Throughout the Animal Farm theme of our online series Open Up, we have addressed some key sustainability issues within the supply chains of different animal products. We have talked about the impacts that the consumption of some animal products like chicken and their eggs have. We have also looked at issues such as overfishing, and animal welfare. Yet, we feel that we cannot walk away from the farm without touching upon an issue that is steadily and, somewhat sneakily, causing some of the greatest impacts on people, the planet and the economy: concentrated animal feed.
It is undeniable that our need for meat has grown exponentially. According to The Economist, meat consumption has increased almost four times in the last fifty years. The State of Food and Agriculturereport published by the FAO in 2010-11 shows that 294.7 million tonnes of meat were predicted to be produced globally in 2011, this equates to approximately 42kilograms of meat per person, per year in developing countries.
To meet this growing demand for meat, animals need to be nurtured and fed. Animal feed normally consists of forage such as plant and leaf matter. However, cows, for example, cannot digest such feed well, and are reared on a diet consisting of concentrates such as maize and soybean meal to ensure they are more suitable for meat production. The addition of maize and soybean creates a high performance diet, rich in protein and amino acids which help animals conserve energy for growth and remain healthy for human consumption.
Of course, with growing meat consumption, the use of these concentrates leads to a growth in the demand for soy and maize. Currently over two thirds of the global production of soy originates fromArgentina, the U.S. and Brazil, and the world’s largest maize producers are the U.S. and China. The increasing demand for soy and maize has consequences since not all production is sustainable.
The expansion of soy and maize cultivation in South America, and its devastating economic and social consequences, like deforestation, land degradation and displacement of rural populations, has become very topical in recent years. Deforestation in South America is twice as high as the global average; and over four million hectares of rainforest, on average, are disappearing annually. Deforestation removes significant vegetation in valuable forest areas, affecting the fertility of surrounding soil and ultimately causing land erosion and infertility. Furthermore, both soy and maize cultivation require a vast amount of water, which evaporates four times faster than natural vegetation. To produce these concentrates, expensive and insufficient irrigation systems are created, resulting in the depletion of local aquifers in water scarce regions. Furthermore, according to the Dutch Soy Coalition, over six kilograms of soil are lost to every kilogram of soy and maize that is produced; much of this creates silt in surrounding rivers and reservoirs. A fair amount of this water is then contaminated with fertilisers such as herbicides and pesticides which endanger plant and animal life downstream.
The social consequences of the cultivation of land for maize and soy are as dire as the environmental ones. In 2008, a total of 5,266 soy workers in Brazil were rescued from “slave-like” conditions, according to Joao Pedro Stedile, a top official from the Movement of Landless Workers (MST). In Paraguay, indigenous communities are frequently caught in violent struggles to maintain their lands in the face of the increasing threat of soy plantations. Moreover, falsified contracts are often used to trick the uneducated locals into giving up their land. In 2004 alone, over 3000 people were arrested, 2000 charged and several deaths occurred during a wave of soy related protests. And this year in South Sudan, large amounts of village land has been cleared by bulldozers to create space for maizeproduction.
Clearly, there is a pressing need to make livestock production more sustainable, and for this we will need to change the cultivation methods of cattle feed – primarily soy and maize.
We, as consumers, have the capacity to shape the food and beverage industry as a result of the products we choose to purchase, and those we choose not to. The supply of sustainable animal feed will mirror our demand for sustainable meat, eggs and dairy products. Carefully read the labels of the products you buy and look for any certification seals which indicate that sustainability issues have been addressed by the producer of a product For example: has the beef you purchase been grain or grass fed? Also, tell your local supermarket that you would like to buy sustainably sourced goods, and in particular, sustainably sourced animal products, and that you would like to see these made more readily available in their store.
Knowing the scale of destruction that unsustainable animal products leave in their wake, it is undoubtedly worth our time and effort to collectively demand sustainable animal products.< Back