How do we feed the future without eating the planet?

Photo courtesy of Beef Checkoff
Beef is a valuable asset to the human diet; it is an affordable, nutrient-dense source of lean protein. Beef cattle play a unique role in a sustainable food system by upcycling — they consume plants and byproduct feeds of lower value and upgrade them to high-quality protein. Additionally, cattle can graze and consume feeds that are grown on land unsuitable for cultivation, thereby expanding the land base available for food production.

This article is sponsored by National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, a contractor to the Beef Checkoff.

How are we going to nourish a larger future population without negatively impacting the environment we all depend upon? At its core, the sustainability of our food system comes back to this central question. And it’s not a new one, it’s part of a long line of thinking that human population growth would outstrip our ability to feed ourselves and exceed the earth’s carrying capacity.

It is tempting to dismiss the ideas of concrete limits to human growth or the idea of planetary boundaries when, contrary to grim Malthusian predictions, we have been able to feed an expanding population. However, progress is not inevitable — it requires conscious effort and on-the-ground change, and can be affected by factors as varied as geopolitics to climate change.

We do not have many historical examples (I can think of none) wherein items considered desirable and associated with higher standards of living were willingly given up on a large scale to improve environmental outcomes. For example, individuals may switch to riding a bike from driving a car, but these changes typically do not happen en masse. To achieve substantial results, we would need to convert our entire transportation system to make zero emissions options widely available to everyone, across income scales and residential locations. The answer is not to give up transportation, but to make it better.

A similar situation exists in our food system. Calls for individuals to eliminate or severely limit foods, especially animal-sourced foods that are desirable, nutrient-rich and provide nutrients essential to human life that cannot be found in plants, are unlikely to scale to significant change. This is particularly true when proposed dietary changes run counter to prevailing trends (PDF) and science about the role of animal-sourced foods in improving quality of life globally. Our practical answer lies in making the food system better — the whole plate, from plant to animal-sourced foods — rather than removing nutrient-rich foods from people’s plates.

Major animal-sourced food group’s contribution to selected nutrients in U.S. food supply in 2006. Data from USDA-ERS and adapted from CAST, 2013.

Key to this process are sustainable intensification, decreasing food waste and losses, and enhancing nutrient cycling in our agricultural systems. Sustainable intensification is increasing the productivity of agriculture while paying attention to key societal issues such as animal welfare and rural livelihoods. It is not simply increasing productivity without considering the long-term viability of a system or societal costs and benefits not currently priced into the system (such as greenhouse gas emissions and ecosystem services).

Productivity is key to creating a sustainable food system capable of nourishing a growing population. For example, if the productivity of the U.S. beef industry had not improved since 1975, we would have required a cattle herd of 144 million in 2017 to produce 26.2 billion pounds of beef – a 53 percent larger herd than we had last year according to data from the USDA. The improvements in U.S. beef production’s productivity is why the United States can produce 20 percent of the world’s beef with only 6 percent of the global cattle herd.

By using the latest scientific advances in genetics, animal nutrition and husbandry techniques, U.S. farmers and ranchers can produce more food with less of an impact on the environment. Continuing to advance scientific knowledge and getting it into the hands of the people that need it — farmers and ranchers — will help us sustainably intensify food production around the world.

Changes in emissions intensity (kg of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions per kg of beef production), total direct greenhouse gas emission in carbon dioxide equivalents, and total beef production from 1975 to 2016 in the United States. Data are from UN FAOSTAT.

Reducing food losses and waste, and diverting waste from landfills to alternative uses that are not as much as an environmental burden (landfills are the No. 3 source of methane emissions in the United States), can help us nourish people with less of an impact. Considering U.S. beef, cutting waste in half could improve the sustainability of beef by 10 percent (PDF). Food waste is also an economic cost, estimated by the USDA to amount to $162 billion in 2010, but a hidden one that families may not consider.

It is neither realistic nor desirable to reduce food losses and waste to zero, and thus finding alternative uses to recycle the nutrients and energy in food waste is key. Cattle and other livestock species in the U.S. are already upcycling food waste and losses as feed sources into high quality protein, including brewers grains from beer production, baked goods that don’t meet specifications, and vegetables. Enhancing this conversion of waste-to-worth, integration of crop-livestock systems and well-managed grazing systems can improve nutrient cycling and the circular economy within our food system.

Resiliency and the long-term sustainability of our food system will not be achieved through a one-size-fits-all approach, even though the principles of sustainable intensification, reducing food losses and waste, and enhancing nutrient cycling may translate across regions, crops, and livestock species. The answer is not universally adopting or exporting so-called industrialized agricultural systems to all locations on the globe — many low input, rangeland-based livestock grazing systems are highly resilient and sustainable.

Rather, our challenge is to enhance systems to best meet the resources that are available, from natural resources to human capital. Making sure that farmers, ranchers and farm workers can make a decent living and can afford food themselves is foundational to a sustainable food system, yet farmers make up a large share of the food-insecure population globally.

There’s no denying that human activity, including food production, has led to global environmental change, from climatic change to alterations to the global nitrogen cycle. Our challenge is to nourish 9.8 billion in 2050 without compromising the abilities of many generations into the future to do the same. This challenge can be met through human ingenuity and by taking our cues from natural ecosystems: limiting waste; upcycling nutrients; and fitting our environment’s natural resources. We must be pragmatic about our environmental impacts, but our solutions for a sustainable future cannot be clamping down on human aspirations for a better quality of life.

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