What is the role of livestock in feeding the UK?

17 February 2024, 08:00 AM
  • Robert Barbour, senior researcher at the Sustainable Food Trust, explores the value of livestock in Britain's food industry
What is the role of livestock in feeding the UK?

Animal-sourced foods (taken here to mean meat, milk and eggs from livestock, but not fish or wild game) are a key component of diets the world over. They supply us with a third of our protein and significant quantities of other essential nutrients that can sometimes be relatively difficult to obtain from plants – just one of the reasons why livestock are particularly vital in parts of the developing world where undernutrition remains a debilitating problem. 

Livestock can also produce food from grasslands and other resources that humans can’t cultivate or eat, while the manure they supply (although amounting to little more than a toxic waste stream in many intensive farming systems) remains a key and sustainable source of fertility across millions of acres of cropland – a positive relationship that could be reinstated across much of the developed world if livestock and cropping systems were to once again become better integrated.

Food-feed competition

At the same time however, the way in which we currently rear much of our livestock represents a major drain upon the global food supply. The reason for this is ‘food-feed competition’, an often-overlooked trade-off between intensive livestock and crop production, brought about by the increasingly widespread practice of feeding human-edible crops to animals. It’s an approach that generally improves the productivity of livestock systems, due to the high energy and protein concentrations of arable crops, and which many would argue also improves their sustainability, as it allows farmers to increase production while using less land and producing fewer methane emissions per kilo of product.

While this has enabled us to keep satisfying our near-insatiable appetite for animal-sourced foods, it comes at a heavy cost. Livestock are highly inefficient at converting human edible crops into food, and this means we have ended up in a situation where vast quantities of calories and nutrients potentially available for human consumption are instead lost from the food system. The scale of this wastefulness is frightening: 40% of global arable land is now used to produce feed for livestock, an area which, if it were to be used instead for human food cropping, could feed an additional 4 billion people.

This isn’t to say that giving any human edible crops to livestock automatically constitutes a crime against food security. Livestock can still make a positive contribution to our food supply when they are being fed a very limited quantity of human edible ingredients, as is the case as a global average with cattle, the majority of which obtain much of their feed from grass. Pigs and poultry, on the other hand, represent a net drain on the world’s protein supply, as they are much more reliant upon arable crops for feed. This holds true, of course, for intensive beef systems as well.

The value of grazing livestock

Some argue that we should stop eating animal-sourced foods altogether. But while eradicating livestock would clearly resolve the problem of food-feed competition, this argument fails to account for the ability of grazing livestock, such as cattle and sheep, to produce nutrient-dense foods from grass and other feedstuffs, such as crop by-products and food waste, that we can’t or don’t want to eat. Well-managed livestock provide other benefits too. Probably the clearest example of this comes with the vital role grazing livestock play in the management of many important wildlife habitats, including grassland, heathland and coastal marshes.

When integrated with crop production, livestock can also play a hugely beneficial role in the restoration of degraded arable soils, and in reducing nitrogen fertiliser and other agrochemical use, by enabling systems that generate and recycle much of their own fertility through rotations designed to break weed, pest and disease cycles naturally. 

The arguments around the role of livestock in sustainable global food systems are complex, and many other significant factors including food quality, culture, health and accessibility, need to be considered. 
Determining the value of livestock to food security is also partly a question of resilience, especially in the face of climate change and the slew of problems it will inevitably exacerbate. Rising undernutrition, increased barriers to trade, steadily degrading arable soils and declining crop yields: all of these are likely outcomes over the coming century that point strongly towards a continued need for livestock – providing, of course, the animals are reared in ways that augment, and therefore relieve the pressure upon, what will be an increasingly stressed supply of plant foods.

Achieving this positive vision of livestock production won’t be easy. Quite apart from anything else, it will require a major reduction in the consumption of intensively produced animal-sourced foods in a society hooked upon cheap meat. If we succeed, however, then we will have taken a major step towards building a food secure and sustainable future.

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