What would agriculture look like without livestock?
It may sound like an extreme idea but it’s one farmers and all stakeholders in the entire agriculture value chain need to contemplate, says Dr. Robin White, an assistant professor of animal and poultry sciences at the Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
Over the decades, livestock production has increasingly been targeted by activists and in some circles of science as a destructive force in our food system with the potential to destroy the planet. Cattle are criticized as methane dispensers, greenhouse gas producers, and environment polluters. On the food side of the ledger, beef, dairy and poultry products are pegged by many as unhealthy food choices and best replaced in the diet by plant-based alternatives.
White notes that these perceptions are widespread and continue to gain more influence in shaping both food and environmental policy. Speaking at the recent Ontario Certified Crop Advisor conference in London, she noted a noticeable policy shift toward plant-based diets in U.S. dietary recommendations earlier in the decade; a similar movement away from meat and dairy products is evident in changes announced this week for Canada’s Food Guide.
So what would would happen if we removed livestock from agriculture? In their research, White and her colleagues looked at the impact on human diets, the environment, and implications for reshaping agriculture.
In our current agriculture system, if animals were removed, we would have to consume the products that those animals now consume, explains White. That would mean consumers’ diets would probably be 85 per cent concentrate materials, including significant amounts of cereals, grains, and soybean flour.
“It’s actually very similar to what we currently feed pigs, and they certainly enjoy it, but our production objectives for growing pigs are very different from our production objectives for growing people,” notes White. “We’re not trying to cause people to grow as fast as possible, so one of the main limitations of that type of diet would be that it’s very high in energy and could potentially contribute to our obesity epidemic that we already have in the country.” (Story continues after the interview.)
A simple option would be to change what crops farmers produce, but that would require a radical rethink of the entire food production system — from farm gate to consumer plate. And what about grasslands and marginal land that can’t support anything but livestock?
Removing animals from agriculture, White notes, would only partially reduce farming’s impact on the environment. Based on her calculations, she expects removing animals would only reduce total agriculture greenhouse gas emissions by 28 per cent.
The research “highlights the fact that extreme scenarios are never the answer,” says White. Just getting rid of livestock is not feasible. “If we want to talk about the way to design a food system to meet society’s objectives, we need to consider the utility that food system provides to society, and that includes human livelihoods, economics, biological feasibility, environmental objectives, human health objectives, among many other things.”