Livestock and Feed Conversion: Food Producers or Food Thieves?

Posted by on October 10th, 2013 | 0 Comments »
Michael Shyer

Michael Shyer

The Global Harvest Initiative is fortunate to host Michael Shyer as a policy intern from September through December 2013.  Michael attends Cornell University, where he is enrolled in the China and Asia Pacific Studies program.  He is a recipient of the U.S. Department of Education Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) Fellowship, is learning Mandarin, and is pursuing his interests in Chinese studies, agriculture and ecology, and the intersection of the environment and foreign policy. 

Livestock and Feed Conversion: Food Producers or Food Thieves?

by Michael Shyer, GHI policy intern

There is a common perception that livestock “steal” food from the public and the poor. Would humans do better eating less meat and keeping the feed for ourselves? Rising incomes and population growth will increase global demand for protein-rich diets, making the uncertainties of animal agriculture extremely important for international food security.[1]  [2] In their famous 2006 report, Livestock’s Long Shadow, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) described many of the negative impacts of animal agriculture and its effect on the economy and environment. Among other criticisms, they noted that livestock produce fewer calories and less protein than they consume.[3] This now-common notion of livestock inefficiency has come into question recently, and the discussion has centered on the topic of feed efficiency, measured with Feed Conversion Ratios (FCR).

FCR is simply a ratio of the amount of feed input it takes to produce a set quantity of animal product output (such as a unit of weight gain or a dozen eggs). In this measure, a higher number indicates less efficiency. Most livestock, and particularly cattle, are often said to have high ratios, and therefore consume much more than they produce. The Council for Agricultural Science and Technology’s (CAST) recent publication Animal Feed vs. Human Food: Challenges and Opportunities in Sustaining Animal Agriculture Toward 2050, directly addresses this issue. Specifically, they recommend changing the FCR ratio, distinguishing human-digestible feed from human-indigestible feed to paint a fairer portrait of livestock efficiency.

PeruLivestock, they note, consume many products that humans cannot eat, such as agro-industrial waste products and crop residues. It is therefore unfair to claim that because they eat more than they produce, that they are inefficient for humans. They effectively convert inedible waste into human-edible protein.[4] Furthermore, if human-indigestible feed is excluded from the FCR, many livestock, especially cattle, get much lower (more efficient) scores. Dairy cattle even produce a surplus (ratio lower than 1), essentially acting as recyclers of waste products into useful, high energy food.[5] If this is the case, then should livestock play an even greater role than in the global agricultural economy?

When contemplating the role livestock should play, it is important to take all considerations into account. The CAST paper and the studies they cite do indicate that most livestock are more efficient users of feed than most people and many environmentalists perceive. Nevertheless, they are still inefficient, with FCR ratios above 1, in some cases far above it.[6] Importantly, many of the human-indigestible feed sources are of limited quantity, or are increasingly being used to produce energy, indicating that further gains in livestock production will rely mostly on human-edible grains.[7] [8] For example, the Livestock’s Long Shadow report notes that as genetic biotechnology becomes more sophisticated, human-indigestible crop residues are selected against and are reduced, leaving less for animal feeds or other uses.

Ultimately, the animal agriculture industry should be analyzed in a scientific and nuanced fashion. The complex issues associated with the industry should not be oversimplified into up or down labels such as “good,” or “bad.”  In the context of feed efficiency, the industry is not “stealing” grain from the hands of the poor. In fact, it can serve as an important buffer for grain prices and provides a critical source of very nutritious protein.[9]

Animal agriculture is not going away. While there are significant issues associated with the industry, there are also significant opportunities for improvements in terms of the environment and food security.  Technological and environmental improvements should be advanced to make the industry as efficient as possible. Government and private R&D spending can provide critical productivity increases, especially in the developing world, reducing environmental impacts and increasing outputs per input.[10]  Furthermore, innovations from the developed world should be extended and adapted to local needs in developing countries where the demand growth for livestock will be greatest. Extending this knowledge and technology could have profound impacts overseas. For example, the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) noted that “One-third of the world’s cattle, which are found in developed regions, currently produce 70 and 80 percent of the global beef and milk supplies.”[11] There is significant room for developing country livestock producers to improve their output through greater efficiencies to meet the coming demand.

[1] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. (2009) How to feed the world in 2050. Rome, Italy.

[2] Mazzocchi, M., Shankar B. and Traill, B. (2012, October) Commodity and Trade Policy Research Working Paper No. 34. The development of global diets since 1992: influences of agri-food sector trends and policies. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Rome, Italy.

[3] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. (2006) livestock’s long shadow: environmental issues and options.

[4] Clapper, Jude., Berger, Larry., Mindy, Brashears., Jensen, Helen. (2013) Animal Feed vs. Human Food: Challenges and Opportunities in Sustaining Animal Agriculture Toward 2050. Council for Agricultural Science and Technology.

[5] Wilkinson, J.M. (2010, December) Re-defining efficiency of feed use by livestock. University of Nottinham, Leicestershire, UK.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Elferink, E.V., Nonhebel, S., Moll, H.C. (2007, June) Feeding livestock food residue and the consequences for the environmental impact of meat. University of Groningen Center for Energy and Environmental Studies, Groningen, The Netherlands.

[8] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. (2006) livestock’s long shadow: environmental issues and options.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Fitzhugh, H.A., Ehui, S.K., Lahlou-Kasai, A. (1992) Research strategies for development of animal agriculture. International Livestock Research Institute, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

[11] Ibid.

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