Tuesday, March 5, 2024

How to get more beef from a shrinking pot

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Clear thinking and innovation needed to meet global beef hunger.
Ruaraidh Petre, executive director of Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, suggests agriculturally proficient nations help improve practices in parts of the world where large-scale production is just getting going.
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Contrary to the belief that demand for red meat will be satisfied by alternative proteins, these appear to have hit something of a roadblock with consumers finding the initial promise fails to live up to expectations. 

At the same time the world’s appetite for beef in particular continues to grow, most notably in developing countries where production is nowhere large enough to meet demand.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations predicts global consumption of animal products, including dairy, meat and eggs, will double by 2050, with demand for meat from Africa alone doubling as a consequence of higher incomes, urbanisation and larger populations. 

In case anybody doubts this prediction, they need only reflect on China, which has seen meat consumption quadruple since 1980. 

Across the developing world milk consumption has doubled, meat has tripled and egg consumption has increased fivefold since 1960. 

The implications of these patterns for global supply and greenhouse gas reduction are mind-boggling. 

The Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB), formed in 2012, and its associate New Zealand organisation, which was founded in 2019, pursue the achievement of sustainable production through animal health and welfare, 30% reduction of beef’s global warming impact by 2030, and ensuring the beef value chain is a net positive contributor to nature. 

Beef + Lamb NZ, processors, producers and retailers, as well as the Worldwide Fund for Nature, are members of the roundtable and there is plenty of evidence the industry is moving towards rewarding suppliers for sustainable production, such as Silver Fern Farms’ carbon zero beef programme. 

The local Roundtable promotes the vision of proving NZ produces the world’s most sustainable beef in ways that are economically viable, socially responsible, and environmentally sound. 

There is a great deal of noise in the media, reflected in political debate and public reaction, most recently the Students Strike for Climate Change, which claims agriculture is almost singlehandedly destroying the planet. 

So the message promoting the Roundtable’s view of sustainable and responsible beef production tends to get lost.

GRSB executive director Ruaraidh Petre, who co-ordinates the Roundtable’s work remotely from his Nelson home base, recently published an article in The Beef Central online newsletter assessing the opportunity for improving beef production in developing countries to satisfy the growing demand. 

This increase cannot be met by extra production in the major beef-producing countries, where herd sizes are all declining, despite the fact that better productivity has compensated for the loss in volume. 

In the present climate there is no likelihood traditional producing countries wish to reverse this trend, or are able to. 

Large beef producers like the United States and Australia have dramatically increased productivity in the last 20 years, with the US cow herd declining by 15% and cattle slaughtered down by 5 million since 2002. 

In the past 50 years the US beef herd has shrunk by 25%, while production has actually risen by 6%. 

Australia has 3% of global production, supplying 17% of world trade.

Petre argues it would be totally counterproductive for the world’s most efficient producing countries to limit their production, which would then have to be compensated for by the less efficient, resulting in increased production and higher emissions. 

He claims the level of methane emitted by efficient producers is actually coming down by 0.3 % per year, equal to 10% in 30 years using GWP* as the measurement, which means these countries could be said not to contribute to global warming. 

A similar claim can be made for New Zealand’s sheep and beef industry,  though this is less credible for dairy, which has only recently passed its peak herd size.

He suggests an alternative would be to transfer developed-world knowledge of genetic improvements, grazing and animal husbandry to developing countries where demand is growing and far outstrips domestic production. 

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that in an ideal world the beef industry has the potential to reduce emissions by about 37%. 

This percentage implies the reduction that would occur if all producers in a given region and agricultural system were to apply the practices of the top 10% of performers in respect of GHG emissions. 

While this is a pipe dream, given the climatic and economic challenges in much of the world, it illustrates the opportunity for improvement that less-efficient producers could aspire to, if offered the necessary support. 

Africa and Asia are regions with high livestock populations and fast-growing demand for beef, but many of the cattle are used for transport and cultivation as opposed to food production, while social and religious factors also influence the end use. 

In parts of Africa cows may only have a calf every four years and deficiencies in grazing conditions and animal husbandry imply a large supporting herd to generate relatively low and inefficient production.

NZ presents a stark contrast to the experience of developing countries because of its strong scientific and genetic basis for beef and sheep production. 

The problem here is how to continue to extract more from a shrinking pot in the face of objections from environmental groups and the ill-informed public whose increasingly strident noise is in danger of unduly influencing politicians. 

For example, He Waka Eko Noa is regularly decried as being too soft on agriculture, merely extending its licence to pollute, regardless of its critical importance to the country’s prosperity and standard of living.

The message about the industry’s success in reducing GHG emissions and the shorter duration of methane in the atmosphere often seems to fall on deaf ears. 

The GRSB and New Zealand Roundtable have a huge job on their hands to help win the PR battle that will permit agriculture to continue operating responsibly and efficiently.

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