In this article, Ruaraidh Petre from the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef explores the impact that improving herd efficiency in developing countries could have on sustainably serving a quickly growing global appetite for beef.
It is projected by Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations that demand for animal products will increase by 70 percent by 2050, and this increased demand is greater than for any other commodity group.
Consumption of meat in China has quadrupled since 1980, and is expected to double in Africa by 2050, driven by increasing incomes and urbanisation. Population growth adds further to demand. Throughout the developing world, milk consumption has doubled, meat consumption tripled and egg consumption increased by a factor of five since 1960.
A common assumption by commentators is that the rising demand for animal source foods in lower- and middle-income countries cannot be met sustainably because it inevitably requires an increasing herd/flock, and there is no land available for these additional animals.
As it happens, the size of herds and flocks is already increasing in lower- and middle-income countries to meet demand, and it is for this reason that it is portrayed as unsustainable.
Increasing herd in Africa and Asia
As two thirds of large ruminants are found in Africa and Asia, it is worth looking at those regions to see if there are alternative futures that could feed growing populations without exceeding the resources available.
One thing to bear in mind is that not all large ruminants are primarily kept for food production – the number of oxen for animal traction in West Africa increased from 350,000 to 2 million between the 1970s and today.
Livestock also play a significant role in the household economy being readily traded when necessary; they are an increasingly important part of the agricultural sector of developing countries, and social and cultural factors are generally more important for livestock than for crops.
So, while Africa and Asia have two thirds of large ruminants, they produce less than one third of global milk and meat supply – Africa is in fact a net importer of most livestock products.
Several factors contribute, but reproductive efficiency is generally low; cows in Southern Africa produce on average one calf every four years. Lower inputs in disease prevention and treatment combined with less effective grazing management (communal grazing in many countries) also contribute to low outputs.
The result of this being a very large supporting herd generating a small offtake – impact in terms of resources per kg product is therefore high.
US beef herd decreases
We can contrast that situation with the United States or Australia. Over the last 50 years, US beef production volume increased by 25pc, while the number of cattle for beef production decreased by 6pc.
The reduction in cattle numbers has been offset by a more than 30pc increase in average cattle weights, particularly of steers and heifers, which represent 80pc of cattle producing beef.
Improved genetics, reproductive efficiency, health and husbandry have produced cattle with higher growth rates and feed conversion efficiencies. Total beef supply in the US was similar in 2020 to the record year in 2002, but 5 million fewer head were slaughtered.
At the same time beef cow inventory shrank from a high of 45 million in 1974, to the current ~31 million. Australia, with 3pc of the global production accounts for 17pc of world trade. So not only are animals producing more per head, but the supporting herd is significantly smaller and therefore less resource intensive.
Using a metric such as GWP* for emissions, both intensity and total impact in these countries have declined and still have room for improvement; one could also claim they are not adding to climate change since a reduction of CH4 emissions by 0.3pc per year, (10pc in 30 yrs), mean that no additional warming is taking place.
Increasing beef production in Brazil is not directly reliant on deforestation
We are seeing Brazil representing an intermediate stage, where between 2005 and 2019, intensification meant that while the rate of deforestation (land converted to pasture in the short term) declined, beef production continued to rise.
Although deforestation has accelerated again in the last three years, it is clear that increasing beef production in Brazil is not directly reliant on deforestation, as frontiers of recent deforestation are less efficient producers.
It is unfortunate for the global beef industry that the first use of cleared forest is for grazing, because even if the Brazilian beef herd has a shrinking total footprint, as some claim it does, the impact of deforestation is reflected across the whole beef industry.
This inevitably leads to calls for reduced consumption, as deforestation attributed to beef production in South America represents a significant part of total emissions as well as biodiversity loss.
The alternative solution, namely for the supporting herd to shrink and production per head to increase is rarely proposed but could still represent a way to meet demand while freezing the footprint of production.
If demand is increasing in lower- and middle-income countries and relatively stable in higher income countries where production is already relatively efficient in terms of resource use, it makes sense to transfer some of those experiences in breeding, grazing management, husbandry and health to regions where demand is growing fastest.
What we need to avoid is a situation where domestic policies in the most efficient producer countries limit production and end up causing greater expansion in regions where that is achieved through increased numbers rather than efficiency.
FAO estimate that potential mitigation in the beef industry is around 37 percent, based on the assumption that producers in a given system, region and agro-ecological zone were to apply the practices of the 10th percentile of producers with the lowest emissions intensities, while maintaining constant output.
Given the large discrepancy between regions that may even increase with sufficient investment.
This article is part of AgCarbon Central’s Carbon Forum series. See below for more columns.
- Dr Richard Eckard – why livestock producers should care about carbon footprint
- AgCarbon Central’s Eric Barker – has beef become the sacrificial lamb in emissions debate?
- Carbon Market Institute CEO John Connor – Legislated climate targets bring renewed opportunity to land sector