Can humans do without animals

FAO, without livestock farming, a worse world

The responsibility of animal husbandry in the production of greenhouse gases is modest, while animal husbandry is the solution to global population growth and the repression of food insecurity.

Can humans do without animals? The answer is no and without appeal: more than one reason, all supported by scientific evidence. Meat, milk and eggs provide essential nutrients not always available elsewhere. Not only noble proteins (containing essential amino acids) but many other nutrients such as B vitamins and minerals such as zinc and iron. All this is known. But some would like to replace animals with bioreactors for cell cultivation or with hyper-processed foods based on plant-based ingredients.

Leaving aside the economic implications behind these aims, those who support the need to close farms point the finger at their environmental impact, land consumption and the expenditure of water resources. A thesis that science repudiates. Let’s start with water. To claim that 15,000 litres of water are needed to produce a kilo of meat, as some people claim, is to bend the information to use preconceived arguments. Largely, it is rainwater and the water really “drunk” by animals returns into circulation with food or the “outcomes” of metabolism. No consumption, simply a “use” – as CREA has recently recalled.

It is also stated that the land needed by livestock farms could be used for crops to feed humans. A recent FAO document recalls that around 2.5 billion hectares are occupied for livestock farming worldwide, most of them (77%) represented by pastures and grasslands that can only partly accommodate crops that humans can use.

We must then debunk some false beliefs regarding the feed/food competition between humans and animals. Of course, soy and other legumes can be interesting protein sources for humans and many cereals. But animals consume very little of it; in return, they provide us with amino acids and other nutrients that those foods don’t contain. 

Recent studies have shown that 3 kilos of cereals, on average, are enough to produce a kilo of meat. However, it should be added that cereals are also included in animals’ diets as residual products from milling and food processing. Thanks to the animals, the food industries’ secondary products (reductively called by-products) are transformed from a residue with a strong environmental impact into precious animal feed. Any examples? The trebles of a brewery, the molasses that remains from the production of sugar, the citrus paste from the production of juices and so on.

Around the #world, some 2.5 billion hectares are committed to #livestock farming, most of which (77%) is represented by #pastures, #prairies and #MarginalLands. Click To Tweet

Thanks to their rumen, cattle can transform vegetables that are indigestible for humans into proteins, vitamins and minerals that were not even present in the starting food. Thanks to an admirable process in their digestive tract, richly populated by an extraordinary micro-population of bacteria and fungi. This confirms that 0.6 kg of ingested protein is transformed into one kg of high nutritional protein. These figures are intended to improve as farms become more efficient by reducing the land to grow arable crops for feed production.

As former FAO Livestock Development Officer Anne Mottet explains, “It is estimated that about 86% of animal feed, in dry matter, is currently inedible for humans. This includes grass, straw, bran, and residues from oilseeds. Edible cereals account for only 13% of livestock feed. But this is about a third of global cereal production, and this share can be further reduced by including more food that humans cannot eat. Plant residues and by-products can also be used for fuel, biogas production, construction… But much of it would be wasted if not used as feed for livestock. Our food systems produce more and more residues, by-products and waste, and livestock plays an important role in converting these materials into high-quality proteins“.

Thanks to these prerogatives, animal husbandry is a candidate to be the solution to world population growth and the suppression of food insecurity (a euphemism with which today is defined hunger). A problem that involves at least two billion people, according to data released by FAO and OXFAM (Oxford Committee for Famine Relief). These numbers will increase under the pressure of population growth. This problem can also be addressed thanks to livestock. There are plenty of examples. In Tanzania and Mozambique, the interventions of the CEFA are a reference point; favouring cattle farming has created the conditions for an autonomous economic and social development that goes hand in hand with the fight against food insecurity.

What #FoodFeedCompetition between humans and #animals? About 86% of #AnimalFeed, in dry matter, is inedible for humans (#FAO data). Click To Tweet

Farms, some will object, are however one of the causes of greenhouse gas emissions, so their number must be reduced and not increased. This, too is a conviction to be dispelled. If you calculate the production of greenhouse gases produced by livestock farms and compare it with the carbon dioxide seized from crops for the production of animal feed, it turns out that the budget is in favour of farms for about 10%. One could then conclude that livestock farming is part of the solution to climate change and not vice versa. A benefit that should be added is improving soil fertility resulting from organic fertilization. Strategic is also the importance of livestock waste for producing renewable energy.

Regarding environmental issues, it should not be forgotten that for many marginal areas, livestock farming represents one of the few economic opportunities to avoid human abandonment. It also happens in Italy, where the growth of wooded areas coincides with the closure of livestock farms. Often, however, it is a disordered growth without the maintenance that the presence of humans and animals can guarantee. This increases the risk of fire and degradation. This also confirms that a world without livestock would only be a worse world.


Angelo Gamberini

Professional journalist, graduated in veterinary medicine, director of journals dedicated to animal husbandry and editor in chief of journals in the agricultural sector, he has held coordination positions in publishing companies. Author of books on animal breeding, he is involved in the divulgation of technical, political and economic subjects of interest to the livestock sector.