CLAREMONT, Calif. — The global food system has changed drastically over the past several decades, in conjunction with the growing human population, increased urbanization and environmental concerns. More land is used for livestock and crops, and the growing population increases the demand for food products.
While the meat industry has long been apart of civilization, the human population has become increasingly dependent on livestock and meat for their livelihood and food.
Almost 1.3 billion people depend, in some manner, on raising livestock, and the meat industry itself makes up about one-third of global agricultural gross domestic product.
While meat accounts for approximately 17 percent of caloric intake around the globe, the industry leaves much room for improvement in terms of sustainability.
More land is used for grazing, feeding and housing livestock than for any other purpose, and the demand continues to increase. Meat consumption in most of Africa and Southern Asia is roughly one-fifth of European and American annual rates.
By 2050, meat consumption around the world is estimated to double.
Livestock play an essential role in developing countries around the world by providing income, food sources, power, manure and enhancing social status. About two-thirds of rural households in impoverished areas have livestock, and the highest rates of homes with livestock are in densely populated, low-income areas.
Livestock efficiency in low-income countries is consequently much less than in developed countries. Animals often forage for themselves and consume things that they otherwise would not eat.
These countries also face a lack of clear production systems due to cost, and families typically keep a variety of different animals rather than specialize in a certain type.
In the December 2013 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences, a study examined the varied efficiencies and environmental impacts of different regions of the world.
The research suggests that rather than shrugging off the livestock business completely, it should instead be focused on reform. Still, the numbers show that livestock use up an incredibly large amount of the world’s resources: animals in the industry use one-third of global crops and one-third of fresh water.
To examine where sustainable improvements can be made, the research looked at biomass use, meat production, efficiency and other aspects of farming in different regions of the world. The study revealed that livestock and product efficiency varied greatly throughout the world — however, instead of pushing for promoting less meat production, the study explained that the system has room for reform, debunking the myth that the meat industry does more harm than foul to the developing world.
For example, milk is much more efficient to produce than meat, taking five times less the amount of protein to produce than meat. Chicken and pigs convert grain into meat at a rate of about 2-3 kg of feed for 1 kg of meat. The ratio for lambs is higher, and beef is higher yet, ranging from five to one up to 20 to one.
The study also examined the greenhouse gas emissions associated with each meat product. Chicken was relatively low, at 3.7 kg of emissions per one kilo of protein, compared to beef, which had emissions as high as 1,000 kg.
For each kilo of protein, a cow in the United States or Europe will need to eat somewhere between 75 and 300 kg of hay. In many parts of Africa, however, a cow will need to eat between 500 and 2,000 kg more because the land quality is poor. Cattle on dry range lands also produce 100 times as much greenhouse gases as those in the United States or Europe for the same amount of meat.
As agricultural practices around the world change to meet the needs of the growing population, developing countries have the opportunity to make the needed alterations to the agricultural system. A huge portion of the world is dependent on meat consumption: rather than attempt to eliminate that portion of the economy, it can be strengthened through focusing on those areas where meat production is most sustainable.
– Julia Thomas