Are Cows Eating Our Food?

Kentucky University's Dr Roy Burris examines the balance between human food and animal feed and describes a recent report analysing food chain resource competition.
calendar icon 11 February 2014
clock icon 3 minute read

As the world population continues to grow - expected to reach 8 billion by 2025, 9 billion by 2050 and exceed 10 billion by 2100 - the concern about animals competing with humans for food continues to grow.

These concerns will likely impact livestock production but what does this mean to the future of livestock - especially beef production?

The Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST) published an Issue Paper "Animal Feed vs. Human Food: Challenges and Opportunities in Sustaining Animal Agriculture Toward 2050". It gives an in-depth study of the subject and deals with the perception that "feed produced for livestock competes for human food supplies and represents an inefficient or wasteful use of resources". The global livestock industry faces a challenge because this perception exists.

This task force noted the following:

  • Global animal agriculture provides safe, affordable, nutrient-dense food that supports human health, in addition to supplying medicines, manufactured goods, etc.
  • Large areas of land are incapable of supporting the production of human food crops.
  • Gains can be made by "recycling" safe, yet otherwise valueless, by-products from human food and fiber production.

I've heard it said that "corn drives everything that happens in the beef industry". Are we too dependent upon corn? The future may dictate that we have to change. I've always heard it said that we have to have "at least 100 days of heavy grain feeding to have good eating quality in beef". Maybe, but it's time to question everything that we've been told.

Cattle (ruminants) aren't as efficient in converting grain to meat as pigs and chickens (monogastrics). Maybe we should let them compete for feedstuffs (grain) that can be used as human food. But where would the cow feed come from? We must do a better job grazing cattle on land that isn't suitable for crop production. Not just by better grazing management but also in selecting cattle that perform well on forage diets (that humans and nonruminant animals don't eat). We could reduce the time they spend in the feedlots.

The CAST report stated that "research is continuing to optimize utilization of pasture, crop residues, and by-product feeds in all aspects of livestock and poultry production. As the world population continues to grow, livestock and poultry will be essential to convert feedstuffs that are inedible to humans to high-quality protein sources. Ruminant animals will be the most valuable because they can convert the energy in fibrous feeds to milk, meat, wool and other products.

But what about "eating" quality of beef? How much corn is needed? I know that we are making gigantic strides in genetics. Let's select those animals that have the desired genes for tenderness, marbling and flavor. However, if we keep selecting animals based on information that is generated while on high grain diets, we may be going in the wrong direction. Look for animals that can produce and yield high quality meat on forage programs with more of the energy coming from by-product feeds during the finishing period. I think that we should use more forages and by-products so that we aren't in competition with the human food supply.

It won't be easy but times are changing. The CAST report said that sustainability can be divided into three components: environmental stewardship, economic viability, and social responsibility. It further states that the biggest challenge facing animal agriculture within the next 50 years is to maintain or improve these three facets of responsibility.

This is but a very brief look at some things that are dealt with in the report but as an industry, we have to stay grounded and keep a keen eye on the future. Remember, a good wing shooter doesn't aim where the bird is . . . but where it is going!

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