Outside the Box: Animal Agriculture Beyond the Feedlot

cow_celeb3 You might wonder why, as a long-time vegetarian, I am writing on a topic that so blatantly opposes my own dietary inclinations. Yet, the topic of the keynote address given by Louwrens Hoffman at Tropentag’s closing plenary is exactly why I must. Though many choose vegetarianism in response to animal welfare issues or because they “love” animals too much to eat them, consuming few or no animal products is a growing response to an unsustainable system of meat production. The livestock sector accounts for 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and contributes to soil erosion and freshwater pollution. At the same time, over a quarter of the Earth’s land surface is not suitable for growing crops, yet could support livestock. “Isn’t it time to think outside the box?” asked Hoffman, professor of meat sciences at Stellenbosch Univerisity, South Africa. In posing this question, Hoffman was commenting on the limited scope of contemporary research on livestock production. “We’ve researched sheep, pigs, and cattle ad nauseum,” he noted, but there is vast unrealized potential and opportunity for innovation in other livestock systems. Tropentag_2014_Day3jpg019 Why is looking beyond the mainstream important? According to Hoffman, “two giants are waking up.” As the income of emerging economies like India and China increase, the demand for red meat follows. While one could argue the ethical implications of imposing dietary restrictions on someone, it is also not possible to add another one or two billion eaters following in the path of Americans (who on average consume over 120kg of meat per year). In thinking about how to meet this growing demand in a sustainable way, it is imperative to look beyond the typical cows, pigs, and sheep. Far more animals are consumed that are not traded globally, or even regionally. Consider insects or rats, which people in the developing world have consumed for a very long time. So what is outside the box? One answer is intensification, the principle of getting more out of the same or less, which is often associated with confined animal feedlots. Yet in some parts of the world, integrated crop and livestock systems or rice paddy mixed with aquaculture have a long history of deriving the most from what land is available. Indigenous animal species also play a vital, though rarely recognized, role in food security and nutrition. In Mongolia, for example, over half of the milk, meat, and butter derives from yak. The mountainous environment of the plateau and central regions of Asia are, in fact, suitable for little else. Hoffman also noted the prominence of Latin America’s high consumption of cavy, guinea pig, and other rodents, which only recently have garnered international attention. Show me the Money A big part of the problem with alternative livestock’s low profile is that little funding goes to research and development for species that have been farmed for centuries. Access to funding could explain why Hoffman argued “it’s a lot more sexy…” to do research on the mainstream livestock. While on one hand this shortfall limits the potential innovations in alternative livestock systems, perhaps more detrimental is that skewed funding also biases our perception (and the available data) of what is actually produced and consumed! What about water buffalo in India? Or reindeer in Alaska and northern Europe? Or Kangaroos in Australia? Because many of these products don’t enter a formal food supply and value chain, the “money powers that be” don’t even recognize their existence. We need “big policy change,” said Hoffman, “If anything has value, you’ll be looking after it.” There is much to be optimistic for a sustainable future of livestock systems, even for a vegetarian. However, it is clear that without the political will, much needed investment, and openness and ingenuity, we will stay on the worrisome trajectory currently set. Watch Part II of the video interview.


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