March 25, 2019

FAO study: Feed the world by supporting dairy cattle production and research

FAO study: Feed the world by supporting dairy cattle production and research

A new report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) addresses the impact of dairy cattle on land use, greenhouse gas emissions, and nutrition around the world. The report, titled “Climate Change and the Global Dairy Cattle Sector,” concludes that dairy cattle supply valuable nutrition, and their production actually has less of an impact on the environment than many people assume. “Cattle thus contribute directly to global food security,” FAO concludes.

A key finding of the report is that 86 percent of dairy cattle feed is not suitable for human consumption. These feed ingredients include co-products, by-products, and crop residues that would be damaging to the environment if not consumed by dairy cattle.

This data refutes claims that that that feed given to livestock should go directly into human diets instead.

“I came to realize that people are continually exposed to incorrect information about livestock and the environment that is repeated without being challenged, in particular about livestock feed,” says Anne Mottet, Livestock Development Officer at FAO, in the FAO press release on the study. “There is currently no official and complete international database on what livestock eat. This study contributes to fill this gap and to provide peer-reviewed evidence to better inform policy makers and the public.”

As cattle consume these feedstuffs, they convert the feed into protein and other nutrients crucial to human diets. The new report shows that “livestock products make up 18 percent of global calories, 34 percent of global protein consumption and provides essential micro-nutrients, such as vitamin B12, iron and calcium.”

The study also provides data on efficient land use in dairy cattle production. Some have argued that the land used for livestock grazing should be turned into cropland to better feed the world. The FAO report shows why that would be impossible.

Of the 2.5 billion ha currently used for dairy cattle production, 77 percent of that land is grassland. FAO found that this includes a large share of “pastures that could not be converted to croplands and could therefore only be used for grazing animals.”

Dairy cattle do have an impact on the environment, the authors write, with the greatest percentage of emissions coming from methane from enteric fermentation. But the authors also found that the average milk yield per animal is increasing. Between 2005 and 2015, the global dairy herd increased 14 percent while milk production increased 15 percent. 

This increased efficiency has allowed producers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions per unit of milk. “Emission intensities, GHG [greenhouse gases] per kilogram of milk, have declined by almost 11 percent over the period 2005–2015. These declines are recorded in all regions reflecting continued improvements to on-farm efficiency achieved via improved animal productivity and better management,” the FAO authors write.

The report authors emphasize the need for more animal research to further increase dairy cattle efficiency and meet the needs of a growing population. They write that tools such as genetic selection technologies and enhanced veterinary services will be important for bringing low-efficiency producers up to the same level as highly efficient producers.

This goal is in line with policies supported by the American Society of Animal Science and livestock experts around the world. Feedstuffs columnist Dennis L. Erpelding commended the FAO for their insights. “The challenge is great, but with scientific advancement, innovation adoption and open food trade the increasing consumer food needs globally can be met sustainably!” Erpelding writes.

Read more:

FAO Report: Climate Change and the Global Dairy Cattle Sector

FAO Press Release: More Fuel for the Food/Feed Debate

Feedstuffs: FAO insights: Dairy, beef cattle critical to sustainably feeding world