Is there a place for animal agriculture when food is scarce?

Posted on February 13, 2012

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by Mary Buhr

As the global population grows by 30-40 per cent in the next 40 years, access to food will become more precious and agriculturally productive land will be increasingly at a premium. Limited access to food will be exacerbated if climate change reduces the amount of productive land in currently arable areas. Some people argue that animal agriculture will have no place in that world, citing competition for plant food sources, production of greenhouse gases (particularly from ruminants) and the need to manage manure.

Let’s look at the facts.

Why animals? Animals produce high-quality, easily digested protein on which the human omnivore is biologically designed to thrive. They add to biodiversity and provide transportation, labour and companionship. Animal-based high value food protein is in increasing demand in geographical areas of improving wealth. Animals also provide non-meat products of high and/or additional value. These products include milk, fabric, leather, fur, energy, fertilizer, co-products such as gelatine, lard, vaccines, pet food, and components for cosmetics and the personal grooming industry.

Competing for plant food sources. Animals can graze on land that cannot efficiently produce plant-based food for human consumption, and they can thrive on non-edible byproducts of human food production (plant material from various sources, such as canola meal, human food waste, etc.). However, it is common to feed human-edible grain products to animals. This significantly increases the efficiency of animal meat production per hectare, reducing the cost to consumers and providing a reliably high-quality product, but does promote human-animal competition for the same plant products.

Greenhouse gases. Nitrous oxide (N2O) and methane are greenhouse gases naturally produced from domestic animals. Ruminants directly exhale methane, and animal manure, whether stored or spread on the ground, produces N2O. Additional greenhouse gases come from the non-renewable gas, oil and energy used to produce feed and manage the animals. Recent research shows that changing the animals’ diet can reduce methane production by ruminants. Other research hints that we may be able to select animals that naturally produce less methane, and develop methods of grazing and land management that would reduce animal emission of greenhouse gases. Technology to decrease the use of non-renewable fuels and energy is already being developed.

The value of animal products and uses cannot be underestimated. Animals represent a normal part of the human omnivore’s diet, provide a wide range of other commodities, and are a reliable source of income for Saskatchewan’s people and provincial economy. They can be a critical part of a sustainable, well-balanced ecosystem.

Our markets, fellow citizens and policy-makers need careful thought and wise counsel to weigh the relative values of inefficient production of variable-quality animal products on marginal land, versus efficient production of reliable high-quality animal-based products using human-grade feedstuffs, versus efficient production of byproducts (some of which are not currently approved), versus greenhouse gas – and versus environmental costs and benefits.

For myself, I believe properly managed animal agriculture has a positive role in global food security.

Dr. Mary Buhr
is Dean of the College of Agriculture & Bioresources at the U of S