Speaking at the public pre-conference event ‘Is there a future role for livestock in global food security’, academics said they had no doubt about the answer. Laura Bowyer reports.
The conference, organised by Global Farm Platform and held at the University of Bristol, attracted animal scientists from 40 countries and was set to continue for two days of discussion.
Although the finer details of the four academic presenters differed, the need for livestock to be in our future diets was a common thread.
Prof Mike Wilkinson of Nottingham University told the audience ‘the media use statistics of how many kilos of grain it takes to produce a kilo of meat as a stick to beat livestock production with’. He recommended kilos of dry matter, rather than grain, should be used to measure efficiency.
He said: “Pigs and poultry really are not as efficient as ruminants when you look at the level of human-edible food they are fed. For example, grass-fed lamb is produced using a low level of concentrates, apart from maybe in the late stages of ewe pregnancy.
“The amount of grain used in monogastric systems is staggering. Ignoring cereal-fed beef, if you compare ruminants to monogastric systems there really is little difference in feed conversion, once you take out the human-inedible parts of their diets.”
In examining the amount of human-edible protein fed to an animal compared to the protein they produce, upland suckler herds are particularly efficient, as is milk production, he said.
Speakers also addressed land use, saying two to four times as much arable land is used to produce one-tonne of pig or poultry meat, compared to grass-fed ruminants, making these production systems more environmentally friendly and efficient in this respect.
Prof Wilkinson also discussed the environmental benefits ruminants brought to the table, including their ability to improve the utilisation of nitrogen by grass and their niche as efficient fibre digesters.
According to Graeme Martin, Prof of animal biology at the University of Western Australia, ‘livestock accounts for 65 per cent of the globe’s total vertebrate population and they are, therefore, ‘a dominant force’.
Prof Martin said: “Livestock should be part of the equation for future food security, but we are presented with several hurdles preventing us achieving this.”
He emphasised the need for matching breeds to their environment, claiming the Holstein may thrive in the UK and countries with similar conditions, but it was unsuited to the tropics and ‘is, after all, the world’s most infertile farm animal’.
He said: “Holsteins are not built to be kept in these hot and humid climates, so consequently the cost of production is high. We need to be keeping native, local breeds globally, while using modern genomics. With 21 per cent of breeds in danger of extinction in the world, this approach will also help save these valuable gene pools.”
It was agreed the amount of grain fed to livestock was unsustainable, as it was food which humans could be eating.
Stating 70 per cent of the world’s grain is fed to livestock, 40 per cent of which is fed to ruminants, Prof Martin said: “One billion tonnes of cereals are fed to livestock a year, which is enough for 3.5 billion people. We expect there will be a population increase of 3.5bn by 2050.
“We need to be keeping stock off fertile land capable of cropping, and keep them in the hills and other less productive areas.”