When counting the cost of meat production there are many factors to consider – money, environmental impact, water expenditure are obvious, but one major cost that is sometimes forgotten about is grain feed. While water and environment have localised implications for New Zealand, grain has become a more globalised issue. It is often produced in third-world nations and shipped overseas rather than being used to feel local populations, or produced in the west and never exported for the inexpensive and efficient source of nutrition that it is. The new middle class in emerging nations exacerbates this demand for meat, causing more and more grains and cereals to be allocated for this purpose 1. Grain is also highly volatile and susceptible to price inflation – when floods and fires affect major grain producers, the price of the commodity soars and meat becomes extremely expensive to produce. This can result in an early cull of livestock, flooding the meat market with carcasses.
The exact amount of grain required to produce a kilogram of meat is a figure that is up for some debate. There are many different styles of farming across the globe, and even within a single country there are variations depending on climate, location and market, but to give some context The Guardian newspaper published that it takes around 7 kilograms of grain to produce one kilogram of beef 2.
One of the most worrying farming styles occurs in America. With a high dependence on produced feed and pallets (or “pen-fed” farming), the amount of grains and cereals that goes into raising a cattle to slaughter weight far exceeds the meat that is produced as a result. Each year an estimated 41 million tons of plant protein is consumed by livestock farmed in the United States to produce an estimated 7 million tons of animal protein. This is a huge imbalance, and while cattle also graze on natural grass to supplement this, 64% of American crop farms produce grain for livestock 3.
Of course, even in the United States there is a movement towards sustainable farming, and in places such as the UK and New Zealand the proportion of grass-fed cattle is higher as the climate allows for green pastures for a much higher percentage of the year 4. However feed is still very much a supplement, and in many countries across the globe this is not realistic due to climate. Furthermore it paints a picture for a worrying future, as water becomes an increasingly precious resource and rising global temperatures make feed more and more necessary during extended droughts as well as heightened winters. The frequency of extreme climatic events, such as droughts and floods, is predicted to increase by 20 per cent in some areas over the next century 5. A reliance on grain for meat puts further pressure on resources that are already going to be stressed.
Grain production for lifestock also presents another problem; the vast amounts of land that are required to sustain this relationship between grain and meat. More than 302 million hectares of land are devoted to producing feed for the U.S. livestock population, which divides out to about 272 million hectares in pasture and about 30 million hectares for cultivated feed grains 6 – enough to feed 800 million people if it were used for that purpose instead. This is land that is being used exclusively for this inefficient cycle, rather than producing crops that would go a lot further towards wider nutrition. If the cattle were able to forage for 90% of their diet, this number would be reduced drastically – or better yet, if the land used for cattle grazing were used for a more productive form of plant protein there would be a great deal more of it produced and it would go much further.
The exact figure of grain required to produce a kilogram of beef is difficult to lock down due to regional differences, but some of the biggest producers such as the United States clearly represent a massive imbalance, while other nations may find themselves becoming more reliant on specially produced feed in the coming decades. There are many other ways this grain could be used that would make it go further, but it seems the global hunger situation is not yet dire enough – or perhaps close enough – for the developed nations to care.
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