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The long shadow of the livestock industry

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Professor Graeme Martin, from the University of Western Australia’s Institute of Agriculture, looks at the issues associated with the global livestock industry.
In 2006, the United Nations FAO published a document called Livestock’s Long Shadow about the environmental issues associated with ruminant livestock. It was a serious wake-up call reminding us that ruminants in particular produce 15% of total greenhouse gas emissions (in carbon dioxide equivalents). Ruminants are also responsible for large amounts of erosion, sedimentation of waterways, pesticide and antibiotic use, as well nitrogen and phosphorus pollution.
However, we need to remember there will be 50% more people on the planet by 2050, accompanied by increasing urbanisation of agricultural land plus increasing demand for animal protein and the middle class expands. Can ruminant industries help us feed the world without destroying the planet?


There are seven major issues we need to deal with. The first is the consumption of human food by livestock. Many countries, including Australia, grow human-edible crops and then feed the grain to cattle. If those ruminants were grazing instead, they would be converting grass that we can’t eat into food that we can. Moreover, a third of the food produced in the world is wasted, some because it rots (in developing countries, storage is an issue) and some simply because we do not value it. All of that food could be reprocessed and used as food for pigs, chickens and dairy cows. If we stopped food waste, we could feed all the extra people in 2050. 
The second issue is poor animal health and welfare. Historically, we have separated animal diseases from human ones. Now, there is a global movement called ‘One Health’ where veterinarians and human health professionals actually work together. In low- and middle-income nations, there are a dozen livestock diseases that can infect humans, killing more than 2 million people each year.


The third issue is environmental footprint. Ruminants produce methane, a greenhouse gas, and in Australia its about the same amount as that produced by transport (both are tiny compared to coal-fired power stations). The development of new feeds that reduce methane production in ruminants is on the way. 
The fourth issue is making use of our massive array of livestock genotypes. In the most absurd situations, we have tropical countries trying to establish ‘modern’ dairy industries based on Holstein cattle imported from the USA. Holsteins are not adapted to the tropical heat, humidity, parasites, or forages. The farmers need to spend a fortune on drugs and management and, even then, the cows produce about half as much milk as expected. Yet Africa has a massive variety of genotypes of cattle, sheep and goats, all of which can be genetically improved. Indeed the FAO warns us that 20% of the world’s indigenous genotypes are in danger of extinction and we could lose all the genetic diversity that we will need for the future. 
The fifth issue is human nutrition … obesity versus starvation.
The sixth issue is livestock nutrition and welfare. Animals are most productive when they are healthy, happy and well-fed. Moreover, making animals efficient is the first step in reducing their greenhouse gas emissions. 
The seventh and final issue is that livestock are often deeply relevant to local cultures. Ruminants have been domesticated for around 10 thousand years so animals are embedded in human history, and a billion of the world’s poorest people depend on livestock for their livelihoods. We can’t just ban livestock. Animals are also more than food. In many cultures they are used for ploughing fields, for nutrient recycling, and for wealth and status. A colleague in Indonesia calls them “the bio ATM” … a farmer with three cows can sell one if his daughter marries. 
Professor Martin is optimistic about the future though. We have made massive progress in terms of methane emissions and this problem is on the cusp of being resolved. We are getting smarter with how we manage animals in the landscape so they grow more efficiently. If we rebalance the consumption of human food by livestock, work scientifically to manage environmental footprints and are clever about our choice of species and genotype, then livestock’s long shadow will fade away. 
Such a stock exchange would be good for the planet.

Professor Martin was interviewd for A Question of Balance by Ruby Vincent. Summary text by Victor Barry July 2017.

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