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Feeding The World One Technology At A Time

It’s likely most cattlemen haven’t trod the streets of New York City very much. For good reason, what

It’s likely most cattlemen haven’t trod the streets of New York City very much. For good reason, what with its reputation as a seething, crowded mass of humanity.

However, according to Alex Avery with the Hudson Institute Center for Global Food Issues, if you really want seething, crowded masses of humanity, take a side trip to Beijing, Bangalore or Calcutta. There, he says, you will get a glimpse of the world’s future...and yours.

“Bottom line, world food demand 40 years from now will be at least twice as high as it is today, perhaps closer to tripling. That means that by the year 2050, humanity will have to produce twice as much food every year, year after year, than we currently produce.”

That’s a problem and an opportunity, he told cattlemen attending BEEF magazine’s recent BEEF Quality Summit (BQS) in Colorado Springs. The problem is this: “We don’t have a lot of additional farmland we can bring into production to meet that challenge.”
And the opportunity? If allowed to use the production technologies available to us, we don’t have to.

World population growing. The world population is 6.5 billion people and is projected to grow to 8.5 to 9 billion by 2050, Avery says. From a purely practical standpoint, that’s a lot more mouths to feed in a relatively short period of time. However, more and more of those new and hungry mouths will come into the world in much more affluent surroundings than did their parents. And it’s the growing affluence of major populations like China and India that will drive the escalating worldwide demand for food.

Avery points to China, which has 21% of the world’s population. Over the last 12-14 years, Chinese meat consumption has more than doubled. “And they still eat, on a per-capita basis, less than half the animal protein we eat in North America. The projections are, in 2045 or 2050, the Chinese will eat twice as much meat as they do today.”

That’s due to a worldwide truism – as populations grow more affluent, their consumption changes from a primarily plant-based diet to a meat-based diet.

How can U.S. cattlemen supply beef’s part of that global dietary increase in meat consumption without taking land away from wildlife and other uses? By doing what they have done, by and large, for the last 50+ years – taking advantage of production technologies that allow them to produce more pounds of beef per acre and per animal.

To prove that point, Avery undertook some research funded by the Get It group, a consortium of pharmaceutical companies that produce livestock growth promotants. Using data from the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University and the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Avery concluded that just by using growth promotants, cattlemen reduced the land required to produce 1 lb. of beef by 67% and greenhouse gas emissions from beef production by 40%.

On an acre-day basis, the data show that beef produced in an organic, grass-fed system requires 5.04 acre-days to produce l lb. of retail beef. A conventional feedyard finishing system without growth promotants takes 1.99 acre-days to produce 1 lb. of beef, and finishing cattle in a feedyard with the help of growth promotants nets 1.64 acre-days/1 lb. of consumable beef.

Put on an equivalent “miles-per-acre” (mpa) basis to make it more understandable, Avery says a conventional feedyard finishing system using growth promotants produces 52.3 mpa, higher than a Honda Civic hybrid. Cattle finished in a feedyard without growth promotants get 43 mpa, and cattle produced on an organic grass-fed system get 17 mpa, equivalent to a Hummer H3.

Avery says that more than 95% of the beef produced in the U.S. comes from a conventional feedyard production system using growth promotants.

“Their use over the past 50+ years (since 1956) has proven beneficial not only to beef producers, but to consumers and the environment, who benefit from lower costs and more efficient use of scarce natural resources,” he says.

Not just meat. But it’s not just animal protein in the diet. “How many cotton outfits do you have in your closet?” he asked the BQS crowd. “We have a lot. And that takes acreage. Twenty, 30 years ago, the average Chinese had two outfits. The average (person in India) had two or three outfits. Compare that with your own wardrobe and that’s where they’re going. If every adult Chinese male has just one additional beer a week, that’s (an extra) 3.25 billion gals. of beer annually. That’s a lot of grain.”

There are only two ways to meet global food demand, Avery says. “We can take more land from nature or produce more per acre or per animal. No other human activity has greater impact on the environment than agriculture, and the more land-efficient we can make our agriculture, the more environmentally friendly it will be.”

Using 1960 productivity levels, just to produce today’s food supply, we’d need to plow down an additional 15-20 million square miles of wildlife habitat. That’s Canada, the U.S., half of Brazil and half of Western Europe. That’s how much wildlife habitat has been saved by synthetic fertilizers, plant breeding, pesticides and yes, cattle hormones.”

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