consumers on food system issues with global consequences. My farmer colleagues have a hard time understanding how consumers can so readily subscribe to some of the deeply misguided plant-based protein rhetoric. But having recently known very little about this industry, I can easily see the major gap between the truth about beef production and the average consumer’s understanding of it. 

Take land use, for example, as the Economist did. 

Yes, beef production uses more land than poultry or pork production. Some people glom on to this statistic presuming that more land means more bad. But one of the main reasons that poultry production doesn’t use as much land as beef is because it has largely developed to rely on industrial-scale grow houses where hundreds of thousands of birds are confined for the duration of their lives, never setting foot outside. 

Cattle, on the other hand, are predominantly raised on rangelands that are not suitable for crop production where they graze forages that are inedible to humans and other monogastrics. The beef production cycle starts at a cow-calf operation, which is a farm or ranch where cows are kept and bred to produce calves. Steers are butchered at roughly 15 to 28 months of age, spending on average only the last five months of their lives in a feedlot. This means that a beef animal spends two-thirds to four-fifths of its life on pasture in its natural habitat. 

Conventionally raised poultry and hogs, by comparison, never set foot outside their confinement houses.

And before you assume that more land just means more cattle, consider that close to 9 billion meat birds are butchered in the US annually, according to USDA data, compared to 65.5 million head of cattle. And while there are 913,246 cattle operations in the US nearly 80% of them are pasture-based cow-calf operations or stocker operations were calves are raised for a short period before heading to a feedlot. The other 20% are feedlots.

So, yes: beef production requires more land than meat birds and broccoli. More land means that pastures in these cow-calf operations will have adequate time to rest and regrow between grazing. It means that cattle are able to spend most of their lives on pasture expressing their natural behaviors and eating a species-appropriate diet. It means that the independent farmers who own those ranches and those herds are preserving open space against the rising tide of urban sprawl. It means that wildlife species have a place to call home as the highways, supercenters, and suburban kingdoms pave over any evidence of the natural world.

What’s even more frustrating about The Economist’s infographic is its attempt to equivocate broccoli and beef from a nutritional standpoint. Reducing the debate about livestock production to nothing more than a calorie-for-calorie swap ignores the vast differences in the nutrients that different food sources provide. Beef has double the proteins that soybeans offer with greater bioavailability than plant-based proteins. A 100g serving of steak offers 84% of the daily recommended intake of vitamin B12, which you can’t find in soy -- or broccoli for that matter.

And when it comes to the energy conversion rationale, there are serious flaws with the math that many use to suggest that it takes more energy to convert grain to a pound of beef than it does to simply feed those grains to humans. As a prime example, 86% of what livestock including cattle, poultry, and pigs eats consists of materials that are inedible by humans like roughage and agricultural byproducts, according to UN FAO research. When it comes to cattle, 90% of their diet comes from forage. Even in the feedlot phase, the average finishing ration contains only 38% grain. In poultry and pork production where the animals are born and raised in confinement, grain makes up more than 50% of their diets.

Sure, plant-based protein may increase our food supply by one-third, but studies have shown that the average diet would suffer from an excess of energy and greater nutrient deficiencies. We already have a problem with excess carbohydrates in our food system and a lack of proper nutrients

More calories isn’t necessarily a good thing. This doesn’t necessarily mean healthier people.

We’d also have to import more food, produce a lot of synthetic fertilizer to replace animal manure, and find a new way to get rid of the massive amount of inedible vegetable waste that we currently feed to livestock. We’d have to find something else to feed our 184 million strong pet population, too.

But plant-based protein companies and the media fail to include those items in their balance sheets when they remove livestock from the picture. All of those activities generate greenhouse gases. As a result removing livestock from the picture only reduces total US greenhouse gas emissions by 2.6%.

I find myself being less of an observer these days and more of an advocate for the beef industry. Of course, there are many aspects in which it can improve. From more financial support for livestock producers to implement regenerative grazing practices - which can benefit grain-finishers and grass-finishers alike - to finding technologies that will improve the slaughtering process for both animals and plant workers.

But what I can’t tolerate is the plant-based protein industry’s suggestion that the entire livestock industry ought to be tossed out the window. So many assumptions are being made about beef production that are based on half-truths and they are being offered to consumers as the complete picture. After all, when is the last time you read an article advocating for plant-based protein that included a beef producer’s perspective? 

If the plant-based protein industry wanted to start some beef about climate change with the cattle industry it should have politely offered us a seat at the table first. Perhaps then they would see that the more viable path is to find ways to make better meat instead of throwing the bovine out with the bath water.

Consumers are more curious than ever about farming, which is the best asset we have in changing this food system for the better. But, unfortunately, it’s also something that a lot of alternative protein companies are trying to exploit either intentionally or as a result of their own ignorance about beef production and media outlets are getting caught up in the hype. 

Lauren Stine, Esq., LL.M., is a cattle farmer, agricultural law professor at the University of Arkansas School of Law, food journalist, and contributor to the forthcoming documentary and book project Sacred Cow: The environmental, nutritional, and ethical case for better meat.