Producing more food per unit of input requires improvements in efficiency, with animal health a key component.
Producing more food per unit of input requires improvements in efficiency, with animal health a key component.

If a farm or ranch has operated for multiple generations, and is more productive and environmentally friendly today than it was 50 years ago, is the business “sustainable?” Most of us would say the answer probably is yes, but that might not be enough to satisfy market demands for sustainable agricultural supply chains in the future.

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 overall, 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 Balckom, Executive Director of the American Grassfed Association and Lesley Mitchel, 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. Through the debate, the participants respectfully disagreed on some points while generally agreeing 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, Clady 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. Historically, he says, humans have tended to deplete resources and then move on, since land and water seemed infinite. In reality, 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 also 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.

Clady 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.

According to the 2016 Global Agricultural Productivity (GAP) report from the Global Harvest Initiative, about 20% of the world’s livestock are lost to disease, with resources invested in raising them essentially wasted. And in addition to death loss, we lose tremendous volumes of potential milk and meat production to diseases such as mastitis and bovine respiratory disease.

The GAP report focuses on the “One Health” approach for livestock and people, noting that “when livestock are healthy, it is possible to improve their milk, egg and meat productivity and reduce the overall numbers of animals needed to meet demand for animal products, thereby delivering profound benefits for the environment. Yet one-fifth of livestock around the world are lost to disease. This is associated with widespread animal suffering, reduced farmer profitability and is perhaps the greatest untold story of food waste today.”

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.

Depletion of resources or loss of animal health are not consistent with efficient production, Scholten says. “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.

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Why it matters

Regardless of what you think of the sustainability issue or how your practices fit, you might need to measure and document more in the future.

The retail market will drive that need, as consumers increasingly pressure corporations to demonstrate that their supply chains are verifiably sustainable. McDonald’s, for example, announced in 2014 its commitment to begin sourcing at least some of its beef from verifiable sustainable production chains by 2016. The company did not set specific goals for sustainable supplies at the time, largely because “sustainable” production was not well defined, as were any measurable indicators of environmental, economic and social sustainability across beef-production sectors.

To address those issues, McDonald’s partnered with the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef to conduct a “Sustainable Beef Pilot Project” in Canada.

In developing the pilot project, McDonald’s solicited input from a range of stakeholder groups across Canada to develop specific indicators and a scoring methodology for sustainability. Eventually the group identified 31 indicators for the cow-calf stage, 29 for fed cattle and 28 for processing plants. The group developed a one-to-five performance scale, and used independent third-party auditors to assign each operation with a performance score for each indicator.

The pilot project was completed in June 2016. Between January 2014 and April 2016, the group conducted 183 on-site verifications on 178 beef operations, two packers, one beef-patty plant and two dairy farms. Ultimately, the program verified 8,967 cattle from 121 cow-calf producers and backgrounders, 20 feedlots and two packers. McDonald’s was able to source just over 300,000 pounds of beef trim from verifiably sustainable beef sources during the pilot. Company representatives say they believe they can scale the program up relatively quickly to build a significant supply chain for sustainable beef in Canada.

While this pilot test was small, it serves as an example of where companies are headed in their efforts to demonstrate sustainability to their customers and shareholders. Producers need to make their voices heard, as some form of sustainability verification could become a cost of doing business in the future.

Read more about the McDonald’s pilot project at www.mcdvsb.com.