A recent study debunks the myth that livestock production diverts food from starving people
The attacks have been coming from all different directions claiming that animal-sourced protein is not healthy to eat, while also being an inefficient way to feed consumers. Groups such as the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) promote their moral virtues for making the world go vegan.
The American Broadcast Company took a huge chunk out of the beef supply with its claims that Lean Finely Textured Beef (LFTB) or "pink slime" was unsafe for human consumption. Microsoft’s Bill Gates is funding research for a plant-based alternative to meat on the premise of meeting an increasing global demand for animal protein.
Cattle and other livestock producers bristle at these claims. And now a new study by the Council of Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST) puts science—and common sense—on their side. The study, titled "Animal Feed Versus Human Food: Challenges and Opportunities in Sustaining Animal Agriculture Toward 2050," was released in September.
"There is this perception out there that if we feed corn to animals or if we grow livestock that we are essentially taking resources away from hungry people," says Jude Capper, chair of the study and professor of animal science at Montana State University and Washington State University. "So we wanted to be sure on a scientific basis as to whether this was true, false or debatable. And as with most things, it is very debatable."
The study came about after Capper blogged about the controversy surrounding the competition between humans and animals for food, and she was later approached by a director at CAST to write a full report.
The byproduct factor. "One of the most important things is the often-heard perception that we simply feed corn and soy to cattle, for example, and people take little account of the quantity of byproducts that we feed to those animals," Capper says.
For instance, byproducts such as distillers’ grains, cottonseed hulls, apple pomace and citrus pulp could not be used in a human diet. In an animal’s feed ration, however, they provide sustenance that can efficiently be turned into meat, eggs or milk.
Larry Berger, head of the Department of Animal Science at the University of Nebraska, also participated in the study. "As we move forward, especially with ruminant animals, we can substitute some of the fibrous feeds that we get as a result of grain production for some of the more traditional feeds and still produce a very healthy, wholesome product in terms of meat and milk," he says.
When looking at feed resources, it is important to consider how much human edible protein we feed to animals relative to the amount of human edible protein we get out of the system.
"For example, in ruminants, we get more human edible protein. We feed a pound of distillers’ grain or alfalfa silage, and we get more than a pound of human edible protein out of that system per unit of protein going in," Berger says.
Byproducts, such as distillers’ grains, cannot be used in human diets but are very beneficial to livestock production.
Global food economics. The world population is growing. Some projections show global population reaching 9 billion by 2050, and animal agriculture will play a vital role in feeding that increasing population.
"Our biggest challenge, whether it be beef, dairy, chicken or pork, is to increase output while at the same time maintaining environmental responsibility, social acceptability and economic viability. And that is going to be a tough challenge," Capper says.
The study acknowledges that developing countries such as China and India have per capita incomes that will increase during this time of global growth.
"As income increases, people demand more animal foods," says Helen Jensen, who was a member of the study and is a professor of economics at Iowa State University. "Somehow, we have to figure out how to feed a lot more people, and we have to do it in a context of rising incomes."
Certain areas of the world demand different types of animal protein or don’t utilize a particular kind of animal for cultural reasons, Jensen adds. In the Middle East, pork is typically not a staple protein source. The same can be said for beef in India, although dairy is a growing sector there.
"My point is there are lots of differences in the kinds of animals that meet the needs, and as developing countries increase income, we’re going to see more differences. I think a very good example of that is China, where we see more domestic production of pork, which is a highly preferred meat in that country," Jensen says. But the Chinese are also going through a food transition, producing and consuming a lot of fish and poultry.
Waste lines. Food waste is a problem that is rampant in the U.S., but it also appears in different ways throughout the world.
"In the world as a whole, we waste about a third of our food. Where it is wasted depends on geography," Capper says. "Food waste at the consumer level in our country is the really big thing and something that we really have to educate people better."
In developing countries, the largest amount of food waste typically occurs at the farm stage.
"Food waste in the developing world is more related to a lack of infrastructure, refrigeration, storage, pest control in the field—all of the factors that stop that corn, grain, tomatoes or other crops from getting from the field to processor or the consumer," Capper says.
Some of the other issues addressed by the study include: pasture versus productive cropland, environmental impact of animal agriculture, food safety and food security.
"On a global basis as consumers, we need to think about our actions, as well as those of the industry," she says. "If we all become more efficient and have a better use of resources, then we’re going to have a better chance of feeding ourselves, feed our kids and feeding everyone in 40 years’ time, as well."