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Blog: Healthier and more sustainable animals mean healthier humans

27 January 2020 Dr. Alan Bullion

The United Nations, as part of its sustainable development goals, has placed a spotlight on the livestock industry, not least the conflict between the environmental impacts of livestock farming and the demands of a growing global population of almost 10 billion by 2050 for meat, eggs and dairy products. This will require an increase in protein production of around 50% from current levels.

Ruminants such as cattle and sheep have traditionally served and will continue to perform a valuable role in sustainable agricultural systems, such as in Africa. They supply large volumes of high value food and utilize low-value feed ingredients.

Ruminants are particularly useful in converting vast renewable resources from rangeland, pasture, and crop residues or other by-products into food edible for humans. They however have two major adverse impacts upon the environment. Cattle and sheep for example produce various greenhouses gases and release nitrogen and phosphorus into the environment which can adversely affect air quality, global warming, and soil and water pollution.

Methane is a major greenhouse gas emitted by ruminants and nowadays there is considerable research effort devoted to reducing these methane emissions. Phytochemicals, vaccines, dietary lipids, and electron acceptors such as nitrate and ionophores have all been studied as part of a methane reduction strategy. Good manure management and anaerobic digestion also contribute to lowering the environmental impact of ruminant production.

These policy challenges are widely recognized and are now being addressed, particularly in the UK and New Zealand. A new UK government report from the Committee on Climate Change recommends that farmers must "significantly reduce methane" emissions from livestock, including feeding animals "methane inhibiting additives."

Reducing crude protein levels in dairy cow diets increases the efficiency of nitrogen capture and reduces nitrogen excretion to the environment. Similarly, reducing the over-feeding of phosphorus to livestock and other ruminants is a powerful tool to decrease the phosphorus content of manure.

Phosphorus is an essential element for the biological development of both plants and animals. Animals have been bred and raised successfully well before the advent of the market for chemically-produced feed phosphates, as significant amounts of phosphorus are already naturally available in animal diets.

A fundamental improvement in sustainability can be achieved by improving ruminant production. Higher output of milk and meat from ruminants reduces the number of animals required. This in turn reduces feed requirements and the consequent environmental pollution. There is considerable scope to improve dairy cow efficiency in the European Union which will help in sustainability.

There is considerable scope to improve dairy cow efficiency in the EU as there are stark contrasts between EU countries. The highest annual yields can be found in Denmark, Sweden, Estonia, Finland, and Portugal (between 8,278 and 9,361 kg per head) and the lowest in Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia (from 3,343 to 4,566 kg per head). Improving production efficiency in Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia could certainly reduce the number of cows needed for milk production.

Future policy directions are to improve the nutritional quality of meat and milk, to manage ruminant health without antibiotics and to develop the use of new and novel feed ingredients such as wood, microalgae, seaweeds and insects, Animal Pharm research demonstrates.

Meat, especially beef, is a good source of protein in a balanced diet, and of micronutrients such as iron, selenium, vitamins A, B12 and folic acid. Iron has a high bioavailability when derived from meat, especially for children. Milk and other dairy foods, particularly cheese, likewise provide important nutrients such as calcium, magnesium, protein and fat.

In reality, ruminants yield more human food per unit of human-edible feed consumed because most of their feed is obtained from materials produced in large volumes that cannot be consumed directly by humans. A crucial aspect of ruminant nutrition is that a large proportion of most ruminant diets are various forages such as hay, silage or fresh grass. This fact has frequently been overlooked in assessments of the role of animals in food production.

Figure 1: Role of ruminants in the Circular Economy to maximise the value of cereals

On a global basis, less than 3.0 kg of grain are required to produce 1.0 kg of meat from ruminants and less than 1.0 kg of grain per kg of milk. Ruminants, both beef cattle and dairy cows, have historically also been the main consumers of by-products from the human food and biofuels industries.

To find out more the benefits and impacts, mitigation strategies and future direction of ruminant production in agriculture download a sample of our latest 60-page special report titled The Role of Ruminants in Sustainable Agriculture 2020, authored by Dr Clifford Adams.

Aquaculture revolution

Regarding fish production, there is also an exciting DNA genetic revolution into new tools to manage the health of intensively-reared aquaculture species to prevent and treat the spread of infectious diseases and parasitic infestations. As with ruminants, disease prevention is more cost-effective and economically beneficial than an over-dependence on treatment, Animal Pharm research shows.

An increase in protein derived from the aquatic environment is considered to be critical for ensuring the human protein gap can be closed. Wild capture has peaked and will at best be maintained at current levels with effective management. Aquaculture will therefore contribute almost all of future growth in aquatic protein production.
Most commentators agree that future expansion of the industry will be dependent upon innovation throughout the value chain. As examples, sustainable diets with nutritional profiles optimized for the health and productivity of each species (and their nutritional value for the consumer) are essential, as are new biosecurity and engineering solutions to minimize environmental impact and improve animal welfare. Effective control of disease is therefore one of the most important leading indicators of improved aquatic productivity.

To find out more about treatments and technology that will revolutionise farmed fishing download a sample of our latest 130-page Aquaculture and the DNA revolution special report, authored by Ian Thompson and Michael Horne.

The role of feed phosphates

So where does the animal and fish feed come from? At around three million tonnes the feed phosphate sector is smaller in size compared to phosphate fertilizers, but it provides a significant component of global demand, estimated at around 48 million tonnes of nutrient, and is an even stronger driver in specific countries, for example when looking at phosphoric acid trade in Europe or the Americas (Brazil, Mexico), as well as Russia, China and other South-East Asian countries for imports.

Because feed phosphates are a relatively niche industry, it is even less transparent than fertilizers, so independent market intelligence from Fertecon can provide even more needed market insights. A significant amount is shipped around the world in containers rather than bulk. So, in conclusion, the feed phosphates industry structure tends to have fewer intermediaries, with more producers selling directly to users as part of a wider bundle of services.

To find out more about the market for animal feed phosphates download a sample of our latest special report.

Posted 27 January 2020 by Dr. Alan Bullion, Special Reports and Projects Director




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