It will be the combination of improved livestock production plus dietary shifts that will ensure environmental pressures are kept within a safe operating space as the world moves towards meeting growing demand for animal protein.
So says the chief research scientist of agriculture and food at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), Professor Mario Herrero.
The solution to a sustainable and healthy future for all will come via a lot of little arrows rather than one silver bullet and the future is relatively bright because we have a lot of technology coming up that could help us improve livestock efficiency, he said.
Prof Herrero spoke in a session which delved into the myths surrounding livestock production and contained numerous references to reports on diets and planet health, such as “Eat Lancet”, which recommended significant reductions in red meat consumption.
It was kicked off by keynote speaker British economist Dr Lawrence Haddad, the Executive Director of the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, whose purpose is to lift the consumption of nutritious and safe food for all, especially the most vulnerable.
Dr Haddad said there were few foods that humans eat that caused as much emotional response as meat.
He said 59% of children worldwide were not being fed much-needed nutrients from animal sourced foods and because that was crucial for early growth, it was a burden they carried for the rest of their lives.
The Eat Lancet report mostly excluded children up until the age of two.
Dr Haddad presented some facts around common livestock production claims, saying “if we can communicate this to nutrition and health advisors it will have better outcomes for all, especially the malnourished.”
Livestock does not rival transportation as a greenhouse gas emitter in high income countries. In California, for example, livestock contributes 5.4% of GHG and transport 36.9%.
Not all meat is the same when it comes to GHG emissions. Compared to beef, pig and poultry emit about one seventh the GHG per 100g.
Not all cows are created equal. US cows, for example, produce a twentieth of GHG per unit of cow output compared to Indian cows.
Livestock occupies 70% of agricultural land but only a very small percentage that could be used to grow crops.
Prof Herrero, who contributed to the Eat Lancet report, said it was frustrating to see the variety of false statements in the news simply because of a lack of understanding – on the part of both scientists and consumers.
Multiple generalisations were the big problem, he said.
Livestock plays a critical role in providing humanity with benefits including incomes, food, employment and social status, according to Prof Herrero. It maintains the livelihoods of over 1.1 billion people directly or indirectly.
Prof Herrero believes the livestock sector, with sound research and policy, can mitigate many of its negative environmental impacts.
Eating less red meat
There was wide variation in over and under consumption of animal sourced foods in different regions, he said. Many regions will need significant increases in consumption to get to level of good nutrition.
“The dynamics of demand for livestock products from 1990-2015 show that while milk, seafood, eggs, poultry and pork consumption have increased, bovine consumption is declining or stagnating,” he said.
“Per capita we are eating less red meat than before. The overall increases are coming from population increases.”
Meanwhile, the environmental efficiency of livestock has been improving.
“But we have traded lower land use and emissions for increased nitrogen use,” Prof Herrero said.
“We now use 60% less land to produce the same calories than in 1960, with 45% less GHG emissions, but 180% more nitrogen.”
Dr Haddad said reducing the carbon footprint of animal production would require low- and middle-income countries to become more efficient.
He listed four main areas: reproductive health (for example 40% of China’s pigs die before having been weaned); improved health, including vaccinations; improved breeding for selected traits like growth and carcass yield and more energy-dense feed to cows.
These four tools, he said, had allowed the US dairy herd to decline from 25m in 1950 to 9m in 2018 while overall milk production is up by 60%.
He pointed out GHG emissions per capita were skewed but so too was meat consumption. “US emissions are 124 times that of Ethiopia. The US has much more capacity to reduce emissions,” Dr Haddad said.
“But in Africa, apart from South Africa, meat consumption is far lower than other countries.
“This is an area Eat Lancet didn’t look into but one I believe is crucial to the discussion – who should be making the adjustments.”
RPO Newsletter January 2020.