Andrew Gunther is the executive director of A Greener World (AGW), a non-profit organization which promotes and supports real-world farming models to the public and offers down-to-earth guidance on achieving truly sustainable livestock farming systems to farmers. For years, Andrew has been the main force behind AGW's Animal Welfare Approved program - which "audits, certifies and supports independent family farmers raising their animals according to the highest animal welfare standards, outdoors on pasture or range" - working to increase the availability of Certified AWA meat, dairy and eggs in traditional retail spaces. AWA has become the most respected food label in regards to animal welfare, sustainability and pasture-based farming - it's been called the "gold standard" and a "badge of honor for farmers." And recently, Consumer Reports designated the AWA label as the only "highly meaningful" food label for farm animal welfare, outdoor access and sustainability. Read on to learn why Andrew feels that not all beef is the same when it comes to the water footprint of a pound of beef, why it's important to him that all meat producers don't get lumped together and why he is committed to helping people better understand the differences between conventional and pasture-based meat.
Tell us about Animal Welfare Approved and why its mission is so close to your heart?
Some people view animal welfare through a strictly altruistic lens, but high-welfare farming systems benefit all of us. A Greener World was founded on the understanding that when you create farming systems that place the animal at the center, you automatically realize a number of tangential benefits for the environment, rural communities, public health and biodiversity. Take antibiotics for example: Industrial systems depend on routine antibiotic use to compensate for unnatural crowding and poor sanitation. When you raise animals in well-managed, high-welfare outdoor systems, routine antibiotics are unnecessary. This approach allows us to conserve antibiotics and save them for when we really need them. Animals benefit from higher-welfare systems, and we save an important medical resource for the future.
When it comes to the water footprint of a pound of beef, not all beef is the same. Tell us why that is.
Water is widely seen as the next global resource crisis. Those of us in agriculture have a responsibility to use water wisely, and as consumers we will have to make increasingly nuanced decisions about the water impacts of our food. As eaters, the main way we impact water is through consumption. "Green" water is the rainwater that falls on pasture and grows grass. Green water is the primary water used in pasture-based systems: it would not be used for anything else, and passes through the soil to the water table or gently runs off into the streams without pollutants. The water use that I'm most concerned about is blue water - the limited supplies of surface and groundwater that we humans need for our own survival - and yet use without concern as if it is an infinite resource. In pasture systems, ruminants are super food producers using cellulose (inedible to humans) and water that is moving naturally through the system to produce nutritionally dense proteins. This means that lumping both industrially-produced and pasture-raised beef together when it comes to water use incorrectly vilifies more sustainable grassfed animals.
Ecocentric published a great blog about the water footprint of various beef production systems, which noted that a large part of beef's water footprint came from what the animals were fed (high-grain vs. grass). The authors concluded: "The easy answer to the question, 'How do I lower my water footprint?' is 'Eat less meat, and when you do eat it, make sure it comes from a pasture-raised source.'" This nuance is largely missed in the recent vilification of beef by environmental groups, and is causing us to overlook the solutions right in front of us. Our recent post, "Not All Beef is Bad" covers this in great detail, and I invite anyone working towards globally responsible diets to read it.
What are the other benefits associated with pasture-raised production?
Pasture-based production has a number of benefits beyond animal welfare. High-welfare, pasture- and range-based systems naturally facilitate responsible manure and water management, antibiotics preservation, carbon sequestration, productive rural economies and more nutritious meat, dairy and eggs. If you think about it, pasture-based production is much simpler than its industrial counterpart: rather than relying on massive infrastructure, heavy doses of subtherapeutic antibiotics, added hormones and unreliable manure management, well-managed pasture- and range-based systems generally fit the system to the land and animals and actually enrich the environment and the surrounding community.
Why is it important to you that all meat producers don't get lumped in together?
In the early part of my career there was a very loud, very contentious conversation about whether or not people should eat meat. While that conversation rages on, the social scientists and land use experts are telling us that not only will individuals continue to choose to eat meat, it's in fact the only way we are going to meet our nutritional needs as a planet. There is a lot of land that is well-suited for grazing (and can hence provide us with ruminant meat), but which is not suitable for producing anything else. I think it's time for us to have a deeper conversation about responsible use of our resources, and to include farmers and ranchers in that conversation. After all, they're the ones feeding us - even in the face of daily demonization by some NGOs, environmentalists, health advocates and others. Producers are working very hard every day to raise animals the best way they can within the confines of market forces. Any change we want to see has to be possible within those confines, and inspired by a profitable market.
In order to guide those market forces, it is essential that we as consumers be specific about our desires. Most consumers are realizing that "natural" doesn't mean anything, and therefore doesn't fully encapsulate the farming system they want to support. Similarly, "grassfed" seems to be the next buzzword being co-opted by industry and is increasingly under attack by consumer advocates. This confusion not only makes consumers jaded, it frustrates farmers and ranchers, too. This is why A Greener World has created a distinct niche in the marketplace for high-welfare, sustainable meat, dairy and eggs verified by independent audit. Our certifications include Animal Welfare Approved, Certified Grassfed by A Greener World, and Certified Non-GMO by A Greener World. Animal Welfare Approved was recently lauded by Consumer Reports in the New York Times as the only humane label worth paying a premium for. As the foundation for the other two labels (which are optional additional accreditations for AWA farmers) Animal Welfare Approved ensures consumer expectations are fully met, and farmers' practices are fairly rewarded. Although we are a nonprofit funded entirely by donation, we are using a free-market paradigm to achieve benefits for every link in the food chain.
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