For a ton of reasons, raising livestock worldwide needs to get a lot more sustainable. That was a key theme Tuesday when experts in livestock research, nutrition, public policy and related interests met to focus on what needs to happen in the livestock sector worldwide in the generations ahead.
“Many people eat too much meat; many get no meat at all,” noted Shenggen Fan, director general of the International Food Policy Research Institute, opening a symposium in Washington, D.C., jointly with the Farm Foundation and the German Embassy. But that disparity is just one in countless issues the world must face with farm animals, which, Fan noted, also contribute 17 percent of the Earth’s greenhouse gases.
The event was a sort of alliance-building exercise and U.S. follow-up to “Shaping the Future of Livestock – sustainably, responsibly, efficiently.” It’s a new report by the global Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and was the focus earlier this month when agriculture ministers from 69 countries and other leaders in the food and farm sectors convened for the 10th annual Global Forum for Food and Agriculture in Berlin.
This year’s forum was held to “address the complexity and diversity of livestock systems ... and to conserve biodiversity,” declared Friedrich Wacker, who heads the Directorate on International Cooperation of the German Ministry of Food and Agriculture. He spoke to Tuesday’s gathering by video screen. After fighting over about 400 amendments about over-use of antibiotics, how much feed livestock consume, etc., he said, the forum approved a joint report unanimously, describing what’s needed to achieve long-term sustainable livestock management.
Perhaps even more essentially, however, both the Berlin and Washington gatherings occurred because folks know that the world’s livestock sectors are going to get much, much bigger in the generations ahead.
Already in the past 30 past years, consumption of meat, milk and eggs has more than tripled overall in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). But “population growth, urbanization, income gains and globalization continue to fuel the livestock revolution,” accelerating demand for protein foods. FAO projects that, based on current trends, “meat demand in LMICs will increase by a further 80 percent by 2030 and by over 200 percent by 2050.”
John McDermot, who directs a global agricultural research program for IFPRI, pointed out that livestock ownership is not equitable: 700 million of the world’s farm animal owners are impoverished, with few resources to keep or improve flocks and herds. The most critical things such small landholders need, he suggested, is agricultural and food regulation that is risk-based, a lot of help in accessing information and organizing (cooperatives, etc.), and access to technology for improving livestock health and nutrition.
The Washington event also invited updates on what American livestock sectors are doing to make operations more sustainable.
Joe Swedberg, a retired Hormel Foods executive and food safety expert who now chairs the Farm Foundation’s board of directors, told of his ongoing partnership with the Pew Charitable Trusts and several food and livestock sector participants toward improved national policy on use of animal antibiotics.
Karen Scanlon, a vice president at Dairy Management Inc., reported on the work of DMI’s Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy and its leadership in the industry-wide Stewardship and Sustainability Framework for U.S. Dairy.
A decade ago, she said, DMI implemented sustainability principles for environmentally sound practices, improved breeding for more efficient milk production and so forth. She noted that cows in their program produce four times the volume of milk of the world’s average dairy cow, resulting in the world’s lowest greenhouse gas emissions per unit of milk.
Tuesday’s discussion also touched on the great needs and benefits of animal-source foods, which provide 39 percent of protein and 18 percent of human calorie intake worldwide. Those food sources, FAO says, are critical, especially for children, providing vitamin B12, riboflavin, calcium, iron, zinc and many essential fatty acids that are hard to access from plant-based foods alone.
There’s a mounting need to better manage livestock, especially for small farms, to keep agriculture healthy and productive, said Christopher Delgado, a consultant with the Africa Agricultural Policy Unit of the World Bank. “Environmental degradation can be caused by livestock, but can be remedied by it, too,” he said.