The world’s population, and it’s appetite for animal foods, is still growing. Is that a problem that will pressure global food production beyond its capacity?
No — not if we’re creative.
After nearly a decade of doomsday dialogue, only the folks living in a proverbial cave are unaware that the world faces a looming crisis related to food productivity, agricultural sustainability and the challenge of feeding another two or even three billion people expected to be populating the planet by 2050.
It’s a challenge that directly affects livestock producers. Specifically, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization is predicting that while overall food production will need to virtually double in the next 35 years, global demand for meat is already rising and will increase substantially much sooner, perhaps as early as 2030.
As the economies of southern Asia, the Middle East and eastern Europe continue to expand, the demand for animal foods — especially red meat — is also rising proportionately. Thus, it’s not only mere numbers of people that are fueling demand, it’s a concurrent increase in per-capita consumption across the developing world, as well.
That leads to dire predictions from certain economists and politicians, not to mention a huge lever to be wielded by the “meat is destroying the world” crowd. There’s not enough land, not enough energy, not enough resources to support a global expansion of production to satisfy the world’s appetite for meat, the argument goes — but rarely acknowledges that subtracting livestock and dairy animals from the world’s agricultural economies would not only require an enormous expansion of cropland, but an equally huge increase in all the other farm inputs needed to grow the calories that would replace meat, milk and dairy under the vegetarians’ doomsday scenario.
But what both sober economists and wild-eyed activists fail to appreciate are the options, the tactics, the alternatives available to producers, farmers and growers, if population growth and rising demand pressure existing global meat production capability.
Let me suggest three such options. None are easily implemented, none are remotely a quick fix, but all are potential strategies to significantly increase the availability of animal foods without having to resort to the false choice of either giving up animal foods or ruining the world’s ecosystems.
1). Fewer cattle, more alternatives. Actually, I don’t mean to say fewer cattle, but rather, maintaining the current size of the beef herd while raising many more animals currently not considered primary livestock species. It may seem far-fetched, but diversity would be a good thing, especially if we’re talking about animals well-adapted to less-than-ideal conditions. We’re talking bison, elk, deer, perhaps even exotic species, such as yaks, as well as more plebeian animals, such as goats.
It’s well-documented that these species often thrive on rangeland or forest areas unsuited for cattle, and produce meat that is considered as nutritious, if not moreso, than the beef and pork products available in the supermarket meat case.
The challenge here, of course, is not with the animals but with the people, the thousands upon thousands of people needed to breed, manage and harvest these alternative species. However, in a true crisis such as the “experts” love to predict, it’s not inconceivable that such entrepreneurs could be recruited, given sufficient economic incentive.
2). Less feeding, more grazing. Again, better to phrase it as, “More grazing… period.” Forget for a moment about the vast stretches of the West that could support ranching, especially grassfed-based operations. Consider instead all the potential pastureland in the Midwestern and Eastern states that is currently lying fallow. I grew up some years ago in western New York, when numerous small farms, family dairies and what would today be considered mini-orchards dotted the landscape once you escaped the suburbs.
Most of those farms (and farmers) are long gone, but much of the farmland is still sitting there. Not only would operations in those areas be situated much closer to urban markets, but the climate and rainfall are far more conducive to maintaining pastures and growing forage crops than say, Montana or Wyoming.
The challenge here is the dearth of shackle space and processing capacity. I mean, what do you do with a herd of cattle in upstate New York once they reach maturity? But again, given the emergence of a true global food crisis, the economics and thus the cost dynamics, would shift dramatically.
3). Less posturing, more researching. Taxpayers on average funnel tens of billions of dollars every year to farmers to subsidize crop insurance and provide commodity price supports. Yet agricultural research gets virtually starved as deficit hawks in Congress demand curtailment of spending at USDA. Truthfully, the farm bill does pour an awful lot of largesse into the farm economy, which only benefits livestock producers tangentially in the form of (allegedly) cheaper feed prices.
Public support for farm operations falls under national security, in my opinion, and thus must remain a priority. However, a chunk of the money earmarked for farm bill programs ought to be re-directed toward agricultural research to improve the breeding, feeding and management strategies that have virtually doubled beef production efficiency in the last 50 or 60 years.
There’s no way to maintain that kind of exponential improvement, but much of the growth in livestock productivity on a global basis could — and should — be achieved by marginally improving yields, feed efficiency, lean growth rates and reducing the incidence of morbidity and mortality among livestock.
And here’s one other opportunity that needs to be pursued: Developing “hybrid” meat-and-vegetable-protein products, so-called formulated foods that extend the nutritional value and caloric contribution of red meat and poultry, without resorting to me-too analog products comprised totally of non-meat ingredients.
All it would take for any of the options outlined above to materialize is a little imagination, an infusion of capital and the recruitment of enough entrepreneurial types to make it happen.
And maybe a severe global food shortage that drives prices to the sky.
Is that too much to ask?
Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator