Kiwi Post: Lean food production

I was presenting at a meeting the other day. And it seemed to go quite well. I was pontificating on the usual: something vaguely technical with sideswipes at all and sundry. At the end of it, after the questions and polite thanks, we headed off for the tea and biscuits, when a rather daunting lady made a beeline for me.

I could sense trouble, but she disarmed me straight away by telling me what a good presentation it had been and how persuasive my argument was. Then she said, casually, “all a load of bull, but persuasive nevertheless.” So I was intrigued, and mildly concerned. Would she have some esoteric technical argument to negate me? Had I upset MPI with mention of our biosecurity mismanagement?

No, it was worse than that. She was a loony animal rights-type person who thought that modern day farming was worse than child slavery. She thought vets, as animal doctors, were supposed to be speaking out on behalf of animals under our care that are apparently tortured daily. And dairy cows being milked are apparently tortured twice daily. I was the spawn of Satan for suggesting that we could get cows to produce more if we only fed them better.

I sensed fairly quickly that there would be a bit of fun in this. It wasn’t hard to prod her and get a remarkable reaction each time. Was I aware that poor dairy calves were taken away from their mums within 24 hours? I feigned shock because our recommendation to our clients is to take them away within 12 hours, so I asked her to tell me who wasn’t heeding our advice.

Was I aware that “a new modern trend” is to stick a glue-like substance up cows’ teats to stop them milking when we decide to stop them? Again I was able to inform her that in fact we have for a few years also recommended this for young heifers too. I was warming to the theme. I asked her if she was aware how we pregnancy tested them? This was fun.

Then she started talking about how there were millions starving across the world and I should be ashamed of myself because we would be better off growing cereals to feed people first. This of course is a cogent argument because we know that growing cereals to feed cows just to make a different sort of feed is fairly inefficient.

She had moved into an undeniably strong area. Too many on the planet; we need to better feed them; we need sensible and efficient agriculture; cows and milk may not be either: QED. But- and here I accept I may alienate around a quarter of Australian readers; probably three quarters if you’re reading this sat on the Gold Coast- the woman standing lecturing me on the immorality of modern agriculture in a world of hunger was significantly overweight.

We’re not talking marginally large here. This woman was the sort that would spill over into your seat on a plane. The sort of person whose kids haven’t got a chance. And I’m sorry, but in a planet short on food how does she think she’s helping by eating most of it?

We need around 8400kJ of energy daily. Each 1kg of fat is equivalent to 32340kJ, or almost 4 days of food. If 25 per cent of us are seriously overweight, then we’re carrying say 20kg extra around. That’s the equivalent of each of us carrying 80 days’ feed for someone else.

It’s estimated that 3m tonnes of food is wasted annually in Australia. This is each person leaving or throwing away over 100kg of food each year. Food varies of course, but averages around 25kJ/g. So, we’re each throwing away enough waste to feed someone for 300 days.

This woman, then, could have fed a whole extra person by eating less and throwing away less. That’s a doubling of production. For the 10 billion that will soon be on the planet, I‘d like to hope they find this argument more compelling than her idea of making us all vegans.

Of course I have every sympathy with her love of animals- otherwise why work with them- but I guess we diverge on what we should do with them. I think we should farm them and do it efficiently and productively and she thinks we should kill them and grow wheat. I think we should make more food and she thinks she should eat it or throw it away.

Globally, 1.3b tonnes of food is ‘lost’ every year1. This is a third of the world’s total food production. Other industries have embraced ‘lean’ production processes, but it seems to me our food production industry has a lot to gain here. In developing countries, roughly 40 per cent is lost early in the process of production; whereas in developed countries 40 per cent is lost after getting to the plate.

In reality, what we really need to do is get lean- in every sense of the word.


Mark Bryan

  1. Global Food Losses and Food Waste, FAO, 2011

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