By improving efficiency, modern production systems can benefit sustainability.
By improving efficiency, modern production systems can benefit sustainability.

Most stakeholders in agriculture, and livestock production in particular, agree we will need to produce more food to meet global demand while using fewer resources to ensure sustainability. While other factors influence individual perceptions and definitions of sustainable production, we will need continuous improvement in production efficiency, including better disease prevention, parasite control and better feed utilization while also addressing consumer demands for animal welfare and antibiotic stewardship

Global Conference on Sustainable Beef

The 2016 Global Conference on Sustainable Beef, which took place in Alberta in October, featured in-depth discussion of the role of efficiency, and some of its limitations, in fostering a sustainable beef production system.

Food companies such as McDonald’s, JBS and Cargill face increasing pressure from their customers to measure and document sustainability, from the farm level through delivery of their products. Defining sustainability however, and setting measurable indicators across diverse and complex production chains, isn’t easy.

Facing that challenge, those food companies, producer groups, environmental organizations and others formed the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB) in 2012. GRSB defines sustainable beef as “a socially responsible, environmentally sound and economically viable product that priorities planet, people, animals and progress.” The group held its second global conference in Alberta in October.

Although the GRSB focuses on beef, many of the same general principles apply to dairy production.

Throughout the conference, presenters discussed and debated methods for benchmarking sustainability indicators and measuring progress. While the topic is complex and sometimes divisive, one fact is clear: improving sustainability in agriculture requires reduction of waste and resource use across the production chain.

During the global conference, a key session featured a debate on whether “chasing efficiency will lead to positive environmental and social outcomes.” On one side, the debaters included Carrie Balkcom, Executive Director of the American Grassfed Association and Lesley Mitchell, PhD, Head of Farming Policy for World Animal Protection. Representing the efficiency stance were Robert Cady, PhD, Global Sustainability Lead for Elanco, and Dr. Martin Scholten, General Director, Animal and Marine Sciences, Wageningen University, The Netherlands. While disagreeing on some points, participants generally agreed that beef production has more than one path toward greater sustainability, and that all production systems have room for improvement.

Dr. Cady, from Elanco, kicked off the discussion, noting that the global population likely will increase by 2 billion people over the next 25 years. Longer life spans account for much of the growth, with the fastest increase in people over 70 years of age. Older people generally eat less than younger, but they also need adequate protein in their diets to maintain muscle mass. Also, about 1.5 billion of the global population fall in the middle class. That number will increase by 3 billion by 2030, and with increased global wealth, we’ll see substantial growth in animal-protein consumption.

Given this expected growth in beef demand, Cady says we will need to produce more with less, meaning we need to use resources such as land, feed and water more efficiently, while also reducing carbon emissions. Land accounts for about one-third of the earth’s surface, with about one-third of that suited for agriculture and one-third of that being rangeland. Today, virtually all the land suited to agriculture is being used for food production. We need intensification of agriculture, including high-yield crop production, concentrated animal feeding and use of technologies that enhance health and performance.  

Another point repeated in the debate and throughout the sustainability conference was the need for ongoing improvement, including in animal health.

Cady stresses that reducing pre- and post-harvest waste is critical for addressing future food needs. Pre-harvest waste, particularly production loss associated with animal health, is prevalent in the developing world but also significant in developed regions such as North America. Post-harvest waste, in stores, restaurants and homes, occurs mostly in developed regions. According to a 2014 USDA report, 31%, or 133 billion pounds of the available food supply at the U.S. retail and consumer levels went uneaten.

Dr. Mitchell, with World Animal Protection, says proponents of all beef-production systems share similar goals for providing adequate nutrition for the world’s population. But, she stresses the industry should think beyond boosting production, and focus on systems that help ensure public health, animal welfare and quality of life for agricultural workers and rural residents.

An integrated approach toward sustainable livestock, she says, can incorporate efficiency while considering those social impacts. “We need win-win solutions,” she says. “Failure in one aspect of sustainability can destroy the results.” If we view efficiency simply from an input-output standpoint, poultry gains an advantage over beef, she adds. We need to take advantage of ruminant abilities.

Dr. Scholten, from Wageningen University, agreed with points from the panel regarding the importance of social responsibility in beef production, but he disagrees that striving for efficiency creates a burden for animal well-being. Animal welfare is a cornerstone of efficiency, he says, adding that modern production systems reflect and enhance natural biological systems. Ecosystems have evolved to ensure efficient use of resources, and animals have evolved to subsist within those ecosystems. Agriculture alters ecosystems for greater production, largely through intensification. “We can double production if we adopt ecological approaches. Optimizing protein production is best done with animals, which convert plants to protein and return nutrients to soil.” Good animal welfare, animal health, and a functional microbiome are critical for efficiency in the system.

While society will demand continuous improvement, our beef and dairy operations have made considerable progress in efficiency as a component to sustainability. Frank Mitloehner, PhD, an air-quality and sustainability specialist at the University of California, Davis, notes that in 1970 the United States beef herd numbered around 140 million head. Today that number is around 90 million, and yet we produce roughly the same tonnage of beef. As for dairy production, the U.S. herd of around 9 million head today produces 60% more milk than 16 million head did in 1950, with a two-thirds reduction in the industry’s “carbon footprint.”

Multiple factors, including genetics, nutrition and production technologies have contributed to those improvements, but much of the progress has come from you, and the impact of veterinary science and service in advancing animal health and performance.

At the farm level, continued improvement in protecting animal health represents one of our best opportunities for reducing resource use per unit of food produced and thus improving sustainability. Among your many skills as a veterinarian, maybe it is time to start thinking of yourself as a sustainability consultant.

Part 1 of this series focused on the 2016 Global Agricultural Productivity (GAP) report from the Global Harvest Initiative.

Part 2 outlines recommendations for livestock production included in the UN’s 2016 Sustainability Report.