A powerful white paper has been circulating through the agricultural community for the last month or so, and it should be required reading. Not necessarily for producers — those who participate in the business of animal agriculture already relate to most of the findings noted in the report — but more so for policymakers, legislators and the media.

Titled, “Animal Feed vs. Human Food: Challenges and Opportunities in Sustaining Animal Agriculture Toward 2050,” the pretentious title masks a hard-hitting study researched and written by a veritable who’s who of veterinary and animal sciences. Its conclusions are succinct and straightforward:

  • Global animal agriculture provides safe, affordable, nutrient-dense foodstuffs that support human health and valuable by-products, such as edible and inedible components, medicines, lubricants and other industrial uses.
  • Livestock production is critical to economic and social sustainability, especially in developing countries, and supplies considerable “horsepower” for smaller farmers integral to food production around the world.
  • Large tracts of land are incapable of growing human food crops because of terrain, soil and climate, but of that acreage can be used for grazing or forage that can be sustainably converted by ruminants into food products.
  • The gains made by recycling otherwise valueless by-products from human food and fiber production lessen competition between humans and animals for crops that can equally be used for feed or food, maximize land use efficiency and decrease the environmental impact of food production.

All true, all accurate and all serving as a rebuttal to the chorus of critics insisting that the only choice for the entire planet is either feed crops or food crops. And we know which way their inclinations lie.

Unfortunately, none of the bullet points above represent common (or conventional) wisdom, even after I took the liberty to edit them down to a more reasonable length with simpler sentences. Yet if one were to ask 100 people on the street if they’ve heard that raising beef (or “factory farming”) is responsible for damage to the environment, I’m willing to bet you’d get a majority of them to say emphatically “Yes.”

A simplistic ‘solution’

Therein lies the problem. Despite the eminently practical, sensible statements summarized by the scientists who wrote the report, those conclusions don’t resonate with consumers or policymakers the way that “eat less meat and save the planet” seems to do.

Of course, the truth is that no matter how wildly successful the Meatless Mondays and Go Vegan crowd were ever to become, the dent those campaigns might put in Americans meat consumption would be insignificant compared with the projected increase in per capita meat consumption among the billions of people climbing into the middle class in China, India and across South Asia. It’s not going to matter — at all — if millions of Americans were to skip a hamburger or three every few weeks, because not only will global consumption of animal foods continue to increase simply as a function of the world’s still-increasing population, but as incomes rise, so does demand for beef, pork poultry, dairy and eggs.

In the face of growing demand, and the pressure it puts on food production and processing systems, sustainability thus becomes critical. The simplistic option of switching the cultivation of feed grains to food crops doesn’t address all the facets of sustainability, however, because it involves not just energy consumption, or resources conservation but a broader issue of economic and social viability, as well.

The most widely used definition of sustainable development (from the UN World Commission on Environment and Development) is that it involves systems and processes that “meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

That obviously raises issues of energy conservation and protection of water and irrigation resources. But simply switching crops from feed to food won’t address global growth in demand for animal foods, nor does it assure the availability and affordability of nutritious foods for all of the planet’s population.

More importantly, a crop rotation scheme would negatively impact economic and social sustainability. Without livestock production to generate income, billions of the world’s poorest people would go hungry and go broke.

What’s ultimately the most important factor in promoting sustainability is efficiency. If farmers and producers grow more livestock, with less feed and fewer inputs, sustainability is enhanced and extended over time. That’s where all industries, not just the food industry, should focus: Doing more with less — less energy, less raw material, less of an overall environmental footprint.

That’s the ticket to sustainable future, not one where we try to switch corn crops and trade in meat for mush.

› To access the CAST report, log onto www.cast-science.org/publications/?animal_feed_vs_human_food_challenges_and_opportunities_in_sustaining_animal_agriculture_toward_2050&show=product&productID=278268

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.