October 30, 2017

Competition of Livestock for Food

By Michael Azain, Ph.D, ASAS Public Policy Committee

The article “Livestock: On our plates or eating at our table? A new analysis of the feed/food debate” summarizes feed and land usage for worldwide livestock production and provides specific values for the amount of human edible feed used in various production systems for ruminants and non-ruminants in developed and developing countries. It also makes predictions for the impact of the increased animal protein demand in the future.  The article, published in the September 2017 issue of Global Food Security, was written by a group from the UN-FAO in Rome and Wageningen University. The goal of the work was to serve as a reference for policy makers on the role of livestock in food security.

Livestock consume 6.0 billion metric tons of dry matter per year.  Approximately 20% of the feed livestock consume is in direct competition with human food. Another 30% is accounted for in crop residues and by-products that otherwise would increase the environmental impact of human food production. The largest portion of animal grazing (about 50%) is in forages that do not compete directly with humans. Much of this livestock production occurs on land that is unsuitable for other crops – converting otherwise non-productive land into protein for human consumption.  

Efficiencies are calculated for ruminants in grazing, feedlot and mixed systems in both developed and developing countries. Similarly, they are broken out for pigs and poultry in multiple systems. These are expressed as total dry matter intake and on a human food edible basis with and without oilcake (mainly soybean meal) inclusion. For ruminant species which includes cattle, buffalo and small ruminants, the estimated feed conversion of dry matter feed per kg of protein produced is 133. This drops to 6.7 kg of feed when looking at the human edible portion consumed. For non-ruminant species, the efficiencies are 30 on a total basis and 20.3 kg of human edible per kg of protein. Expressed on a meat basis, it takes 2.8 kg of potential human food per kg of boneless meat in a ruminant and 3.2 kg in a non-ruminant. The authors calculate that 1.0 kg of animal protein in a ruminant system requires 0.6 kg of plant protein. In non-ruminants, the conversion is 2.0 kg of plant protein per kg of animal protein produced.

The article concludes that livestock provide a valuable role by converting non-edible materials into important source of nutrients, but also contribute manure for crop production and a steady source of income. They provide predictions on the impact of population growth and improvements in feed efficiency on future needs.