Future of global food security depends on livestock
By Lilian Schaer, Livestock Research Innovation Corporation
Given the many pressures facing the livestock industry today, it can sometimes be easy to wonder whether the future of food production in the world will include animals.
Absolutely, says Dr. Vaughn Holder, Research Project Manager in Beef Nutrition at Alltech. Despite admitting his obvious bias given his work in the industry, the data around the importance of livestock for future food security and climate change mitigation is unequivocal - it won’t happen without animal agriculture.
“We usually talk about 2050 and producing enough food to feed the world in 2050, but that’s the wrong conversation,” Holder said while presenting at a Horizon Series webinar hosted by Livestock Research Innovation Corporation (LRIC) on September 13. “How we are going to feed the people of the world right now is the right conversation.”
That’s because population protein intakes and associated environmental metrics for the world’s 205 countries and territories are based on gross protein, which doesn’t account for digestibility or amino acid composition of that protein, both key to meeting human nutritional needs.
When those additional parameters are considered, only about one third of those countries and territories are protein secure with two thirds having a protein intake – mainly plant-based and plants proteins are less digestible to humans than animal proteins – that is below required levels, which Holder calls “quite terrifying”.
“That’s why we need to think about food security right now and any conversation about increasing sustainability by reducing livestock production is quite irresponsible,” he says. “We don’t need more calories; we need more nutrients.”
According to Holder, when protein intake is corrected for those additional parameters, it also changes the conversation around other issues facing animal agriculture, such as land use, fresh water and greenhouse gas emissions.
For example, the amount of land used to grow grains is much less when only gross proteins are considered, but when digestibility and amino acid composition are taken into account, the amount of land used by livestock and grain production is comparable. The same is true of greenhouse gas emissions and water use.
And that’s why the answer isn’t as straightforward as simply proposing the elimination of livestock agriculture, Holder notes.
“When we talk about making changes to our food systems, these are very complex systems and we have to understand what their knock-on effects are,” he says. “Given that half of the world’s countries and territories are deficient in protein, any conversation around societal intervention that results in a reduction of food production around the world is extremely irresponsible.”
Only about four per cent of the world’s land is suitable for growing crops, and that’s not enough to feed the world’s population. Cattle are the only animals able to consume and digest poorer quality plant-based feeds from pastures for example and turn it into protein. And even monogastric livestock like poultry and pigs can be fed a balanced diet using corn and soybeans, for example, that will result in more protein than if the same corn and soybeans were consumed directly by people.
“Livestock, particularly ruminants, serve a very important role in improving protein availability for humans. They let nutrients enter our human food system that normally wouldn’t, like grasses, leaves, crop residues, fodder crops, oilseed crop and by-products,” he says. “Taking that away is irresponsible given where we are with food sufficiency.”
United Nations data suggests 86% of global livestock feed is inedible to humans so livestock is performing a service by keeping all that human inedible feed out of the plant carbon cycle. Feeding by-products to dairy cows creates less greenhouse gas emissions (70 grams of CO2 equivalents per kilogram of by-product) than composting those products (328 grams) or sending them to landfill (3448 grams), for example.
Another important consideration is that reducing meat production in North America – which is one of the most efficient regions of the world in which to raise beef – doesn’t reduce global meat demand. In fact, all it will do is shift meat production elsewhere where it may well have a much higher carbon footprint, effectively causing emissions from meat production to increase.
At the same time, replacing food production with food processing – the creation of plant-based meat, milk, and egg products – is not bringing new protein into the human food system, but rather just creating new uses for existing ones.
“So how do we increase food production in face of protein insecurity but reduce greenhouse gas production? It’s not all doom and gloom – it’s about using the resources and the knowledge that we have,” he says.
If the world were to apply what is known about efficient livestock agriculture to parts of the world where it can make a difference, carbon emissions could be reduced by as much as 45%. That includes capturing unused nutrients from grasslands through grazing, preventing carbon from going into landfills by feeding by-products to livestock, and ensuring ranchers and livestock farmers are paid for carbon sequestration activities.
“We can make much more food with the same environmental footprint as before if we implement things we know will improve the efficiency of livestock. The world is hyper-focused on emissions without also considering sequestration, and agriculture is essentially the only industry that has carbon capture as its central function,” Holder says.
“So, are we in the business of farming for food or carbon? We’ve gone from having the most important job in the world (feeding people), to having the two most important jobs in the world as we may be called on to help reverse climate change too,” he adds.
Watch the full webinar with Vaughn Holder or any of LRIC’s 11 other webinars and white papers of topics of importance to the livestock industry – from antimicrobial resistance and regenerative agriculture to disruptive technologies and One Health – here.
This article was originally published in Ontario Beef, October 2022.