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If farm animals only graze pastures and eat by-products - livestock problem solved?

24th Feb 2016

The extract below comes from an article written by Elin Roos, a postdoctoral researcher at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences and initially published on the FCRN website.  The link to the full paper is here

About 40% of the cereals and legume grains produced every year are used to feed farm animals. Many commentators argue that this is highly resource inefficient as around 70% of the human edible energy produced is lost in the process due to metabolic losses in the animals.  For example typically 4 kg of cereals and legumes is needed to produce one kg of edible poultry meat ( Roos et al., 2014), although the quantity varies by system. By contrast raising livestock on by-products that humans can’t or don’t want to eat or waste is often considered to be a resource efficient way of producing protein for human consumption, as is raising livestock on biomass from grasslands unsuitable for the production of human edible foods e.g. natural or semi-natural pastures or other marginal grasslands. (For a deeper discussion of the concept of efficiency please refer to the FCRN paper on efficiency)

This approach of letting the ecological resource capacity be the constraining factor for livestock production, i.e. to restrict livestock production to feeds not suitable for human consumption has been around for some time and was coined as "producing livestock on ecological leftovers" in a paper by FCRN's Tara Garnett in 2009 and explored further as one of the scenarios presented in ‘Gut Feelings

This concept of restricting livestock production is attractive in several ways. From a food security perspective it has been argued that diverting grains from animal feed to human food would increase available food supply. Further, the concept is compatible with principles of agro-ecology (e.g. adjusting production to context-specific conditions and making use of local resources) and makes use of pastures for food production which a vegan diet would not. It also yields a diet which would contain meat and dairy; products that most people appreciate in their diets. However, despite the popularity of framing sustainable meat production in this way, there are few studies that have looked into how a diet based on this concept would actually look like and what the environmental impacts of such a diet would be. This said, recently Schader et al.(2015) modelled various scenarios of global livestock production in which reliance on food-competing feed crops was progressively reduced. They found that greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental impacts would be reduced (compared with the reference scenario), and enough food would be supplied although only 11% of protein would come from animal sources, as compared with 38% in the reference scenario.

In a study published late last year my colleagues and I made an attempt to apply this concept to Sweden and see what kind of diet that would give (Röös et al., 2015b)

To read more of this article please click here.