Cattle ranchers and environmentalists have been at odds lately as parties point fingers over climate change and methane gas emissions, but nutrient cycling offers a place where livestock production and the environment can both win.

The waste streams of one chain can be the raw materials for another. Animals can be fed from food waste and with by-products from industrial agriculture operations like bioenergy plants. It reduces the need for new resources, and it reduces the emissions that go with it.

Researchers outlined the practice at the Global Agenda for Sustainable Livestock conference that took place Sept. 9-13 at Kansas State University in Manhattan. Dr. Henning Steinfeld, chief of livestock information with the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome, was one of the speakers.

Steinfeld had recommendations for better integrating livestock in such a circular economy.

“Use proper water and energy as better use of nutrients and animal waste as fertilizer. Use everything that can be used as feed,” Steinfeld said.

“Turning waste into high quality feed will be expensive at the beginning but prices will come down,” said another presenter, Mario Herrero.

Herrero serves as chief research scientist at CSIRO, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation at the University of Queensland, Australia.

Livestock production has been linked to issues with water depletion and loss of biodiversity. Nutrient cycling is a way to use resources more efficiently.

Uruguay is the first developed country to set mitigation targets in emissions in the beef sector. Since croplands are generally said to deplete organic carbon in the soil, grasslands are seen as a better way to keep carbon in place in Uruguay, but grazing has to be well managed.

“Working with more grass – and less overgrazing provides a high forage supply of higher digestibility, high productivity and efficiency,” said Walter Oyhantcabal, Uruguay’s director of sustainability and climate change with the country’s Ministry of Livestock, Agriculture and Fishery.

Some think the answer to a lighter food footprint lies in plant-based alternatives, food products made with insects or using biotechnology to develop cultured meat. Europe is the largest market for meat substitutes, with 39% of global sales. Soy and almond-based milk substitutes make up 10% of the overall dairy market.

There are differing opinions on how readily insects will be welcomed by consumers. Insect proteins are used by several companies in Europe and North America in products for human consumption and in animal feed.

One of the more radical ideas for meeting future demand – and one spurned by the beef industry – is cellular food production. It involves growing animal-based protein products from cells. Proponents argue that growing meat in labs would reduce the need for feed, water and medicines, while freeing up valuable agricultural land.

Land use is on the minds of World Wildlife Fund staff.

“We need to take ownership of the challenge with the large land footprint,” said Ian McConnell, global leader for beef with WWF International based in Switzerland.

McConnell is a fifth generation beef producer, and previously worked at Colorado State University.

Water resources are another concern. Livestock production requires about 10% of annual global water flows, according to the presentation.

Livestock production as we know it is changing. In the U.S., out of 284 reported livestock breeds, 110 are at risk of extinction from cross-breeding, changing market demands, weak genetic management programs, degradation of natural resources, climate change and disease epidemics, presenters said.

Innovation may come to the rescue. Precision livestock production technologies, digitalization, robotics and new, novel products seek to improve the industry. However, productivity is still low in large parts of the world, including sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and South Asia.

Finding solutions to provide safe and nutritious food to nearly 10 billion people by 2050 without destroying the planet is one of the greatest challenges, presenters said.

As Herrero put it, we’re capable of producing health and safe food with less of an environmental, social and economic impact.

Amy Hadachek can be reached at editorial@midwestmessenger.com.

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