I do not begin this analysis with any real concern that animal agriculture is under imminent threat. Animal products have been a major part of human diets since long before present livestock species were domesticated and today provide such a high proportion of total protein needs that there is no possibility that their contribution can be replaced. Wherever incomes are rising there is an increase in the consumption of animal protein in the form of meat, milk products and eggs.
I hope, rather, to expose the fallacy of any suggestion that the global human population can survive and thrive on a diet devoid of meat and other animal products. Recent suggestions that there should be a “sin tax” and/ or “warning labels” on meat products illustrates how the livestock industry can be pestered and hobbled by agenda driven activists. So, I simply want to lay out some practical facts and ideas to rebut their arguments and to arm others with information they can use.
The case against Animal Agriculture is motivated and advanced by a variety of groups with varying interests. Animal rights activists head the list seeking nothing less than the liberation of farm animals. More about that later. Those concerned about climate change argue that livestock production contributes to global warming by the release of Carbon Dioxide, Nitrous Oxide and Methane as by- products of their diets and metabolism. Jumping onto this bandwagon they justify their concerns and actions as noble efforts to “save the planet”.
Related to, or independent of, these motives are the Vegetarians and Vegans who have chosen to eschew most if not all animal sourced foods. These people are often motivated by altruistic concerns that livestock production reduces the human food supply by utilizing land resources to produce livestock feed instead of human food.
As the subtitle of this essay suggests, I contend that anyone can live, and even thrive on a vegetarian diet but in the absence of animal products there would not be nearly enough plant-based food or protein for everyone.
In a free society, one must respect the choices made by those who, for one reason or another, have chosen a diet and lifestyle that does not include, or severely restricts the consumption of animal products. But, what prompted this essay was a desire to point out some of the unintended consequences that would arise if livestock production were eliminated, or even restricted.
The idea of “unintended consequences” is a much used but widely misunderstood concept. For example, drowning or the need for urgent rescue is the “unintended consequence” when a two-year-old child walks into a swimming pool. This consequence is “unintended” in the child’s mind but well understood in the mind of juveniles and adults. The point I make here is that people who know little or nothing about a matter would be unaware of the consequences of taking a specific action related to that matter; while people well informed and experienced in that area would be at pains to avoid what, to them, is an obvious and almost certain consequence.
So, my intention is to identify and discuss some of the “unintended consequences” that would arise if society were foolish enough to force a reduction or discontinuation of animal agriculture. I do not expect this to happen with draconian measures but the afore mentioned suggestion of a tax on meat indicates a desire on the part of some to discourage or at least impede animal agriculture. We have too often seen the tendency of activist’s efforts leading to policy and regulation.
Most people not familiar with agriculture might see only some “obvious” benefits in reduced animal agriculture. For example, farms growing feed for livestock would switch to producing food for people. Would this not mean more food for everyone? Animals, long domesticated would be “liberated”. Would this not be the ultimate in humane treatment of our fellow creatures? Would greenhouse gas emissions not be sharply reduced by the elimination of animal agriculture. What could possibly go wrong?
As suggested earlier “unintended consequences” are the result of ignorance of the often very complex interrelationships between cause and effect. We are all familiar with the adage that in physics “every action has an equal and opposite reaction”. Those of us who have spent a lifetime in agriculture are able to recognize some, but likely not all the unintended consequences that would flow from reduced livestock production; consequences that to other people would be completely unexpected. I suggest that agricultural people have a responsibility to warn of these probable consequences just as other specialists in other areas would warn of the consequences of certain actions that would arise from a poorly informed decision.
What then are some of the “unintended consequences” that would arise with the curtailment of animal agriculture? I use the term curtailment because it is not reasonable to imagine the elimination of livestock agriculture.
This discussion should begin with a review of the global agricultural land base and a summation of the crops presently grown on that land base.
The Global Agricultural Land Base (Source FAO)
The obvious place to start this analysis is to describe the land base now taken up by agricultural production. As Mark Twain said, “Buy land, they aren’t making it anymore.” (1) Indeed, urban sprawl and highway networks are overtaking good farm land at an unsustainable rate.
Imagine a square that is 8 meters on a side. The total area of that square is 64 square meters. I chose that dimension because, according to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations the total area of agricultural land on the globe is just over 61 million square kilometers. So, a square with an area of 64 square meters is a handy but slightly enlarged scale model for the total agricultural land area in the world with each square meter representing approximately one million square kilometers.
Now, divide that large square into four equal squares of 16 square meters. Just one of these squares, representing 16 million square kilometers is the area defined by the FAO as “Cultivated Land”. The other three squares are “Pasture and Woodlands”. That’s it! The total agricultural land area in the world is three parts grazing land and just one part crop land. For reference, that total agricultural area of 61 million square kilometers divided among the present 7.2 billion people now on Earth works out to just 0.85 hectares per person and just 0.21 hectares of cultivated land (21 hectares is about half an acre). As population increases and urban sprawl advances that area will continue to decline. Tragically the decline in cultivated areas is likely to be more rapid than in the pasture areas because the pattern of populating and paving the best land is an historic reality.
In Table 1 below, it can be seen that lowest income group, 38% of the population, have has smallest proportion of land per capita. The highest income group, 15% of the population, has the highest proportion of land per capita.
The FAO has done a further assessment to categorize the cultivated land as “Prime”, “Good” or “Marginal” cropland. The breakdown is about 29% Prime, 52% Good and the remaining 19% is described as Marginal. It is relevant to note here that the proportion of prime, good and marginal crop land is quite evenly dispersed among the High, Medium and Low, income groups.
Table 1 Global Agricultural Land Base (Source FAO)
The marginal crop land makes up about one fifth of the total cultivated land and, logically, it tends to support grazing and the production of winter fodder since lower and more uncertain crop yields would be expected on these marginal areas than on the prime and good land.
Many have heard the plaint from activists who point out that “…three quarters of all the farmland is used for grazing livestock”. The data already cited proves the accuracy of their claim but not the reality of the situation. Their slant is that land used for grazing is a dreadful waste and misallocation of our agricultural land resource. They think of it as three out of every four acres, or hectares devoted to livestock grazing that should be used to grow crops that can be consumed directly by people.
Outrage is understandable, but it derives from ignorance of the fact the FAO, and other agencies, define agricultural land by its most suitable use. If land can be productively cultivated it is designated as “cultivated land”. So, if huge areas are defined as grazing land that is because grazing is its most appropriate and sustainable use. Such land has a variety of disadvantages that make cultivation inappropriate and often impossible. Such disadvantages include one or several of; too hilly, too stony, too cold, too wet, too dry, too infertile or too inaccessible to farm machinery to support anything other than grazing by ruminant domesticated animals, or wildlife.
Every rancher and farmer understand this. Many years ago, the late Gerard Guichon of Guichon Ranches in the Nicola valley in British Columbia showed me some abandoned sites on a nearby ranch where homesteads had been established in the 1920’s with the misguided intention of putting the land to the plow. In a region that has both a short growing season and an annual 12-inch rainfall, all such efforts failed; the unintended consequence of trying to farm land that is suitable only for grazing. The same must be said of large areas of land in the Palliser Triangle encompassing much of the Canadian prairies.
Recent history should also remind us of the folly of attempting to cultivate fragile lands. Examples abound but one of the most recent and obvious was the “Dust Bowl of the early 1930’s that savaged wide areas on the Canadian prairies and the High Plains in the US Midwest.(2)
So, instead of thinking of these grazing lands as reducing the area of cultivated land one should recognize the fact that grazing is their highest use and that not using these grazing lands for livestock production would result in the loss of an irreplaceable source of high quality meat and milk products from domesticated cattle, sheep and goats. This production from grasslands does not compete with but, in fact greatly supplements the supply of food produced on cultivated land. So, the unintended consequence of reducing livestock production, particularly ruminant production would be the loss of huge areas of pastureland as a high protein food producing resource.
An important divergence occurs here. It can sensibly be argued by anyone, except animal rights activists, that these grazing lands could still be used to produce meat from ruminant grazing animals but grain feeding to these animals should be limited to grains that were of lower quality or were spoiled by weather or were the by-products of grains and oilseed processing. I will explore that issue further after a discussion of grains and oilseeds production.
Having described the agricultural land base the next logical step is to list quantify the crops that are grown on the quarter described as “cultivated land” and to report their production.
Crop Production in 2017 (Source USDA/FAS Office of Global Analysis)
In 2017, according to the Foreign Agricultural Service of the USDA, the total area of grains and oilseeds as well as cotton is displayed in Table 2 below. That table shows that the sum of all food grains, oilseeds and cotton was produced on approximately 9.7 million square kilometers of cultivated land.
There are approximately 15.6 million square kilometers of cultivated land. That leaves about 5.9 million square kilometers on which is produced pastures and hay crops and silages for livestock, all the fruit, vegetable and horticultural crops as well as any land left fallow in each year.
It is reasonable to expect, as already suggested, that much of the pasture and hay land would be found on the “marginal” portion of cultivated land. I did not find reliable data on the land devoted to fruits and vegetables and other horticultural crops but these crops are not used as animal feed except in the form of food waste or the portion of these crops that is unsuitable or inedible as human food. Here again, livestock play a vital role in converting the wastes from these crops into high protein foods.
Table Grains, Oilseed and Cotton Production and Area (Source FAO)
Explanation – The crop areas in the table above are expressed in two ways. First, as shown in the second to last column the area of each listed crop is expressed as a % of the total listed crops area. In the last column, each listed crop’s area is expressed as a percent of the total Cultivated area.
The chart below offers a more visual representation of the area taken up by the main crops.
One further comment must be made concerning the two slices in the pie chart labelled “All Other” and “Marginal” land. The areas taken up by the named crops are discreet and specific, but it is a certainty that some off these named crops were grown on the Marginal Land while some of the pasture and forage was grown on the Prime and Good Land. This does not alter the total. What remains is the 20 percent of Cultivated Land that is devoted to the wide array of fruits and vegetables.
The main grain crops that are consumed by livestock are the Coarse Grains and Table 2 as well as Figure 1 indicates that these coarse grains make up 33% of the listed crops area and 20% of all cultivated land. This is a sizable portion of the available crop land, but it should be noted that livestock feed is not the only use made of coarse grains. Barley and rye, for example, are used for brewing and distilling while corn is now used extensively to produce ethanol and is used in many other industrial processes that usually end up in human foods. The by-products of these industrial processes such as brewer’s grains, oil cake and meal are used as livestock feed. Were it not for livestock these industrial by-products would make no contribution to the human food supply. Here is a good example of the use of the by-products of human food manufacture as animal feed. In like manner food grains that are “off grade” or weather damaged are routinely diverted to livestock feed purposes.
I did not find global data on the proportion of coarse grains used in livestock feed. Obviously the monogastric species cannot make effective use of grazing land and are thus heavily dependent upon grains and food and crop wastes.
Meat products from ruminant animals certainly can be (and are) produced without the use of feed grains. In fact, extensive grain feeding of cattle occurs mainly in Canada, the USA and to a lesser extent in Australia. These three countries provide only about 25% of the global beef supply. This therefore confirms that about 75% of the beef produced in the world is produced without the use of significant quantities of grain.
To pursue this point still further, my own calculations reveal that grain use in cattle feeding in Canada works out to just 6.1 pounds per pound of retail ready beef.
The remarkable capacity of the ruminant animal is its ability to convert pasture and forage feeds into high quality protein dense meat and milk. In feedlots grain is added to increase growth rates and to produce a higher quality product. However, grain usage is much lower than commonly supposed as demonstrated in the reference above.
Dairymen have long and rightly referred to the dairy cow as “the foster mother of the human race”. In no less degree are beef animals, and other ruminants indispensable contributors to the global protein supply.
A very recent study made by Dr. Sara Place, Sr. Director, Sustainable Beef Production Research at the US based National Cattlemen’s Beef Association provides further insight. Though Dr. Place may appear to hold a bias related to her job the first two points were sourced and the third is beyond dispute.
1. According to a study from scientists at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, “86 percent of what livestock eat globally is
human-inedible plants and leftovers”.
2. Research from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine concluded that human-inedible plants and leftovers make up nearly 90 percent of a U.S. grain-finished beef animal’s lifetime feed consumption, while less than 10 percent of what they eat is grain.
3. Her third point is directly quoted. “One important role livestock-such as cattle- play in our sustainable food system is taking human inedible food and ultimately making it nutritious. Specifically, cattle act as ‘upcyclers’ -meaning they eat grasses and plant matter left over from human food production and upgrade them into nutritional, high quality protein. In fact, they produce 19% more edible protein than they consume”.
My own analysis indicates that on a life cycle basis, 6.1 pounds of feed grains are required to produce one pound of retail ready beef. (3)
The Economic Argument
Before leaving this section, a point must be made about the role of coarse grains in sustaining grain prices.
Much attention is focused on the very significant area of crop land that is taken up with coarse grain production. Obviously, one could argue that some portion of this land ranging from a small portion to all of it should be diverted into food grains production. Here again simplistic solutions would lead to unintended consequences.
At the human nutrition level this would be a clear case of exchanging high quality animal protein for carbohydrates.
But at a more practical level a rapid increase in food grains production would almost certainly lead to price depressing oversupply. The chart inserted below tracks annual average wheat and barley prices from 1997 to 2014 (source USDA). The chart shows that wheat prices are always higher than barley prices and that both prices are quite variable, obviously reflecting an ever-shifting supply and demand balance.
It is obvious that a sudden increase in food grain supplies would lower the market price, and very likely below the cost of production while a reduction in coarse grains would raise the price of animal feeds.
This scenario becomes absurd. Obviously in free societies crop production is not determined by decree but by individual decisions made by producers reacting to market signals. This free market approach has proven repeatedly superior to the floundering approach in centrally planned economies.
This may sound heartless and cynical in a world where there are large pockets of hunger and starvation, but this is exactly where the point must be emphasized. Food security is best assured where production is based on the profit motive. A related point is that hunger and starvation are most common in areas beset by strife and destructive wars.
So, in an important sense the demand for feed grains helps sustain and stabilize food grain production and prices at levels that are profitable One can be assured that any shortage in food grain supplies will lead to higher prices and market-based decisions to increase production. In this sense the production of feed grains acts as a sort of fly wheel, that takes up the slack between supply and demand.
The issue of livestock production as a net contributor or a limiting factor to the human food supply can now be discussed against the data background already provided. Certainly, there can be no question that ruminants that graze on the three quarters of agricultural land that is not suitable for cropping provide an enormous quantity of protein dense meat to the human diet without interfering with other human food production.
Ruminant meat …………...80 million tonnes
Pork ………………………….113 million tonnes
Poultry Meat………………111 million tonnes
Eggs ………………………….71 million tonnes
Milk………………………….500 million tonnes
As previously mentioned an estimated 75% of global ruminant production is accomplished without the use of grain.
Carbohydrates and Protein
As I worked on this essay I became increasingly aware that the central issue in this discussion is the relative importance, or more accurately, the proper balancing of carbohydrates and protein in the human diet.
I claim no expertise in the Science of Nutrition , but the following generalizations are sufficient to underline the importance of animal agriculture. In broad strokes the function of protein in the diet is to build and maintain the body. The function of carbohydrates, assisted by fat, is to provide most of the energy necessary to permit physical and mental activity. If I could put this in a nutshell, “Protein builds the body that takes you to the dance”
Animal based foods like meat, eggs and milk are rich in protein but are poor to negligible sources of carbohydrates. Plant based foods have the advantage as all are sources of carbohydrates and many, especially the oilseed crops and nuts of all kinds also supply significant quantities of protein. Proteins sourced from animal products are generally of higher quality especially in providing the essential amino acids, especially lysine.
The crucial point about animal agriculture is that all animal species can produce high quality protein while consuming feedstuffs that are either indigestible or unpalatable to humans. This is true of all domesticated animal species but doubly so for ruminants.
This takes us back to the title of this discussion where I contend that “Anyone can live on a vegetarian diet but Everyone can’t”. Are we prepared to sacrifice that three quarters of agricultural land that is suitable only for grazing?
An Issues Paper (#323, Sept 2013) released by CAST, the Centre for Agricultural Science and Technology contains the chart reproduced below that displays animal protein as a percent of total protein in the normal diets in various countries and the trend line from 1980 to 2009. (Canadian Data is not included in this chart but the trend line would be similar to, but a few percentage points lower than the trend line for USA.)
The percentage of animal sourced protein has been rising slowly on a global basis but most rapidly in China, while declining slightly in USA and Oceana (4). The proportion of animal protein in the diet in Africa, India and the “Least Developed Countries” hovers around 20% and has not changed significantly. This chart thus illustrates the importance of animal protein in the human diet but also its poor distribution.
The rapid increase of animal sourced protein in the Chinese diet is testament to the close relationship between rising income levels and increased demand for animal protein an harbinger of what is likely to happen if and as other emerge from “least developed” status.
Despite the efforts of animal rights activists and the predilections of vegetarians and vegans, animal agriculture will, and must remain a vital component of the global human diet. The main challenge the livestock industry faces will not be futile threats but the ability to increase output sufficiently to meet the increased demand caused by population growth.
The Issue of Animal Liberation
I have left the quixotic issue of animal liberation to the latter part of this essay for two reasons. The first and obvious reason is that it can never happen and the second is that it would be the ultimate cruelty to domesticated animals. A very recent controversy arose in Toronto when an animal rights activist protested outside a restaurant carrying a sign stating that “Animals, they’re not for us to use”. One wonders if such activists have ever given a moment’s thought to the fate that would await liberated animals. The liberation of domestic livestock would inevitably lead to their virtual extinction for the simple reason that, except for swine where a small proportion would revert to a feral state, domesticated ruminants and poultry could not survive in the wild. And even if some small proportion if these domesticated species were to adapt they would still fall victim to predation and a harsher more agonizing death than humane slaughter now ensures. How is that an improvement? And it should be unnecessary to argue that no one, other than a few zoos and animal preserves would feed, protect and maintain these once domesticated species in the absence of any economic incentive to offset the cost of doing so.
As mentioned at the outset, there is no possibility that livestock production will be significantly reduced and every likelihood that it will need to be increased to provide protein rich nutrition to a growing and advancing human population.
That assurance however does not mean that the various parts of the industry will not continue to be pestered if not harassed by increasing regulation and other restrictions.
Certainly, public interest is legitimate, and sometimes necessary in certain areas related to environmental degradation and animal care. But in my view a line is crossed when activists attempt to use such legitimate issues to seek to reduce or eliminate livestock production.
This essay offers some arguments and facts to the contrary.
1. This well-known quotation is attributed to both Mark Twain and Will Rogers
2.An excellent account of the dust bowl and “unintended consequence” of cropping fragile grazing lands is the book by Timothy Ryan titled “The Worst Hard Times”
3. Access my article here https://www.charlesgracey.net/single-post/2017/05/11/How-Much-Grain-and-Water-Does-Beef-Cattle-Production-Require
4. Oceana is the term used to refer to Australia and New Zealand