Increased productivity in beef production, and agriculture in general, is critical for meeting the world’s growing demand for food. We also need to become better at explaining production technologies to a skeptical public. Those were key messages when Gary Smith, professor emeritus and Monfort Chair of meat science at Colorado State University, when he kicked off the recent International Livestock Congress in Denver.
By tomorrow, Dr. Smith notes, there will be 200,000 more people on Earth. Farmers and ranchers will need to produce more food in the next 50 years than was produced in the last 10,000 years combined. Past history of productivity gains in agriculture suggest this is possible, but most of the increases will require application of production-enhancing technologies, since most arable land already is farmed. Smith says though, that vocal minorities who want to turn their luxury food choices into policy create a barrier to achieving these goals.
To illustrate the advances we’ve seen in the United States, Smith notes it took five acres of land to feed one person for one year in the 18th century. It now takes about one-tenth that, at 0.5 acres. In 1970, Americans spent about 4.2 percent of their annual incomes on meat and poultry, with per-capita consumption at 194 pounds per year. Today we spend 2.1 percent of income on meat and poultry with per-capita consumption at 221 pounds. Between 1987 and 2009, farms increased total output by 50 percent, with a 30 percent increase in soybean production, 38 percent increase in corn yields, 46 percent increase in per-animal red meat and poultry production and a 57 percent increase in milk produced per cow.
Smith notes that several studies have demonstrated that increased production efficiency reduces agriculture’s environmental impact and improves sustainability by using less, water and other resources per unit of production. For example, according to the U.N.’s 2006 report “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” global livestock production accounts for 18 percent of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions compared with 17 percent from the transportation sector. Later studies have shown those numbers are inaccurate, but it is clear that less-efficient livestock production in developing nations has greater environmental impact than that in the United States, especially in areas where large-scale deforestation occurs to expand animal agriculture. In the United States, the EPA estimates livestock contributes just 2.8 percent of GHG emissions compared with 23 percent for transportation. A study from the University of California-Davis estimates livestock contributing less than 3 percent and transportation accounting for 28 percent in the United States.