Animal feed or human food?

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As we look at the obstacles in building the precision pig of the future, producers must consider the perceptions held by consumers. One of those perceptions is that feed produced for livestock competes for human food supplies, and represents an inefficient or wasteful use of resources. An issue paper by the Center for Agricultural Science and Technology published last fall reviews the present situation and explains what the industry needs to do to move the gauge in its favor.

Authors of the paper are Jude Capper, Montana State University; Larry Berger, University of Nebraska; Mindy Brashears, Texas Tech University; and Helen Jensen, Iowa State University. They note that all foods have an environmental cost, and that cost is not restricted to foods of animal origin.

“There can be no doubt that the global livestock industry faces a considerable challenge in the next 50 years,” write the authors. “The need to provide more food to fulfill the demands of the growing global population while countering the myriad claims relating to the environmental, economic, and social sustainability of animal production will require continued scientific development and an unprecedented level of collaboration among livestock producers, animal health and feed industry professionals, researchers and policymakers. Developing an effective, proactive communication strategy that conveys in a compelling manner the benefits of the livestock industry should be an important focus of the various livestock supply chains and their trade/professional associations and organizations.”

Presumed Dichotomy Exists
Consumers have concerns regarding the sustainability of livestock production, while on the other hand, there is increasing demand for animal-source foods due to population growth, note the authors. They write that many consumers are “unaware of the advantages of livestock productivity gains conferred by modern practices, by-product feeds, and the use of technology.

“Animal agriculture uses resources (both renewable and nonrenewable) and has a measurable environmental footprint. At the same time, the benefits accrued to society by the livestock industry are substantial in terms of economic profitability, the supply of high-quality proteins in conjunction with macro- and micronutrients, and the provision of cultural and societal standing within developing regions.

“The significant savings in environmental footprint and economic cost conferred by improved productivity within livestock systems must be communicated to the consumer in order to demonstrate the gains made by advances in animal nutrition, genetics, and management over time, as well as to enhance consumer confidence in modern agriculture.”

Among other factors, the authors explain that large areas of land are incapable of supporting the production of human food crops: “Terrain, soil type and climate render the majority of land currently used for grazing unsuitable for cultivation for the production of vegetable-based foods for human consumption…” Furthermore, “the gains made by ‘recycling’ safe, yet otherwise valueless by-products from human food and fiber production lessen competition between humans and animals for crops that can equally be used for feed or food, maximize land use efficiency and decrease the environmental impact of food production.”

Agriculture’s Responsibility
The authors believe “it is the responsibility of every livestock production stakeholder, from the producer to the policymaker, to help educate consumers with regard to the sustainability of animal agriculture…Historically, there has been little interaction between producers and stakeholders further down the production chain. In the future, a greater degree of collaboration will be required as the desire grows for retailers and restaurants to demonstrate sustainability… Effective consumer information is vital within all sectors of agriculture, but particularly within animal agriculture.”


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