FAO sets the record straight – 86pc of livestock feed is inedible by humans

Susan MacMillan, International Livestock Research Institute, 01/02/2019

Cow Jar, by Jean Dubuffet, 1943.

As the media frenzy caused by a ‘planetary health diet’ proposed in a new report from an EAT-Lancet commission this month continues, it is timely to recall that the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) has set the record straight regarding not just the level of greenhouse gases that livestock emit, but also incorrect information about how much food (crops eatable by humans) is consumed by livestock.

It’s not a lot.

The EAT-Lancet report summarizes scientific evidence for a global food system transition towards healthy diets from sustainable agriculture. The report concludes that a global shift towards a diet made up of high quantities of fruits, vegetables and plant-based protein and low quantities of animal protein could catalyze the achievement of both the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement to combat climate change.

Anne Mottet, an FAO livestock development officer specializing in natural resource use efficiency and climate change, usefully informs us of incorrect, if widespread, information and understanding about the so-called ‘food-feed competition’.

What does her research study show?

What most livestock in the world mostly eat is grass and other forages and crop ‘wastes’ and by-products.

What most livestock in the world mostly don’t eat is grain fit for human consumption.

Here is a summary of her research on this topic.

‘. . . Livestock use a large share of agricultural land and are often considered a resource drain. Particularly criticized is the low efficiency of livestock to convert feed into human edible protein and the competition for the use of cereals as livestock feed or for direct human food.

A new study by FAO and published in Global Food Security found that livestock rely primarily on forages, crop residues and by-products that are not edible to humans and that certain production systems contribute directly to global food security, as they produce more highly valuable nutrients for humans, such as proteins, than they consume.

‘. . . Animal food sources make a vital contribution to global nutrition and are an excellent source of macro- and micronutrients. Livestock products make up 18% of global calories, 34% of global protein consumption and provides essential micro-nutrients, such as vitamin B12, iron and calcium. Livestock use large areas of pastures where nothing else could be produced. Animals also add to agricultural production through manure production and draught power. Further, keeping livestock provides a secure source of income for over 500 million poor people in many in rural areas.

This study determines that 86pc of livestock feed is not suitable for human consumption.

If not consumed by livestock, crop residues and by-products could quickly become an environmental burden as the human population grows and consumes more and more processed food.

Animals also consume food that could potentially be eaten by people. Grains account for 13pc of the global livestock dry matter intake.

Some previous studies, often cited, put the consumption of grain needed to raise 1kg of beef between 6kg and 20kg.

Contrary to these high estimates, this study found that an average of only 3kg of cereals are needed to produce 1kg of meat at global level.

It also shows important differences between production systems and species.

For example, because they rely on grazing and forages, cattle need only 0.6 kg of protein from edible feed to produce 1 kg of protein in milk and meat, which is of higher nutritional quality. Cattle thus contribute directly to global food security.

The study also investigates the type of land used to produce livestock feed. Results show that out of the 2.5 billion ha needed, 77pc are grasslands, with a large share of pastures that could not be converted to croplands and could therefore only be used for grazing animals.

‘. . . Animal production, in its many forms, plays an integral role in the food system, making use of marginal lands, turning co-products into edible goods, contributing to crop productivity and turning edible crops into highly nutritious, protein-rich food. Quantifying the land and biomass resources engaged in livestock production and the food output they generate, but also improving our modelling capacity by including trends in consumer preferences, shifts in animal species, climate change impacts, and industrial processes to improve the human edibility of certain feed materials is arguably basic information needed as part of further research into the challenge of sustainably feeding 9.6 billion people by 2050,” concluded the authors.’

Read the whole article on the FAO website: More fuel for the food/feed debate: New FAO Study indicates that livestock primarily consume foods not fit for human consumption and meat production requires less cereals than generally reported.


This article was first published on the International Livestock Research Institute website on January 28, 2019 – to view original article click here


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  1. Chris Gunther, 04/02/2019

    Can this be promoted on The Project or Charlie Pickering, or Catalyst.
    These shows are highly influential and appear to be pro vegan.

  2. Lee McNicholl, 03/02/2019

    The crusade against the pivotal role that sustainably produced animal protein plays in feeding the unsustainable global human population by the sensationalist MSM, highlights the total lack of truly scientific journalism practiced by the so called journalists from these organizations. They have just become the pawns of animal activists, vegan extremists, and pseudo environmentalists as the FAO figures clearly demonstrate.
    An often undersold incredibly valuable attribute of beef and other animal meats is their Biological Value{BV} to humans compared to other sources of protein. The BV measures the nutritional value of the food source in meeting the protein needs of the target species, in this case humans, on a scale of 1-100. Beef has a value of 80, Soymeal 74, Wheat Gluten 64. That means Beef per gram is 8% more efficient than Soy and 25% more so than Wheat at meeting humans protein needs. Therefore a lot more cropping of marginal lands would be require to feed future unsustainable human populations. Unfortunately your average MSM journalist does not seem to have the intellectual capacity to grasp these facts and prefers “fake news” denigrating livestock production.

  3. Jenny James, 02/02/2019

    Could the MLA spend some of our money on trying to educate the public on this. As a suggestion do tv ads putting that information out into the public. Adding it to ads like the ‘eat more lamb’. Somehow getting it into mainline schooling by adding the info to some sort of donated activity. Hold a contest to get ideas on how to do it as plenty of people must have ideas.
    BUT PLEASE DO SOMETHING. Be proactive and just don’t write a letter to a paper which is going to be read by .03% of the population if lucky.

  4. deborah newell, 02/02/2019

    I have written previously for another publication that the efficiency of effort to outcome is paramount in respect to the human population now and into the future. Not only is clearing grasslands and open woodlands, tilling them, setting up irrigation systems, then sowing mono-culturing seed, protecting such with weedicides and herbicides, fertilising, watering, harvesting…extremely inefficient when considering the gained food elements compared with foraged, grazed and milked meat animals these same animals provide leather, tools, work as tractors and transports, moisturisers, clothing fibres, feathers and medical resources…Now there are virtually no food nutrients in a lettuce, nothing else a lettuce can do except look pretty on a plate and the production cost in fertile soil and water is huge. What is also totally ignored in this ignorant and commercially supported research coming from The Lancet is that fruit and vegetables are geographically seasonal so to eat them out of season requires trains and planes and trucks and refrigeration… while. we all know our species can survive in deserts and through regions characterised by deep long winters when plants don’t grow. The Planetary Health Diet insults all scientific and logical thought

  5. Max Winders, 02/02/2019

    Thanks Beef Central.

    This article makes me feel good inside and that the efforts of all the people in our industry are not wasted.

    I suggest that Sandra’s idea should be followed up but with some prior input from MLA and relevant scientists with access to actual Australian case studies of successful grassland research and development.

  6. Sandra Jephcott, 01/02/2019

    Has all this information from the FAO study been published in main stream media so people other than the already converted are educated?

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