November 22, 2011
The coming feed crisis - can something be done about it?
An eFeedLink Hot Topic
By F.E. OLIMPO in Pattaya, Thailand
Held in the Philippines, Thailand, India, China and Japan, BIOMIN's Asia Nutriton Forum 2011 seminars carried a serious and urgent message - a feed crisis is now at the world's doorstep.

One of the forum's speakers, Dr. David Farrell of the University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia, described the root of the problem most succinctly. "Even today, we are unable to feed our seven billion people, let alone those additional 77 million arriving here each year," he said.
Statistics bear him out. Of the seven billion, about 850 million people are undernourished or chronically hungry. Only three months ago, a famine was officially declared in the Horn of Africa, where 12.4 million are reported starving. This is just one of the world's hotspots. Food shortages are also happening - or about to happen - in other continents as well.

At the rate it is growing, world population will reach nine billion by 2050. Unless current levels of food production is increased 100%, warned another speaker, Dr. Robert van Barneveld of Becan Consulting Group, Queensland, there is no way the world can "adequately provide for all."

Man's food comes from plants and animals. Increasing plant-food production a hundred times over when arable lands are irreversibly shrinking is an impossible proposition. "Over half the world's population," noted Dr. Farrell, "lives in and around cities." However, "airports, housing, highways, high-rise apartments, warehouses, golf courses, tennis courts are taking up millions of hectares of the most fertile land every year and there is little left that is sustainable," he added.

So that leaves increased animal production as man's only best hope.

This is where the dilemma becomes more complicated. To increase livestock production, animals need food. Especially in "intensive pig and poultry production," much of this food has alternative uses in the human food chain. In effect, they compete with humans for an already scarce food resources, said Dr. van Barneveld.

The problem does not end there. With soaring population, the world needs more energy to light more homes, run more cars, and operate more factories. Consequently, fossil fuel has started to run out and man has turned to plants for its fuel needs.

Short of calling it a travesty, Dr. Farrell questioned the logic of using "limited and valuable fertile land to grow biofuels."  Yet that is happening now. He says, "35% of the corn crop in the US goes to produce ethanol and significant arable land in the EU is being used to grow oilseeds where by 2020, 10% of all motor vehicles will run on biofuel."

There are other things that make the situation worse. "We rely heavily on water to grow crops," said Dr. Farrel, who is also author of a recently published book, Great wealth, poor health: Contemporary issues in eating and living. "This is becoming a scarce and unpredictable resource. Climate change is already having a devastating effect on weather patterns and driving the increase in ambient temperature.  This is melting the glaciers on the Tibetan-Quinghai plateau and the snows in the Himalayas, upsetting the flow of water into the great rivers that depend on these sources. In India, China and the Mekong countries, water tables are dropping often by over a metre a year and aquifers are running dry."

In the Thailand stopover of the forum, held at the Royal Cliff Beach Hotel in the resort city of Pattaya on October 13, the theme of the Biomin-sponsored dialogue should have hit home the point to the hundreds of attendees who came not only from Thailand but also from other countries such as Taiwan, Singapore, Indonesia, Japan, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, and Cambodia.

In fact, the Asia Nutrition Forum's theme of feed scarcity was especially relevant to Thailand at this time. At the time of this conference, nearby Bangkok was bracing for a huge flood, which had already inundated by several feet the entire ancient city of Ayutthaya and neighbouring provinces. The surrounding, fertile countryside was flooded far worse than Bangkok itself and would exacerbate shortfalls of feed crops such as corn, which would impact livestock production and exports.

Is there a solution, Dr. Farrel asked, to this "looming food crisis?" There is, he said, but this requires radical changes in the way livestock production and feeding are done. This involves, ironically, going back to age-old principles rather than principally relying on ultra-modern solutions such as genetically modified crops and transgenic animals, Dr. Farrel pointed out.

"In the past," Dr. van Barneveld said, "a key livestock attribute was to utilise feed resources that could not be consumed by humans and to act as a valuable store of high-quality protein and fat." Only excess grains were then fed to animals and this was only done in times of abundance to stabilise the crops' prices.

He argued that "regardless of the level of vertical integration and the scale of the operation, a key factor in the profitability of livestock production systems from this day forward will be the capacity to utilise alternative nutrient and energy resources that do not compete as a human food."

Calling for reduced reliance on grains such as corn, wheat and barley, Dr. van Barneveld said alternative nutrient sources, such as algae and bacteria, should be explored. "Autotrophic, heterotrophic and mixotrophic algae, alone or in combination with bacteria, yeasts and fungi, need to be examined as livestock production co-products and potential nutrients," he said.

Specific coarse grains, such as triticale, sorghum, peas and lupins are all right as feeds, provided they are grown on land not suited to human food crops, Dr. van Barneveld said. However, he expressed reservations about the sustainability of fishmeal and dried distillers grains with solubles (DDGS) as feed sources. They "represent a false economy," he said, as "they are either depleting a finite resource or represent uses of nutrients that could have otherwise entered the human food chain in another form."

He is not, of course, entirely against the use of co-products like oilseed meals, animal protein meals, and milling and refinery wastes. They "will continue to be important nutrient sources," according to him. Besides, they also "support the concept of 'default livestock' production whereby without animals as an end-user, the human food processing industries would be faced with significant disposal issues."

Dr. Farrell, for his part, sees "sustainable farming through better management of resources" such as water, arable land, fertiliser application, soil organic matter and feed by-products as the "real solution" to the impending food and feed crisis.

"Smarter use of our irrigation water is needed," he said, explaining that less than 50% of the water used on plants actually reaches the roots.

At a time when standard livestock feeds are composed of grains and animal matter like trash fish, bones, fat, and shrimp peels, Dr. Farrell suggests a switch back to traditional practices. "Ruminant animals were designed to utilise low-quality fibrous feeds," he said.  He called for a return to pasture and grazing, and the utilisation of cereal by-products such as rice and wheat bran, copra meal, even DDGS, among other things.

What is important, he emphasised, is that livestock animals should "not compete with man for quality protein or grain." Definitely, energy production should not be in the competition either. "Second generation biofuels, using solid state technology and fibrous waste products to produce ethanol from cellulose will temporarily ease the looming energy crisis, but the final sustainable solution must be wind, solar power and geothermal energy."

Dr. Farrell said, "It is clear that we must make the choice. Are we going to continue to use up our natural resources at a faster rate than they can be replenished? Our ecological footprint is a measure of the area of land needed to sustain an individual for his/her lifestyle. Our footprint now exceeds the earth's ability to replace those essential resources by 50%. There are very few countries that do not exceed this critical equilibrium point of 1.8 hectares per person."

For generations, he added, "we have been moving forward. Just ahead, we may have to slow down and take a few steps backwards if we are going to feed the future."
Will the suggestion be heeded - or just be taken as an oversimplification of a problem that no matter how serious and real still seem to belong to the distant future? Only time will tell.

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