Animal agriculture faces significant challenges, and tremendous opportunities, in addressing growing global meat demand with limited land, high production costs and regulatory burdens. Those were some key themes at the National Institute for Animal Agriculture’s  annual conference last week in Denver, which was titled “How to Advance Animal Agriculture.”

In the opening general session, economist Terry Barr, PhD, senior director of CoBank’s Knowledge Exchange Division, outlined some of the issues animal agriculture faces on the global stage.

Experts expect the human population to add about three billion people over the next 40 years, creating an enormous increase in food demand. Most of that growth will take place in Africa and Asia, Barr says. And while those regions are significantly different in levels of development they both face limitations in their potential for expanding agricultural production due to shortages of arable land, water and other resources.

Because much of the world’s arable land available for food production is located away from the centers of population growth, Barr says countries have begun arranging long-term land leases around the world to help ensure their food security.

Economic growth meanwhile, particularly in Asia, is keeping pace with population growth, as China and India move up the scale among the world’s largest economies. China, Barr says, likely will replace the United States as the world’s largest economy, in terms of gross domestic product (GDP) by 2050. About 10 percent of the people in China and India currently fall in the “middle class.” Barr expects that number to increase to about 75 percent by in both countries by 2030. Globally, between two and three billion more people will enter the middle class by 2030. When people become more economically secure, one of the first things they do is upgrade their diets, and Barr says a large increase in global meat consumption is likely through this transition period.

To meet the needs of 43 percent population growth by 2050, we’ll need 49 percent higher grain production and 73 percent more meat production, Barr says. Poultry will account for much of that meat production, but global beef production will need to increase by 58 percent.

Constraints on land and water use, environmental impacts and other regulatory activity rule out the possibility of simply adding enough cattle, hogs and chickens to meet future demand, Barr says. Instead, Barr says, agricultural nations need to invest heavily in research and development toward increased productivity. We’ll also need to find ways to address food-safety issues with a focus on sound science and reduce food losses or waste, which currently accounts for about 20 percent of global production.

Following Barr on the program, Colorado State University President Tony Frank, DVM, PhD, called for a cooperative, proactive approach toward regulatory issues in animal agriculture.

Frank echoed Barr’s assertion that aggressive research and development are critical to address global hunger and its effects on security. At the same time, he acknowledges that regulatory pressures can stifle progress. One step is to understand the causes behind the regulations, in order to begin a dialog. Consumers, he says, do not understand how food is produced, but they care about it. So they call upon their elected officials to address their concerns. Elected officials create more regulations to appease consumers, the bureaucracy grows and common ground between producers and consumers shrinks.

Frank says Industry needs to be proactive in breaking the cycle of confrontation and finding common ground. Government can play a role in pulling groups together and Universities can provide neutral, science-based solutions based on multi-disciplinary agricultural research in partnership with industry.