Can Livestock Production Meet the Growing Demand for Meat in Developing Countries?
The short answer is yes. Livestock production cannot only meet the growing demand for animal proteins, but we absolutely need livestock to use the planet in a sustainable and healthy way.
Here is why: food production in the 21st century needs to be better matched to food consumption so as to avoid wasting produced biomass.
Yet many people feel that animal based food consumption should be reduced because of the larger ecological footprint compared to plant based food products. But is that really true? Alas, this is more complex than black versus white. Thinking in terms of circular food production systems rather than a linear food commodity chain explains this. A circular economy implies that we can retrieve all waste and transform it into livestock feed (and also fish, but that is not the question here). So in theory, nothing is wasted. Moreover, there are many parts of the world where growing crops or trees are not an option, but grazing livestock is. Animals can unlock nutrients from grasses that we humans cannot digest. So there is, in many areas, a logical synergy between animal and plant proteins. Small farmers all over the world know this and use animal manure and traction for their fields. Here however, we are talking about complementarity at continental or even global levels.
For a sustainable nutrition security, a moderate consumption of animal based proteins in conjunction with plant based proteins is the best option. The optimum ratio depends on the local conditions for food production and to which extent circularity is arranged in a mixed crop-animal system with manure based soil fertilization. In classical commodity supply systems, the optimal production of human edible proteins per hectare of land without depleting resources or biodiversity stands at a 88:12 ratio of plant-based to animal-based proteins. But in a food system in which all available plant biomass is unlocked by using the great digestive capacity of livestock, this ratio shifts to 55:45. This means that we need less land and fewer resources to produce nutritious food, leaving more land for nature and urban development.
But how can we make better use of livestock? In those areas of the world where the conditions are that marginal that only grass based food production is feasible, we can improve the management of ruminant production by means of ecological intensification. In arable lands, we can produce more nutritious feed for ruminants, poultry and pigs from crop residuals that are as of now being wasted. And in urbanized regions, intensive, interconnected horti-livestock-fish farming can be connected to a circular bio-based economy. This includes the production of feed for pigs and poultry from food surpluses and residuals.
We must therefore overcome the deadlock; meat consumption in moderate quantities is not only important for human health, but also for the health of the planet. In fact, this is a new way of thinking, a paradigm shift, based on sound ecology. Livestock, including grazing animals, poultry and pigs, are top digesters of biomass. This means new challenges for breeding goals, feeding practices and health care in livestock management.
Just a last example of how revolutionary this way of thinking is; at Wageningen University & Research, we have developed a method of biological upgrading of crop residuals by breaking the lignin in stakes and leaves of grain-producing crops like wheat, rice and maize using edible mushrooms. Produced is a feed for dairy cows that is as good as fresh mown rye-grass. A ten-fold increase in milk production of the cows due to better nutrition and health status has occurred over the last decades. But this is not all. In decomposing plant biomass, insects and worms can be produced, forming an excellent protein stock for poultry feed, as poultry are insectivorous by nature.
A climate-smart and nutrition-smart food production for the almost ten billion people that will live on our planet is feasible if animals are included. To become vegan to save the world may seem laudable, but it is not as smart as consuming meat in small quantities to use the planet’s full ecological potential.