beef cattle pasture

Livestock production: Deadly challenge to climate, food security?

Animal production, in its many forms, plays an integral role in the food system, making use of marginal lands, turning co-products into edible goods, contributing to crop productivity and turning edible crops into highly nutritious, protein-rich food.

There are still lots of things to be independently studied but we absolutely know three things: (1) the human population is growing at an alarming rate; (2) our expanding population is becoming wealthier, and(3) our population has to be fed.

It's because of the newfound wealth of so many people around the world that we are moving farther away from a financially enforced vegetarian diet and demanding more animal products. Access to meat is no longer restricted to people in economically developed regions or the privileged few in third world nations. To meet the demand, the production of beef, pork poultry and seafood is straining the resources of world agriculture, though. It has caused some influential organizations to 'point with alarm' at the supposed burden animal protein is putting on our natural resources.

Elsevier, a Dutch-based magazine publisher which defines itself as a global information analytics business, reports "a new study published in Global Food Security found that livestock place less burden on the human food supply than previously reported. Even stronger, certain production systems contribute directly to global food security because they produce more highly valuable nutrients for humans, such as proteins, than they consume." (Elsevier, by the way, publishes Global Food Security).

The surprising new study questions an idea accepted by many that livestock production creates an unacceptable natural resource drain that must be stopped as soon as possible. The feed that ag animals consume should be used by humans, they say. The water they require is essentially stealing it from a thirsty planet and their waste material including whatever they belch into the atmosphere is poisoning the environment. Cows, say some, are a primary reason for global warming, even more pernicious than all the cars, truck and buses in the world combined.

Anne Mottet, Ph.D., lead investigator of the study, said “As a Livestock Policy Officer working for the Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, I have been asked many times by the press to report on the negative environmental impacts of livestock. Doing so, I came to realize that people are continually exposed to incorrect information that is repeated without being challenged, in particular about livestock feed. There is currently no official and complete international database on what livestock eat. This study contributes to filling this gap and to provide peer-reviewed evidence to better inform policy makers and the public.”

What are animal agriculture's benefits? Meat makes up 18% of global calories, 25% of global protein consumption and provides essential micro-nutrients, such as vitamin B12, iron and calcium. Livestock use large areas of pasture, of course, but most of that land can't be used for anything else. Replacing all that animal protein with fruits, nuts, grains and vegetables would require an enormous amount of probably unavailable arable land.

Although previous studies claim grain needed to raise 1 kg of beef is between 6 kg and 20 kg. Mottet's study says an average of only 3 kg are needed to produce 1 kg of meat. Looking at the difference in species, cattle rely on grazing and forages so they need even less, just 0.6 kg of protein from human food to produce 1 kg of protein in milk and meat. An incredible 86% of livestock feed is not suitable for human consumption. It's an efficient use of “leftovers” the study says that would "quickly become an environmental burden as the human population grows and consumes more and more processed food."

FAO estimates that we will need as much as 70% more animal products by mid-century to supply world demand. Land needed to raise animals, they say, will increase even if feed conversion ratios are improved. Feed formulation, genetic selection and better veterinary services "have improved conversion ratios. Continued progress is needed to make the system more sustainable but it is essential to improve the recycling of food wastes and by-products into livestock feed as well as to increase feed crops yields."

Mottet's conclusion is “Animal production, in its many forms, plays an integral role in the food system, making use of marginal lands, turning co-products into edible goods, contributing to crop productivity and turning edible crops into highly nutritious, protein-rich food."
Let's not self-lynch by placing our heads in the 'anti-ag' noose created by non-meat-eaters. More realistically designed third party studies need to be made. Too much research has been developed and financed by organizations with an unsympathetic agenda. Is livestock production the evil environmental killer claimed by certain activist groups? I don't think so.

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