Report identifies research priorities for animal science

NRC report identifies research priorities and recommends that governments and the private sector increase their support for this research.

Meeting the expected growth in global demand for animal protein in a way that is economically, environmentally and socially sustainable will require a greater investment in animal science research, according to a new report from the National Research Council (NRC).

The report identifies research priorities and recommends that governments and the private sector increase their support for this research.

Dramatic increases in global demand for food from animal agriculture — meat, fish, eggs and dairy — are projected to occur by 2050, due to a predicted increase in world population to between 9 billion and 10 billion and to an expected growth in demand for animal protein as developing countries urbanize and see increases in individual incomes.

The U.N. Food & Agriculture Organization estimates that by 2050 there will be a 73% increase in meat and egg consumption and a 58% increase in dairy consumption over 2011 levels. While models indicate that North America and Europe will see little growth in per capita animal protein consumption, per capita consumption in Asia and Africa will more than double, and it will rise significantly in Latin America and the Caribbean.

"Animal agriculture is facing substantial challenges, including a steep projected increase in demand and the need to adapt to changing environmental conditions," said Bernard Goldstein, chair of the NRC committee that wrote the report and professor emeritus in the department of environmental and occupational health at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health. "Animal science research needs to be reinvigorated if our agricultural system is to meet these challenges in a sustainable way."

In the past two decades, public funding of animal science research in the U.S. has been stagnant, essentially declining in terms of real dollars, and it has not kept up with the rising costs of conducting research, the report notes. Industry support for research has increased but has tended to focus on applied areas that can be commercialized in the short term. Public support for animal science research — especially basic research — should be restored to at least past levels of real dollars and maintained at a rate that meets or exceeds the annual rate of research inflation, the report says.

Increasing efficiency while reducing the environmental impact and cost of animal protein production is essential to achieving a sustainable, affordable and secure animal protein supply, the report says.

According to the report, three criteria of sustainability should guide funding decisions about animal science research and technology development: (1) reducing animal agriculture's environmental footprint, (2) reducing the financial cost per unit of animal protein produced and (3) recognizing societal values and impacts as an essential component in defining sustainable global animal agriculture.

Priorities for U.S. research

The report identifies specific research areas that are of high priority for reinvigorating the science of animal agriculture and its associated infrastructure in the U.S., including:

* Breeding technology and genetics. These have been major contributors to past increases in animal productivity, efficiency in production and environmental and economic advances, and further development of these approaches is needed, the report says. Research is also needed to understand societal concerns about these technologies and to develop effective ways to respectfully engage and communicate about them with the public.

* Environmental changes. Environmental changes, including climate change, will impact animal agriculture in diverse ways, from affecting the quality and quantity of feed to causing environmental stress in animals. Animal agricultural production affects and is affected by climate change, and adaptations will be necessary, the report says. Strategies to adapt animal agriculture to climate change and to mitigate its effects on climate change are often interrelated and should be considered together. Research should also explore how to more precisely quantify greenhouse gas emissions and pollutants from agriculture and the economic and social viability of mitigation strategies. Economic modeling of animal agriculture's impacts on the environment could help guide decision makers' technical and policy responses, the report notes; for example, reducing the greenhouse gas emissions of beef cattle through investments in technology could improve both the bottom lines of ranchers and the economic sustainability of the industry.

* Animal health. Sub-therapeutic use of medically important antibiotics in animal production practices is being phased out and may be eliminated in the U.S. in an effort to combat the rise of antibiotic resistance in people consuming the animal protein. Research should explore alternatives to these antibiotics that provide the same or greater benefits in terms of improved feed efficiency, disease prevention and overall animal health.

* Animal welfare. Compared with Europe, less research currently focuses on animal welfare in agricultural production systems in the U.S., and funding for this research should increase. Research should include the development of alternatives and refinements for painful management procedures like beak trimming and dehorning; improvements in handling, transportation and slaughter methods to reduce injury and distress, and new or modified production systems that provide animals with more opportunities to express natural behaviors.

The National Association for the Advancement of Animal Science (NAAAS) applauded the release of the report.

NAAAS said the report correctly states that growth in U.S. research related to animal agriculture productivity and sustainability is imperative and recommends that the public investment in animal science should be increased to make up for past years of underfunding and help ensure that future needs are met.

NAAAS president Dr. Russell Cross said, "I am very pleased to see that this report recognizes the critical need for increased public investment in animal science to meet the important societal goals of food security and sustainability."

Cross added, "With the report's release, now it is time for NAAAS and other stakeholders to carry this message to policymakers to ensure that the report's recommendations are realized."

NAAAS is comprised of animal, dairy, poultry and veterinary science departments from colleges and universities across the U.S. as well as national and state organizations involved in animal agriculture and animal science. It is dedicated to improving overall federal funding for animal agricultural research to help maintain the nation's status as a world leader in safe, abundant and efficiently produced animal products.

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