can animal husbandry, which contributes the most to animal protein, really achieve “sustainability”?
In the second article of this series, “deep recognition of protein (middle): alternative protein and aquaculture, not the optimal solution”, we focus on the two protein production methods that have attracted much attention at present – alternative protein and aquaculture, and carry out an in-depth discussion around the nutritional value, employment space, and the relationship between industrial development and natural ecology.
In this article, we will return to the “original intention” – sustainable development of these two industries to analyze the thorns and challenges faced by the animal protein production system on the sustainable road.
As the world’s largest meat consumer and major pork producer, China’s animal husbandry (including feed production and processing) is an important part of the global social and ecological blueprint. Facing the general trend of the transformation of food production mode, China has been trying to find a truly sustainable way of protein production and consumption to complete the innovation of animal husbandry.
With the proposal of China’s “double carbon” vision in 2020, greenhouse gas emissions for animal husbandry and even the whole agriculture have been frequently put on the table. Traditional animal husbandry production instantly became the target of criticism of “environmentalists”: some people called for the old and the new to change to the production mode of plant-derived food; Some people hope that technological innovation can enhance the productivity advantage of animal husbandry and weaken its negative environmental impact; Some people have proposed to build a renewable animal husbandry production system to alleviate the global ecological crisis… But these seemingly “no point deduction” answers are the panacea?
1. Does traditional animal husbandry, which does not perform satisfactorily in terms of carbon emission indicators, equate with unsustainability?
2. Scientific and technological innovation promotes the rapid development of animal husbandry industry and the gradual expansion of industrial income. Can it dilute the increasingly severe environmental impact?
3. What are the obstacles in building a renewable animal husbandry system and improving climate and soil ecology?
Major carbon emitters and the backbone of people’s Livelihood: double-sided holes in animal husbandry
In 2006, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization released the report “livestock’s long shadow”, which pointed out for the first time that livestock is the main factor causing land degradation, air pollution, water pollution, overexploitation and biodiversity loss. Since then, there has been a surge in research on the impact of livestock on the environment, and the voice of unsustainable animal husbandry industry has become more and more common.
Many commentators, organizations and ordinary consumers have begun to believe that meat production is contrary to the mission and goal of global sustainable development. Greenpeace, an environmental organization, believes that the meat industry is a driver of a wide range of issues such as climate change and forest fires. In order to save land resources and protect biodiversity, nature conservation associations such as WWF have also been emphasizing the importance of reducing the production of meat and animal derived food.
Animal husbandry, which once depended on the world for survival, became the target of public criticism, and even fanned the flames in it, pushing the whole industry completely to the opposite of sustainable development, trying to create the illusion that “animal husbandry and sustainable development are difficult to coexist”. But in fact, the output of animal husbandry to society and global ecology is not only a seemingly higher carbon emission figure, but also the economic value and other positive environmental impacts that are difficult to quantify one by one.
1. The more intensive, the higher carbon emissions?
When considering the impact of ecological environment, human health and industrial development, the highly diversified characteristics of animal husbandry system in different countries and regions are always ignored in the discussion of sustainable issues, resulting in the global animal husbandry being labeled as “high carbon emission”.
The high diversity of the world’s livestock system reflects the different resource endowments, demand patterns, market structures, agroclimatic conditions and government support in various regions. In many countries around the world, the trend of intensive animal husbandry is becoming more and more obvious, and the scale is becoming larger and larger. But it would be a big mistake to attribute the increase in greenhouse gas emissions related to food production to intensive production.
Image source: farm4trade Suite
In many cases, compared with the extensive and low input production mode, the greenhouse gas emissions per unit product of the intensive and high input livestock production mode are much smaller. Among them, the reduction of greenhouse gases in the process of cattle breeding is particularly obvious. Cows will produce methane during digestion, and cow dung as fertilizer will also produce nitrous oxide and methane. Therefore, cattle breeding is the main “contributor” of greenhouse gas emissions in the process of agricultural production.
Compared with countries dominated by extensive agriculture, developed countries have more intensive agricultural systems and are more climate friendly. In a more intensive animal husbandry system, farmers will replace some forage with grain based concentrated feed. Grain is easier to be digested by cattle than pasture, which helps to reduce the output of methane in the digestion process, and brings a more ideal emission reduction effect.
Compared with other extensive animal husbandry systems, intensive beef and dairy production units in Europe and North America have lower greenhouse gas emissions. For example, in sub Saharan Africa, the greenhouse gas emissions from the production of a gallon (about 3.78 liters) of milk are almost six times that of North America.
Source: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
A study published in the annual review of animal Biosciences in 2010 shows that the promotion of intensive production systems worldwide is highly likely to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from animal husbandry, both from the perspective of production and from the perspective of carbon emissions related to land use change. However, on the whole, the current animal husbandry production patterns and their respective risks / benefits are significantly different in different regions. Therefore, it seems biased to confuse intensive and extensive animal husbandry production into the anti sustainable camp.
2. “Dual personality” of animal husbandry
With the rapid development of global economy and science and technology, animal husbandry production has gradually changed to intensive and professional production, which has become the main driving factor of environmental pollution, climate change and biodiversity loss. Among them, the most well-known environmental impact assessment index is carbon emissions. According to the data released by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, animal husbandry production of meat and dairy products accounts for 14.5% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.
However, it cannot be denied that animal husbandry, which bears the reputation of “unsustainable”, has always been the backbone of the global economy, food supply, employment and livelihood. In developed and developing countries, animal husbandry accounts for 40% of agricultural GDP. In terms of dietary nutrition, animal husbandry provides 34% of the global protein intake and 18% of dietary energy, and provides micronutrients that are not easily available in plant-based diets. It is particularly important that billions of people around the world take raising livestock or relying on livestock derivatives as their basic source of income.
Many families can generate income by selling food and non food products in the animal husbandry industry chain in the market. For example, wool harvesting in high-altitude tropical areas such as Bolivia, Peru and Nepal is an important source of income for local people.
Livestock itself is also a powerful tool for agricultural production. In western Kenya, livestock can provide animal power for agriculture and transportation, and provide nutrients for planting in the form of manure. Using livestock manure as fertilizer can reduce the cost of chemical fertilizer, improve soil structure and improve soil fertility. This is a key resource, especially suitable for mixed farming systems in sub Saharan Africa.
In addition to human health, economic and environmental roles, livestock also has important social and cultural roles. In many parts of Africa, social relations are related to livestock to a certain extent, and the scale of livestock raised by a family may give it corresponding social importance.
In developed countries, animal husbandry also has considerable cultural value. Characteristic animal species often complement local natural landscapes, such as large-scale pig farming in the Mediterranean oak forest on the Iberian Peninsula.
Iberi pigs grow in southern and southwestern Spain, and are closely related to wild boars. After thousands of years of breeding, unique Mediterranean climate and special feeding methods, it has grown into the most noble pig species. Known as “the best pork in the world”, it is a Spanish national treasure. Therefore, local animal husbandry has become a key element of the national cultural system.
Scientific and technological innovation is not the master key to save traditional animal husbandry
For a long time, animal husbandry has always faced great challenges at the sustainable level. However, as science and technology enable animal husbandry to improve quality and efficiency, more and more people believe that the emergence of new technologies will play an important role in reducing industrial environmental impact.
Supporters of technological innovation claim that the current production mode of animal husbandry is outdated and inefficient. Technological innovation has made “sustainable meat production” possible. Cargill, one of the world’s four largest grain traders, launched the “beefup sustainability” plan in 2020, which aims to reduce the greenhouse gas intensity of its North American beef supply chain by 30% by 2030, aiming to develop new technologies based on the “protein production chain” in an all-round way to transform the animal production industry and enhance sustainability.
In 2021, the agricultural innovation mission for climate, a multilateral cooperation organization jointly initiated by the governments of the United States and the United Arab Emirates, plans to invest $5million to reduce methane emissions from the intestines of cattle through selective reproduction, feed additives and supplements, and artificial intelligence monitoring. They believe that “animal husbandry needs new technologies, products and methods to mitigate and adapt to climate change, while supporting growth and employment.”
It is undeniable that the industrial changes brought about by technological innovation are obvious to all, but it is not a “panacea” for animal husbandry once and for all. The booming animal husbandry has diversified production scales, different capital backgrounds, different technical forces, and the dual nature of technology itself, which makes it difficult for us to deify the scientific and technological effects in the sustainable development of animal husbandry.
1. Innovative technology is difficult to solve deep-seated structural problems
Most of the time, industrial development plans formulated from the perspective of technological innovation usually give priority to capital intensive farms, which makes it difficult for decentralized and small-scale production merchants to benefit.
For example, California issued policy subsidies for anaerobic digesters used to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from livestock manure, and plans to expand them to other parts of the United States. However, small and medium-sized producers cannot afford the cost of building digesters of US $3-5 million, and daily production cannot produce enough waste. As a result, the technology promotion of subsidies can only be limited to large farms. Similarly, the use of recombinant bovine growth hormone in the U.S. dairy industry has increased milk production, further reduced milk prices, and greatly compressed the living space of small-scale dairy factories.
Anaerobic digester for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from livestock manure
Image source: MV technologies
In China, the basic national conditions of more people and less land, coupled with the traditional agricultural business model of taking the family as the unit for thousands of years, make today’s animal husbandry cover a large number of individual farmers. To a certain extent, retail farming has solved many problems faced by the early development of animal husbandry, such as human, financial, land and so on, and effectively met the domestic market demand. However, with the economic and social development, the adaptability of small-scale farming to the social environment is becoming less and less.
The standardized production level of retail farming is not high, the ability to prevent and control the epidemic is weak, the input capacity of environmental protection equipment is insufficient, the scale efficiency of unit output is low, and the high-quality development and innovation are insufficient. From the perspective of macro environment, the red lines of national laws and policies such as environmental protection, ecology and land use are becoming more and more strict, and decentralized farms built by retail investors are facing unprecedented pressure from land and environmental protection policies.
Yanpeihua, a researcher at the urban-rural integration development research center of South China Agricultural University, believes that in the future, China’s animal husbandry development must realize the transformation from labor-intensive quantitative growth to capital and innovation intensive quality and efficiency growth, and the main strategy to promote the supply side structural reform of animal husbandry is to realize the intensive, large-scale, efficient, standardized and ecological development of animal husbandry.
2. The technical buff with bright surface is fraught with real risks
It must be admitted that many of the latest animal husbandry technologies have indeed played a positive role in strengthening production benefits. However, the problems emerging in the application stage of some technologies may be hindering the healthy development of animal husbandry.
First of all, some so-called new ways to improve production capacity may increase the frequency of animal injuries and diseases, and damage the expected productivity gains of practitioners. In the early stage of the development of these technologies, people often know little about these risks. For example, due to the mutation of the gene controlling muscle growth, the double muscle Belgian Blue cattle showed typical double muscle characteristics, which greatly improved the meat performance and high yield. However, this is at the cost of high potential health risks – higher mortality, difficult natural childbirth, dependence on more harmful caesarean section, etc.
In addition, some innovative technologies have not yet entered the mature application period, and the unknown risk is very high, but they have been wildly hyped because of the excellent effect claims published in the early stage. In the past few decades, genetic engineering technology used to manipulate the genetic material of plants, animals and microorganisms has attracted extensive attention of the international community, bringing new challenges and business opportunities.
As we all know, animals that introduce foreign DNA sequences outside the gene pool of the target species into the genome are called transgenic animals. Compared with transgenic, gene driven (GDO) is still a new technical concept, which is still in the stage of reliability and risk assessment. Gene drive refers to a natural phenomenon in which specific genes are selectively passed on to the next generation. With the help of CRISPR gene editing technology known as “gene scissors”, scientists have developed an artificial “gene driven” system, and confirmed in yeast, fruit flies and mosquitoes that externally introduced genes can be inherited for multiple generations.
Gene editing can quickly obtain specific genotypes with natural low frequency, which has the effect equivalent to natural mutation. It is an important new animal breeding technology. In GDO, crispr/cas-9 genome editing changed the original base arrangement of the genome. Genomic changes will be passed on to the offspring of organisms, which will help to strengthen the research on breeding technology of livestock and poultry.
In view of the results of previous studies, gene driven technology can be used to prevent some zoonoses and even possible epidemics in the future. For example, laboratory tests have shown that as an important vector of malaria, mosquitoes can greatly reduce the probability of malaria transmission after genetic modification. However, the potential environmental and health impacts associated with GDO release remain unclear. So far, only a few potential applications have entered the research and development stage.
Beyond the sustainable “renewable revolution”, can animal husbandry be reborn?
In the literal sense, “sustainable” refers to the incomplete depletion or destruction of natural resources, which can be operated continuously or for a long time. Today, the intensive agricultural production mode is moving towards the goal of “sustainability”.
However, objectively speaking, the sustainable strategy we are concerned about at present is more a remedial measure after the helpless reality. From a longer-term perspective, if human society wants to pursue an ideal state of development, it needs to consider a new mode of agricultural production that goes beyond the current concept of sustainability.
Image source: Cool farm tool
In the 1970s, Robert Rodale first proposed the concept of “renewable organic agriculture”. “Renewable” focuses on improving the resources it uses, rather than destroying or exhausting resources. Renewable agriculture has a natural tendency to regenerate when the ecosystem is disturbed. It adopts a holistic and systematic approach to agricultural production and encourages continuous innovation to promote the benign development of climate, society, economy and nature. Renewable organic agriculture is characterized by a closed nutrient cycle and more biodiversity of biological communities.
However, in helping animal husbandry solve environmental problems, renewable agricultural systems have begun to be given more and more “omnipotent” settings, and their benefits are being exaggerated, and the complexity, uncertainty and social background of the system construction are diluted.
1. Lack of norms and standards, everyone can call himself “renewable”
The concept of renewable agriculture has rapidly spread to various sub sectors, especially the animal husbandry, which has been criticized in the issue of environmental protection, has also begun to put forward the idea of building a renewable livestock production system. However, due to the lack of specific indicators, there is no clear evaluation method to ensure that it can produce the expected results, which is easy to become a means for some enterprises to package themselves.
A survey released by the world benchmarking alliance in March this year found that only 6% of enterprises that claim to seek regeneration methods to improve soil health and agricultural biodiversity use quantitative data or set corporate goals to prove their commitment to regeneration.
The definition of renewable agriculture adopted by general mills, the world’s sixth largest food company, includes understanding the local environment, maintaining soil cover, minimizing soil disturbance, maximizing crop diversity, maintaining ground living roots throughout the year, and integrating livestock; However, in the 2021 global responsibility report, general mills also admitted that at present, there is no indicator to evaluate whether suppliers “achieve” renewable agriculture.
2. “Renewable” transformation, resources are capital
Renewable animal husbandry system needs to be based on the reuse and management of land resources. However, in reality, nearly 50% of the earth’s land is regarded as pasture (including prairie, prairie, shrub, tundra and woodland), but the use of these lands may not be linked to animal husbandry for a long time. Some pastures will be subject to public management due to natural environmental protection needs or resource development, such as becoming wildlife habitat or entertainment industry development land, which further limits the land resources of renewable animal husbandry systems.
In the United States, there are more and more calls for the transition to renewable livestock systems. It is understood that there are about 100million cows (including cows) in the United States. The exact land demand of a single cattle depends on factors such as animal genetics, precipitation, soil and management practices, but in general, each animal requires about 1-2 acres of pasture per month.
However, in a few months every year, most of the pastures in the United States are covered with snow, and the plants are in a dormant state, greatly reducing the available land per mu. Therefore, considering the number of animals, the actual allocation of resources and the realization conditions of renewable systems, it is estimated that the demand for land for 100million cattle in the United States is about 800million acres, that is, about 8 acres of land are required for each cow on average, which is roughly equivalent to the amount of land currently used by cattle in the United States, including farmland for growing feed crops.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that about 8billion acres of farmland around the world have been used for grazing. According to the statistical report released by the U.S. Department of agriculture this year, the global cattle inventory in 2021 was about 1billion, an increase of 13.2 million over the previous year. If the land use of “American cattle” is taken as the average, it means that it needs about 8billion acres of grazing area to have enough pastures to meet the needs of cattle. Even if all the farmland currently used to grow animal feed is changed into pastures, it is still not enough to feed other grazing animals, including sheep Goats, horses and buffalo. Therefore, considering global land constraints, any statement that the current number of livestock can achieve a renewable production system may be misleading.
Focusing on meat diet, protein supply and consumption, alternative protein and sustainability, the “recognition of protein” series of articles launched an in-depth discussion on the future trend of the global food system. In view of the current discussion and controversy centered on protein, we reassessed various popular views from another perspective and were open to other views.
At present, many protein related claims are not absolutely wrong, but often established under specific situations and conditions. However, in the process of information transmission, protein claims have been repeatedly simplified, resulting in cognitive bias. In some news reports, the nuances of scientific research are often covered up and almost disappear; However, the unclear evidence is full of reports, and the tendency based on speculation and speculation is becoming more and more intense, leading to misleading conclusions and inferences on the protein issue in public debate and policy discussion – excessively strengthening the status of protein in the food system, considering the carbon emission of animal husbandry as the only sustainable guide, ignoring the specific reality of food production, weakening the differences in various regions of the world, and ignoring the complexity of the entire food system.
At the end of the “politics of protein” report, the IPES expert group issued an initiative: shift the focus from “protein” to the construction of sustainable and even renewable food systems and the study and judgment of relevant policies, and promote sustainable development in all aspects according to regional differences (rather than only focusing on food sustainability), and more importantly, get out of the “protein myth” and re-examine the current propositions of all parties, Combine innovative approaches with public interests in a grounded manner.
It has never been easy for the food industry to make solid progress, but we believe that “the road is blocked and long, the line is coming, the line does not stop, and the future can be expected.”
Write at the end:
This concludes the series of reports on “recongnizing proteins”. But foodaily will never stop exploring and thinking about the fundamental topics of human diet, agriculture and food production. Looking into the future, perhaps today’s discussion of animal protein production methods, nutritional and social values, and sustainable models still has the limitations of the times. But only by thinking first, can we improve and make progress.
It is expected that China’s protein industry can more objectively and rationally examine every hot spot and every step leading to the future.
1.Politics of Protein：Examining Claims About Livestock, Fish,‘Alternative Proteins’ and Sustainability. IPES-Food, 2022.04..
2. Coping with climate change: is industrialized agriculture a technological innovation or a dead end? China Dialogue ocean, December 21st, 2015
3. Wasted Wealth: a global economic review on animal husbandry International Union for conservation of nature and natural resources, February, 2007
4.Give a Man a Fishpond: Modeling the Impacts of Aquaculture in the Rural Economy. Mateusz Filipski , Ben Belton. World Development, 2018.10.01
5. Promote the transformation and upgrading of animal husbandry with supply side structural reform Guangming Daily, November 15, 2019
6.The EU not ready for the release of Gene drive organisms into the environment. Pensoft Publishers. 2020.05.07
Cover image source: foodtank
Reprint authorization and media business cooperation: Amy (wechat: 13701559246);
Join the community: Cherry (wechat: 15262433826).
Food people are “watching”