Closing the efficiency gap
Increasing population and consumption are placing unprecedented demands on agriculture and natural resources. Global demand for meat is projected to increase by 85% from 2005/2007 to 2050 and this demand will have to be met from an increasingly scarce natural resource base. Consequently, the livestock must significantly increase its natural resource use efficiency to meet society’s growing food and environmental needs.
The livestock sector presently occupies 3.73 billion hectares globally: 3.38 billion of hectares are used as pastures and grazing land, while an additional 0.35 billion hectares are devoted to feed production. This represents about 30% of the earth’s ice free land and around three quarters of total agricultural land. The efficiency of livestock production systems from a physical standpoint, and with regard to both human-made and natural resources, is neither well described nor well known. This has contributed to a deficiency in understanding the long run potential to reduce the sector resource requirements via efficiency improvements.
Most new agricultural lands arise through the clearing of forests, resulting in huge losses of environmental goods and services, including stored carbon, biodiversity, water and air quality regulation. Thus, the intensification of land use, through improving yields and represents one key strategy to minimize further deforestation and its attendant losses in natural resources. The potential for further sustained growth in crop yields is alleged to be gradually diminishing in several major producer countries, mainly because the exploitable gap between average farm yields and genetic potential is closing. An important question is whether this also holds true for livestock?
Projections by Wirsenius et al. (2010) go some way towards answering this question, by showing how an increase in global average feed-to-food conversion efficiency from 5.1% in the reference case to 6.2% in an improved productivity scenario, would correspond to a reduction in land use of 510 million hectares (or 13%) by 2030 compared to the reference case, and a 20% reduction in global feed use – with virtually all of the fall estimated to come from reduced grazing on grasslands and crop residues. The productivity growth needed to support these changes are well below the growth rates estimated to be possible by livestock specialists. This demonstrates the large reductions in land use that could be achieved via plausible productivity improvements, that are based on faster live weight gains, coupled with a faster transition toward higher land-use intensity in low and medium-income regions, with higher pasture productivity and a larger use of cultivated feeds of good nutritive quality.
As discussed, animal and land-based yields only provide a partial measure of natural resource use efficiency. And, in the absence of market prices for valuable natural resources, these resources have been omitted from standard efficiency and productivity analyses. This poses and couple of important problems that need to be resolved. Firstly, while it is widely accepted that the livestock sector is confronting production constraints from the growing scarcity of finite natural resources, there is still a paucity of quantitative data on these constraints. Secondly, there is no universally accepted framework for assessing the natural resource use efficiency, particularly for multiple natural resources. However, we know that to address the sector’s dual requirement for increased production and better environmental outcomes (i.e. for green livestock growth) a methodology which can incorporate efficiency in the use of both priced production inputs and unpriced natural resource inputs into the same framework is essential. Because this will enable the profitability and the environmental performance of the sector to be addressed simultaneously – which again, is the key to devising a strategy for green livestock sector growth.
- Workshop for the Focus Area “Closing the efficiency gap”
2- 4 April 2012, Rome, Italy