Category Archives: Meat

Organic and conventional Swedish pork production compared

Organic Swedish pig production according to KRAV’s regulations performed better than conventional Swedish pig production on 11 of 20 sustainability indicators if the comparison was made per kg of pork, and on 18 out of 20 indicators if the comparison was made per hectare. The indicators included both environmental, social and economic aspects. The organic pork had poorer economic sustainability at the farm and slaughterhouse level, but better at retail compared to the conventional one. Climate impact was the same for both systems, while organic production had a higher risk of eutrophication and acidification, but lower for ecotoxicity, negative impact on biodiversity and loss of soil carbon. The social risk for the pigs was significantly lower in organic production, but there are risks for social problems for workers and local communities associated with imported soy and the use of renewable energy.

In a so-called Life Cycle Sustainability Assessment (LCSA), the environmental, social and economic sustainability of Swedish organic pig production has been compared with that of Swedish conventional pig production. The results were calculated per 1000 kg of boneless cooked pork and per 1000 hectares of pig production. For the environmental part, common indicators such as climate impact, eutrophication and acidification were used, but also indicators that are less common such as toxicity to assess adverse effects from emissions of toxic substance (for example as a result of the use of pesticides), effects on biodiversity and the change in soil carbon.

With regard to social sustainability, so-called social life cycle analysis (SLCA) was used in which the “social risk” for workers (in feed production, on the pig farm and in the slaughterhouse), the local community, actors in the value chain, society, consumers and pigs was assessed based on a large number of social aspects on a scale from 0 (no risk) to 100 (very high risk). One aspect for workers was, for example, the risk of child labor. For example this was judged to be low for soy workers in Brazil (applies to imported soy in conventional production). The welfare of the pigs was assessed using 19 indicators that included, for example, the incidence of various diseases and injuries, outdoor access, access to roughage and distraction materials, etc. Data was obtained from previous scientific studies, statistics, reports and from a global database of social aspects (Soca). Risks in different subsystems were aggregated based on how long it took to produce 1000 kg of pork or conduct 1000 hectares of pig production. This means, for example, that the conditions for the pig during rearing plays a greater role than the conditions during slaughter, as the pig spends much longer time on the farm.

Economic sustainability was measured with the indicator Value Added / Life Cycle Costing (VA / LCC). This was calculated separately for the pig farm, the slaughterhouse and the retail. The Life Cycle Cost includes all running costs (including wages) that an operator (farm, slaughterhouse or retail) has for production and the Value Added is calculated as the price an operator receives for pork. The quota thus says something about the profitability of the farm, slaughterhouse and retail.

Life cycle sustainability assessment of Swedish organic and conventional pig production. The organic production is compared to the conventional one (normalised to 0.5 for all indicators) – gray dotted line. The gray solid black line is the organic production if the comparison is made per kg and the gray solid line if the comparison is made per hectare.

The results showed that the organic pig farm performed better than the conventional one on 18 of the 20 indicators examined when the production systems were compared per unit area. Conventional production performed better for the economic indicators for the farm and the slaughterhouse. Although the price of organic pork is higher, organic production had higher costs due to it being more labor-intensive and since it uses more feed than conventional production. This means a VA / LCC quota of less than one for organic production, which means that the price the farmer gets does not even cover the running costs. On the other hand, this quota for retail is significantly higher, 27 for organic and 13 for conventional, which signals a high willingness to pay for organic pork among consumers and high margins in the retail sector for both organic and conventional pork.

If the comparison is instead made based on the production of 1000 kg of pork, organic production performed better than the conventional one on 11 of the 20 indicators. In terms of environmental impact, both production systems had the same climate impact, while eutrophication, acidification and consumption of fossil resources were higher in organic production. Ecotoxicity, impact on biodiversity and ground carbon loss were lower in the organic production. In terms of social sustainability, the “social risk” was higher in organic production for workers and the local community, a result of social risks linked to organic soy from China and from accidents linked to renewable energy production. But for other actors, the social risk was lower for organic production, especially for pigs, it was significantly lower in organic production due to, among other things, larger spaces, outdoor access and access to roughage. However, there were indicators for pigs where the conventional system had a lower risk, for example in terms of the presence of parasites.

The authors conclude by stating that LCSA has the advantage of including both environmental, social and economic aspects in the sustainability analysis. Previous LCAs on pork have mainly dealt with the environmental aspects. However, choosing a number of relevant indicators can be difficult and the choice also affects the result, as well as how the indicators are designed and weighed together.

Read the whole study here:

Zira S, Rydhmer L, Ivarsson E, Hoffman R, Röös E (2021) A life cycle sustainability assessment of organic and conventional pork supply chains in Sweden. Sustainable Production and Consumption 28, 21-38. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.spc.2021.03.028

See also this study on SLCA for the two systems but using a slightly different methodology:

Zira S, Röös E, Ivarsson E, Hoffman R, Rydhmer L (2020) Social life cycle assessment of Swedish organic and conventional pork production. International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11367-020-01811-y 

The European Union’s hunger for soybean

In a recent paper published in Nature Food we show that halted soybean feed imports into the EU would favour ruminant animals such as cows and sheep over pigs and poultry. We also show that total production of animal-source foods in the EU would have to reduce if animal feed production is not to encroach on land currently used to produce food. Increased uptake of plant foods in EU diets is required maintain supply of nutrients.

The fires that raged in the Amazon during the 2019 fire season was unprecedented in number since records began in 2013. Although the drivers are numerous a paper in Global Change Biology has attributed the increase in fire count mainly to increased deforestation rates. When forests are cleared the vegetation is left to dry before it is burned off to make way for agriculture.

Agricultural expansion where natural vegetation is cleared and replaced with fields and pastures is one of the major threats to biodiversity and releases large quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. One of the recognised drivers of agricultural expansions into rainforests and other biomes in South America is demand for soybeans. The majority of soybeans produced in the region are destined for export markets. While domestic legal frameworks are important for forest protection, international trade has been shown to be an important driver of tropical deforestation and macroeconomic factors can often outweigh domestic regulations. Demand-side measures that reduce demand for soybean are therefore important to avoid further loss of forests.

Most of the soybean produced globally is “crushed” to separate the vegetable oil from the protein-rich meal. Each kg of soybean generates around 0.2 kg vegetable oil and 0.8 kg protein meal. Most of the revenue from the soybean crush is generated by selling the protein meal which is almost exclusively used to feed animals. This means that it is increased use of soybean meal, and ultimately demand for animal products, that primarily drives up soybean demand which leads to clearing of new areas in order to increase production.

Out of the total amount of soybean (beans, meal and oil) exported from South America around one-fifth is imported into the EU, where the vast majority is used to feed animals producing meat, milk and eggs. For example around 0.8 kg soybean is used to produce the average kg of EU pork, much more than needed for a kg of soy meat or tofu. If rough feeds (e.g. grass and silages) are excluded almost one-third of all protein fed to EU livestock comes from imported soybean. Demand for animal-source food within the EU thereby drives global soybean demand and tropical deforestation in South America.

Soybean is in itself an excellent crop with among the highest yields of protein per hectare, and being a legume, it fixates nitrogen from the air which reduces the need to apply nitrogen in the form of mineral fertilizers. Soybean is also one of few crops that is on par with animal-source foods when it comes to amino acid profile. The huge demand from the world’s livestock industry for cheap soybean does however make it hard to implement sustainable production.

When fed to animals, the majority of nutrients and energy present in the soybean are lost as heat or manure and only a small fraction is in the end retained in meat, milk and eggs that we eat. Redirecting the use of soybean from feed to eating it directly could therefore reduce the demand considerably. This would reduce pressure to deforest new areas and may also make it easier to implement more sustainable soybean production practices.

In a recent paper published in Nature Food we assess how dependant the EU livestock sector is on soybean imports by estimating how much meat, milk and eggs that would be possible to produce without soybean imports, given that use of EU cropland for animal feed production does not increase, which is important to avoid pushing production of food crops outside EU borders with potential negative environmental effects. We found that, depending on scenario for how to use EU cropland, 18-25% reduced animal-source food production in terms of edible fat and protein would be needed to completely eliminate soybean feed imports. Mainly it was the production of pork and chicken that was reduced, while beef, milk and eggs was less affected in the scenarios. To compensate this loss of nutrition to EU diets only between 17 and 22% of soybean that is currently imported to feed livestock would be needed to produce soy meat, tofu or other products for direct human consumption, thus considerably reducing the EU’s demand for land in deforestation-prone regions. Alternatively some land currently used to produce feed in the EU could be used to produce plant-source foods (resulting in the strongest reduction of animal-source foods presented above). In that case it would be possible to maintain supply of fat and protein to EU diets even without soybean imports.

The potentials for reduced cropland demand in South America were found to be large, but results also showed a risk of increasing cropland demand in South-East Asia, which is also a region where large scale deforestation occurs. Reduced use of soybean meal for animal feed results in less soybean oil being produced and if global demand for vegetable oils remain unchanged, this oil would need to be replaced by other vegetable oils. The most likely alternative today is palm oil. In absolute terms, the increased demand for cropland in South-East Asia was small compared to reduced demand in South America, but it is nevertheless an important potential trade-off that need to be considered. In one of the scenarios we explored the potential to increase rapeseed oil production within the EU to avoid this trade-off. Such a scenario would avoid increased palm oil demand, but instead rely on continued soybean imports to compensate for reduced consumption of meat. Which scenario is preferable will depend on how future global demand for different agricultural products develop. If for example transition from fossil fuels is achieved through the use of vegetable oil fuels a scenario with increased vegetable oil production in the EU is likely a good candidate.

In summary, the results from the new study show that there is a lot to gain by redirecting feeds of high food value, such as soybean, towards direct human consumption. To achieve these benefits without risking burden shifting it is however crucial that policies are developed with a holistic food systems approach and target soybean imports, dietary patterns, and livestock and crop production in conjunction.

Karlsson, J.O., Parodi, A., van Zanten, H.H.E., Hansson, P-A., Röös, E. (2020). Halting European Union soybean feed imports favours ruminants over pigs and poultry. Nature Food. https://doi.org/10.1038/s43016-020-00203-7

Soybean use for plant-based products shown in the figure was calculated based on data from the following sources:

Karlsson Potter, H., Lundmark, L. & Röös, E. (2020). Environmental impact of plant-based foods – data collection for the development of a consumer guide for plant based foods. Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, NL Faculty/ Department of Energy and Technology. https://pub.epsilon.slu.se/17699/1/Report112.pdf

Ercin, A. E., Aldaya, M. M., & Hoekstra, A. Y. (2012). The water footprint of soy milk and soy burger and equivalent animal products. Ecological Indicators, 18, 392-402. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecolind.2011.12.009

Mejia, A., Harwatt, H., Jaceldo-Siegl, K., Sranacharoenpong, K., Soret, S., & Sabaté, J. (2018). Greenhouse Gas Emissions Generated by Tofu Production: A Case Study. Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition, 13(1), 131-142. https://doi.org/10.1080/19320248.2017.1315323

Cai, T. D., Chang, K. C., Shih, M. C., Hou, H. J., & Ji, M. (1997). Comparison of bench and production scale methods for making soymilk and tofu from 13 soybean varieties. Food Research International, 30(9), 659-668. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0963-9969(98)00032-5

Ecoinvent v3.6 – Products: Tofu production (GLO) and Soybean beverage production (GLO)

“Less but better meat” – what does that mean?

Meat consumption in the Western world has to decrease and meat production practices have to improve. Eating “less but better meat” is a strategy put forward by a number of institutions and organizations as a strategy for increasing the sustainability of diets in high-income settings. But how much is “less” and what is “better”?

In a newly published comment in the Nature Food journal, Elin Röös together with researchers from the Stockholm Resilience Center (SRC) call for greater clarity on these concepts as misuse could steer in an suboptimal direction.

The estimation of “less meat” could be guided by positive and negative health effect of eating meat as well as the amounts of different meats that could fit within climate boundaries or be produced from biomass not suited for human consumption. A first analysis shows that “less meat” would mean a reduction in meat consumption by at least 50% in the Western world regardless of perspective.

As for “better meat” a wide range of issues need to be considered (see figure below). A focus on just one or a few of these can lead to very varying conclusions of what constitutes better meat and risks overlooking important trade-offs. The authors conclude: “Scientific characterization of ‘less but better’ is crucial for enabling more informed discussionon value-laden decisions and to build consensus on the meaning of the concept, especially as it gains traction with civil society organizations and policy makers.

The study:

Sahlin, K.R., Röös, E., Gordon, L. 2020. ‘Less but better’ meat is a sustainability message in need of clarity. Nature Food 1, 520–522 (2020). https://www.nature.com/articles/s43016-020-00140-5

Research in this area continues in a project called “Less but better meat” – a joint project between SLU and the SRC.