Social perspectives on the future of livestock

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A recent article in Animal Frontiers identifies the social perspectives on the sustainability of animal-sourced food production, with a view to what this production might look like in the future.

The increasing global population and per capita income is predicted to drive food demand up by around 50%. But it is challenging to predict what role livestock will have in satisfying this demand.

As well as requiring increases in productivity with a reduced environmental footprint, animal-sourced food producers must maintain their “social license to operate” – the acceptance of their practices by consumers. General interest in how animal-sourced foods are produced is rising, and the author contextualises this discussion with some statistics for the US livestock industry.

From an environmental perspective, improvements are being made in reducing the amount of feed, land, water and greenhouse gas emissions of animal-sourced foods due to improved genetics, crop yields and management practices. US beef production reduced its land use footprint per kilo of beef by 33% between 1977 and 2007 and greenhouse gases by 16%. US pork production reduced its feed use per kilo of pork by 67% between 1959 and 2009, and water use by 22%. US milk production has reduced land use, fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions by around 20% each in just the ten years up to 2017.

There is also evidence that further improvements can be made, with wide differences in the footprints of animal-sourced food production even within the same country. Bringing the average closer to best practice should be as much a goal as pushing the boundaries of how small these footprints can become. These improvements must also be communicated to consumers.

The article identifies three key issues that should be prioritised by the animal-sourced food industry when considering its future: accounting for greenhouse gases equitably, with consideration of their differing lifespans; wider use of non-human-edible by-products as animal feed; and greater consideration of animal health and welfare. Each of these priorities will have benefits for the production, environmental sustainability and consumer perceptions of animal-sourced foods.

The author’s final thought is around demonstration and communication of the facts around animal-sourced food production, to ensure than consumer choices are evidence-based.

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FAO Statistical Yearbook 2020 shows big changes

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The latest global statistics from FAO show large increases in both crop and animal-sourced food production, but also reductions in cropland and agricultural employment.

Since 2000, there has been a drop of just over 1 billion people from the agriculture workforce, going from 40% of global employment to just 27% in recent years.

Countering this, use of agricultural pesticides increased sharply between 2000 and 2012, before levelling off. Increases were also seen for fertiliser, contributing to the 50% increase in crop production since 2000. Sugar cane, maize, wheat and rice dominate crop production, and the production of each is dominated by two or three countries.

The total agricultural land these crops are grown on showed reduction since 2000, decreasing by 75 million hectares, with a similar decrease of 89 million hectares of forest land.

In terms of animal-sourced foods, chicken showed the greatest increase of the meats, growing by 47% and reaching similar production quantities to pork, the highest producing meat sector. Milk production increased by 45%, while egg production increased by 50%.

Fisheries production showed a similar increase of 42% and is still dominated by marine fish. However, the expansion of aquaculture led to a 131% increase in freshwater fish since 2000. Aquaculture now represents 46% of total fisheries production, compared to 26% in 2000, with China largely responsible for the increase.

The increased food production coupled with decreased agricultural land and employment emphasise the increased efficiency, intensity and automation in food production. However, it should be noted that this is a global picture and that insights at a regional level are also necessary to fully understand the global food system.

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The requirement for balanced global diets that connect 9 billion consumers


Wayne Martindale, Associate Professor of Food Insights and Sustainability at the University of Lincoln, provides a perspective on sustainable diets and how we should think about them.

The food and beverage system functions globally; we all source our meals from a global marketplace. The responsibility for a nutritious and balanced diet begins with producers and manufacturers before it is presented to consumers. The flow of foods and ingredients in the global food system provides many surprises.  

This article is a viewpoint from Europe and the United Kingdom, where our nation is soon to realise the impact of globally sourcing our food. Sustainability and security are inseparable attributes here and we believe a sustainable diet must provide balanced nutrition and security. This article will develop this relationship using existing evidence and demonstrate that limiting the discussion to a single attribute of sustainability such as greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity or land use change will only result in polarised debates that will never get us to where we need to be. 

Best practice in the food and beverage industry has been transformed by sustainability. It resonates across industry and consumers as an ideal we should rightly strive to achieve. Much of what we have been aiming for is to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the production and consumption of foods. Manufacturers are now reporting carbon zero product categories including whole milk and beef, which was unthinkable ten years ago. Our improved understanding of how resources flow through food systems has made carbon zero a reality. Programmes that sought to reduce greenhouse gas emissions ten years ago exposed many gaps in our understanding of food systems.  

The initial debates tended to demonise food and beverage products with higher carbon footprints – namely livestock products and beef (Cederberg et al., 2011). What these studies did not consider was nutritional delivery and consumer experience, both of which are important because without them sustainability will never be delivered (Haddad, 2018). This is because every meal must deliver balanced nutrition and a favourable experience. If it does these two things, it is more likely it will result in optimal health and not be wasted. I was working with CSIRO in Melbourne as a McMaster Fellow when I realised that these relationships were critical. This was in part due to the publication of the Total Well Being Diet (TWD) book by CSIRO (Noakes and Clifton, 2005). What influenced me here was the fact that a formalised and scientifically formulated diet for health – the TWD – could resonate so strongly with consumers that a Government Science Agency publication on dietary change became a best seller! In the UK, this was only achieved by our best celebrity chefs, with the science part often in second place for editorial decision making. The TWD demonstrated the requirement for a healthy diet is clearly resonant with consumers. The notion of what is a sustainable one was less so, but it raised the issue of whether the two are related in any way? 

The issue of sustainability in food has often been associated with carbon footprint. The first studies of crop and livestock production that calculated what we now recognise as a carbon footprint were reported over 20 years ago (Brentrup et al., 2000). These were transformative in that they identified production processes that could reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In the case of agricultural products, their application resulted in reductions in diesel and fertiliser nitrogen used in sustainable farming.  

However, in terms of guiding responsible consumption, carbon footprints can be cumbersome. Such direct measures of carbon footprints for food lead to comparing livestock and plant proteins without considering any dietary requirements. Consumers are often told to not eat specific products, with beef being the main target for such attacks. This leads to a ‘stand-off’ in the sustainability arena, stifling innovation in manufacturing. Nutrition, consumer experience and taste all play an important role in quantifying what is sustainable, and they need to be accounted for when we place carbon footprinting into diets, meals and lifestyles. 

Carbon zero thinking has been transformative in breaking this deadlock and the launch of branded zero carbon livestock products such as whole milk, beef and lamb have shown that food producers and manufacturers are confident in claiming it (read more here). The subsequent re-thinking of carbon footprinting is enlightening because it can be related to achievable and nutritious diets and lifestyles so that responsible consumption is possible.  

Plant products typically have a lower carbon footprint than livestock products. Converting plant protein into livestock protein as efficiently as possible often means an increased carbon footprint. But even here there are exceptions. For example, rice has a greater footprint than whole milk (Clune et al., 2017). This is because of the requirement to flood and drain the soils used to grow rice, resulting in methane emissions (Burney et al., 2010). 

Consideration of production volume can provide a transformative view of the global food system carbon footprint. Production of the ‘big four global commodity crops’: rice (0.7 billion tonnes per year), wheat (0.7 Bn t/yr), maize (1.0 Bn t/yr) and soy bean (0.3 Bn t/yr) account for around 2.8 billion tonnes of production each year (Clune et al., 2017). Three of these crops have a carbon footprint of 0.5 tonnes CO2-equivalent per tonne production, and rice has 2.6 tCO2-e/t, summing to 2.8 Billion tCO2-e associated with the big four each year. The mean or average carbon footprint for beef globally is around 25 tCO2-e/t, some 50 times that of wheat, maize and soybean crops, used for both feed and food. However, only 64 million tonnes of beef are produced globally each year, which accounts for some 1.5 Bn tCO2-e. The GHG ratio of the ‘big three’ (‘big four’ excluding rice) to beef is therefore not 50 but 1.5! If we include rice, beef has half the global carbon footprint of the big four crops. This means we are being mis-led by slavishly following carbon footprint data alone. 

There is also much more here, in that a number of studies on beef for the reported average carbon footprint include the prime production of Wagyu beef under extremely intensive conditions (beer and massages) that holds no resemblance to grass fed and finished beef systems including typical Wagyu systems. The issue of production volume together with variation in carbon footprint data is overlooked in simplistic carbon footprint assessments. If we include variation in livestock production systems, the idea of a typical carbon footprint becomes unrealistic at best! Moreover, the spotlighting effect of carbon footprint will often leave the issue of nutrition aside and this is another reason there is a requirement to look at how carbon footprints of food are measured.

If we were to eat the lowest carbon footprint food group per calorie it would be cake and confectionery alone, because these foods have a carbon footprint of around 80 gCO2-e/100 kcal, whereas fruit and vegetables produce over 400 gCO2-e/100 kcal (Drewnowski et al., 2014). This is surely the opposite to what we are told as consumers. Milk and dairy products are in the middle of this range, lower than meat. And this is only considering calories; considering other essential nutrients such as protein would likely paint a different picture again. The dietary context for carbon footprint clearly needs to be clarified and that is why the Sustainable Nutrition Initiative seeks to find methods of providing robust evidence that will guide realistic, sustainable consumption that provides good health. 

An improved ability to access data has brought energy balance and carbon footprinting into the consumer goods arena and the drive for carbon zero is creating much innovation in food and beverage. It has brought sustainability closer to the consumer in that the consumption of a nutritionally balanced diet can be delivered sustainably even if we do not choose or eat food based on carbon footprints.  

It is important that improvements do not get lost in purely carbon footprinting diets. We are developing models for the UK that identify where critical points and connectivity in the food system control resource flows (Martindale, Duong, et al., 2020). These can be integrated with the nutritional insights of the DELTA Model developed by the Sustainable Nutrition Initiative and build on established indices of food sustainability. New Product Development (NPD) is the operational activity we are focusing on because, if product developers and technologists build in sustainability at the concept stages, there is an increased possibility that the final product will deliver it (Jagtap and Duong, 2019). One of our models – Centreplate – is currently being tested with respect to NPD strategies, improving protein supply and reducing waste (Martindale, Swainson, et al., 2020).  

We are currently at a point where food system insights have the potential to bring sustainability and nutritional datasets together because of two technological advances we would consider most notable. The first is the ability to embed digital technologies into resource packaging so that traceability and analysis of supply chain data can be enabled securely for most food companies (Martindale et al., 2018). The other is the projection of dietary impact of nutrition on populations. This changed forever a generation ago in response to the newly sequenced human genome. What followed was a scramble for therapeutics but the interaction of health and nutrition through our diet was largely overlooked (King et al., 2017). We now have a greater understanding of how genes and metabolism interact with what we choose to eat. It is essential to keep the food system lens, and this is what the Sustainable Nutrition Initiative’s DELTA Model does. Connecting datasets and making sure we speak to each other is becoming increasingly important. This is otherwise known as interoperability in the digital arenas. We have the capability to deliver a net zero sustainable food system, but without interoperability it will not happen. 

Our food future depends on all partners in the global system connecting methods and data that will guide sustainable dietary choices. At present the sustainable diet arena is noisy and confusing for many consumers because polarised views can dominate. This is why actions such as the Sustainable Nutrition Initiative are so important; they lay bare facts and guide routes to sustainable and secure global consumption that still provide the choice and experience that consumers require.

Wayne Martindale directs the Food Insights and Sustainability Service at the National Centre for Food Manufacturing at the University of Lincoln. Wayne has been working in sustainability since 1998, after eight years of doctoral research in biochemistry in the UK, Japan and USA. He started his sustainability practice with the BASIS/FACTS leadership team delivering certification programmes for UK agriculture and has held visiting scientist roles at CSIRO Australia and the OECD in Paris.


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Microbiomes and Sustainable Nutrition


Did you know that around 10% of your daily energy intake is supplied by intestinal microbes? Or that many plants and animals that we rely on for food are dependent on microbes for their survival? Although the connections between the microscopic world and the global scale of sustainable nutrition are not obvious, microbes play a significant role in the way our food is produced, processed and digested.

The term microbiome refers to a collection of microbes in a certain location. For example, the human gut microbiome consists of the microbial population living in our intestinal tract, which is receiving increasing attention as we recognise its importance in human health.

Microbiomes exist in diverse locations, many of which form part of the global food system. The role of these microbiomes in delivering sustainable nutrition for the global population is increasingly clear.

Cereal crops are a staple food source for the global population, providing predominantly energy and protein. These crops rely on soil nutrients, such as nitrogen, to grow and produce the protein we then consume. Often these nutrients are applied to cropland as fertiliser, produced either industrially or from animal sources. Management of fertiliser application is essential to avoid environmental damage caused by excess nutrients in soils and waterways.

Nitrogen can also be captured directly from the air by soil and root microbiomes, and microbes associated with roots can increase the availability of micronutrients to the plant. These microbes also increase the resistance of crops to soil pathogens. Moreover, soil microbes play a role in reducing soil erosion by producing products that bind the soil together. Current soil microbiome research is tackling the problem of reduced crop yields due to microbiome depletion and working to understand how the beneficial impacts of soil microbes can be harnessed. Learn more

In addition to plant-sourced food products, microbiomes are essential in the production of animal-sourced foods. An example of this is the rumen microbiome. Much of the forage consumed by ruminants cannot be digested by the animal’s own digestive enzymes; instead, the action of rumen microbes converts resistant plant matter, such as cellulose, to nutrients that can be absorbed by the animal’s digestive tract. These microbial products form the majority of energy intake for many domesticated ruminants. The action of the rumen microbiome is thus an important step in converting inedible plant material into animal-sourced food products in our own diet.

Rumen microbiome research currently has a strong focus on minimising the production of methane, a greenhouse gas and by-product of digesting plant material, by the rumen microbiome. This research is unpacking what causes certain microbiomes to produce less methane than others, and what the impact of different animal feeds is on methane production. Learn more

Continuing along the food supply chain, microbes are responsible for the production of common fermented foods. Fermented foods include cheeses, yoghurts, kimchi, sourdough and fermented meats, and are produced via the introduction of microbial populations to the raw food material. Apart from changing the taste, texture and appearance of these foods, the fermentation process enables perishable foods to be stored for longer periods, which can reduce food waste. The nutritional value of fermented foods is also enhanced in many cases. For example, the fermentation of cabbage to sauerkraut results in vitamin B12 synthesis, a nutrient not available in unfermented cabbage. There is also the probiotic capacity of fermented foods: their consumption can introduce beneficial bacteria to the human gut microbiome. Learn more

Microbiomes continue to play a role in the food system even after food is eaten. Although there are microbiomes in different sections of the human digestive system, the gut microbiome is intensively studied for its impacts on human nutrition and health. The make-up of our microbiome is in part determined by our diet, which forms the major food source for intestinal microbes. Just as our own ten trillion human cells require the nutrients we eat to carry out their function, so too do our equally numerous microbial cells. Current research is demonstrating increasing links between gut microbiome composition and various outcomes for human nutrition and health. This includes links to energy and nutrient yield from the diet, roles in intestinal disease and even impacts on brain function and mood. It is now recognised that we cannot have a full appreciation of human nutritional health without consideration of the gut microbiome. Learn more

A sustainable food system is one that ensures food security and nutrition for all, without compromising the future of the economic, social and environmental bases that the system depends on. Microbiomes are a critical element of a sustainable food system. Soil microbiomes enable and enhance crop growth, while playing a protective role in minimising the environmental damage of farming. Animal microbiomes are essential for the conversion of inedible plant material to animal-sourced foods, essential for food security in many developing parts of the world. Fermented foods are an integral constituent of the diet in many cultures and provide a means of preserving perishable foods, as well as adding nutritional and financial value. Finally, the human microbiome in part determines the nutrition we obtain from the foods we eat.

Microbiomes are present throughout the food system, and touch on all aspects of sustainability. As such, designing sustainable food systems for the future must involve consideration of the microbial element.


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Animal-source foods for human and planetary health

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The Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) has published their position on the role of animal-sourced foods (ASF) in sustainably improving nutrition globally.

GAIN illustrates the importance of ASF in a nutritious diet. This is particularly important in reducing risk of undernutrition among vulnerable groups, especially children. It highlights the superior nature of ASF in terms of nutrient content and bioavailability, as well as the important contribution animal agriculture makes on livelihoods and ecosystems globally. The paper does acknowledge the environmental impact of animal sourced foods and the need for the livestock industry to do better.

It is possible for individuals on a vegan or vegetarian diet, if they have the resources and means, to meet their nutrition requirements through a combination of plant-based foods and relatively expensive supplements. However, this is not affordable and accessible for everyone. The GAIN paper highlights that people in low and middle income countries tend to especially be low in iron, vitamin A, zinc, calcium, and high-quality protein. Most low-income consumers in these nations would benefit from sustainably increasing consumption of animal-sourced foods to provide the nutrients needed for better health and development.

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