Will we be hungry in a warming world? USDA wants to know

By Niina Heikkinen | 01/14/2015 09:04 AM EST

The agricultural livestock field will have to undergo systematic changes to cope with food security and sustainability problems in a climate-changed world, according to a new report commissioned by the National Academy of Sciences.

The agricultural livestock field will have to undergo systematic changes to cope with food security and sustainability problems in a climate-changed world, according to a new report commissioned by the National Academy of Sciences.

By the year 2050, demand for animal protein is predicted to go up significantly as the global population reaches between 9 billion and 10 billion people. Meat and egg consumption is expected to increase 73 percent from 2011 levels, and dairy consumption will likely go up by 58 percent. In order to meet the rising demand, animal scientists will need to develop more sustainable production practices, while also dealing with climate change’s effects on yields and on animal and human well-being, explained the report’s authors.

In addition to climate change, the nearly 300-page report addressed a broad range of other factors affecting future sustainability and food security, including landscape degradation, pest control and the spread of disease.


"The simple broad message of this report is that too much research has been siloed or fragmented into specialty sections," said B.T. Turner II, Gilbert F. White professor of environment and society at Arizona State University and member of the committee. "We need a systems-based approach."

Add more science, subtract methane

For animal scientists, that would mean greater integration of environmental, economic and social sciences into their studies, starting in the very early stages of their research, said Mo Salman, a member of the committee and professor of veterinary epidemiology at the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at Colorado State University.

For instance, research on reducing the amount of methane produced by cattle could involve not only animal nutritionists to evaluate different feed rations, but also agricultural economists needed to predict the demand for beef and dairy, and atmospheric scientists to look at the local and global effects of greenhouse gas emissions.

Social scientists could also help define cultural norms that make it harder for the community to understand and accept certain research or management practices, according to Bernard Goldstein, the committee chairman and professor emeritus in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at the University of Pittsburgh.

The report offered a wide range of recommendations for how the animal science field would need to change to sustainably meet growing global demands for animal protein.

In the United States, the committee recommended more research on developing climate change strategies that were both adaptive and mitigative. These strategies would take into account agriculture’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions and pollutants affecting nitrogen and carbon cycling. The committee members also recommended more research on water efficiency, since about 98 percent of animal agriculture’s water use comes from producing feedstuffs.

While organic farming has been put forward as one way to produce food in a more environmentally sustainable way, the committee rejected widespread adoption of the farming practice because it did not consider it possible at this time to scale up organic production to a commercial scale.

Much of the existing animal science research has focused on the United States. However, some of the greatest changes in agricultural production will have to happen in developing nations, and a substantial portion of the report was devoted to animal scientists’ role in addressing food security on a global scale.

Demand for animal protein is supposed to increase rapidly in the developing world in the coming decades due to population growth and higher per-capita income, with some of the greatest demand increases in China, Southeast Asia and Africa. Poultry and eggs will be particularly important sources of food, accounting for 50 percent of the increase in global animal protein consumption within the next decade.

Farm labor depletes, cities get larger

At the same time, an estimated 2.5 billion people are predicted to move into urban areas by 2050, representing a 90 percent increase in the urban population in Africa and Asia.

"As a result, the potential for agricultural production to meet the demands of a growing urbanized population in the developing world is a topic of serious concern," the report’s authors wrote.

To meet the demand, the committee recommended more widespread adoption of intensified farming practices, like those used in the United States. This would also include introducing controversial technologies like the use of growth hormones in dairy cattle and some antimicrobial use in feed to increase production rates.

While it may take a decade or more before the animal science field can fully transition to a more integrative approach, some committee members expressed optimism that research would become more integrated.

"I think the future is very bright," Salman said. "I think the entire research community is in favor of working together."

Animal science researchers could relatively quickly transition to looking at complete systems from "conception to consumption," Salman said. Yet long-term change within the field would have to start with funding agencies, including private-sector funding agencies like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, he said.

Exploring a joint task force

The committee specifically called for the creation of a joint task force organized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the recently formed Foundation for Food and Agricultural Research (FFAR), Goldstein said.

The proposed task force would include representatives from federal agencies, academia and the private sector.

"If you can get these groups to come out and create a strategic plan, that would reverberate through the industry and the USDA," Turner said.

The agency is in the process of reviewing the report, and it was still too early to say whether a task force may be created, said Damon Thompson, director of communications for the USDA Research, Education and Economics Mission Area.

In a statement released last week, Catherine Woteki, the USDA’s chief scientist and undersecretary for research, education and economics, said the report emphasized the urgency of the agency’s investments in scientific and agricultural research, as well as education and extension programs.

"This National Academy of Science report highlights the importance and need to increase animal science research and our investment in meeting future animal protein needs, both domestically and globally, through sustainable agriculture," Woteki said. "It also emphasizes the need to revitalize our research infrastructure."

Funding for the report was provided by the USDA, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges, the National Pork Board, the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, Tyson Foods Inc., and the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association.