Does Sustainability of the Beef Supply Chain Matter?

James F. Lowe, D.V.M., M.S., D.A.B.V.P.

I grew up in the heart of the U.S. corn and soybean belt as the son of a vocational agriculture teacher. I have always been fascinated with all aspects of how we provide food to the world. Professionally, I have had the good fortune to explore that fascination as a food animal veterinarian, pork producer, row crop farmer, scientist, and teacher. Through my careers, I’ve created and shared ideas across the entire spectrum of food production, processing, and distribution. Over the last 25 years, I have observed a mind-boggling improvement in the output and efficiency of the food supply chain as we have applied industrial processes and techniques. Our current level of operational efficiency in animal agriculture is impressive. We must adapt our current “fence row to fence row” approach to livestock production to sustainably meet the world’s food supply needs over the next 35 years.

While we typically think of the term “fence row to fence row” when talking about corn farmers, animal agriculture, which I have been an active part of, embraces the same approach. We have focused on short-term maximization of economic returns by maximizing the density of a single livestock species using a minimal range of genotypes in narrow geographic regions. This approach has led to huge leaps in operational efficiency. And, it has created an ever-increasing list of epidemic diseases that create substantial economic losses and a high degree of variability in our food supply. African Swine Fever (A.S.F.) is only the latest example resulting in food shortages and reduced access to affordable protein across Asia and Eastern Europe. Our current system allows any novel agent to spreads rapidly to the entire population. In this ecosystem, new disease agents are exotic species with limited competitive pressure to keep them in check.

In addition to the disruptive effects of a new disease, consumer perceptions necessitate a rethink of our approach to production. Many consumers believe that animal-based food production is a significant contributor to global warming and a primary source of antibiotic resistance for human pathogens. While the evidence that either of these perceptions is true is limited, they both provide significant headwinds to growth and expansion of animal-based protein supplies. Beef production suffers more from these perceptions than other species. Compared to poultry and pork, cattle have numerous challenges. They are the least efficient converters of feed to muscle and produce greenhouse gas, methane (CH4), as part of the digestive process. Also, the industry relies on antibiotics viewed as high-value for humans by the WHO (Macrolides and 3rd Gen. Cephosporins) to achieve production efficiency.

As a scientist, clinician, and producer, I have a unique perspective on the constraints to address the challenges before us. I am in awe of the technologies employed in industrial crop production to quickly and accurately solve such problems. The use of genetically modified organisms (G.M.O.) technology and precision chemicals have been very successful for crop producers. Unfortunately, animal agriculture will need a different approach to address disease pressure and increase the sustainability of the meat production system. Our ability to use novel genetic approaches to improve the sustainability of beef production is limited. The contributing factors are the genetic complexity of animals, the lack of customer tolerance of G.M.O.s in animals, and the slow rate of acceptance for novel technologies such as gene editing to modify the food supply.

To add to the challenges before us, the rapid emergence and diversification of pathogens make the development of new vaccines and antibiotics difficult. Many novel pathogens are not suitable candidates for immuno-prophylaxis as they are immuno-evasive. Increased societal pressure to limit antibiotic use to prolong their effectiveness in humans limits the scope of antibiotics to control bacterial agents.

Fortunately, we are at the forefront of a wave of novel technologies that will allow us to understand animal agriculture production systems in deeper and more meaningful ways. Advanced high-throughput genomics is one example of the next wave of biological science that will meaningfully impact our ability to improve the sustainability of the beef supply chain. A holistic assessment of animal performance can begin by coupling advanced genomics techniques (for both the microbiome and the host) with measures of cellular biology to understand gene expression and metabolism. The challenge with any of these novel technologies is the measurement of animal performance, especially the conversion of feedstuffs to protein. Without this link between biological measures and phenotype, the novel technologies that we have and will have to understand fundamental biological functions will have limited impact. These holistic approaches allow us to know how our animal rearing systems impact feed utilization in the face of real-world disease challenges to facilitate the adaptation of management strategies to optimize production efficiency over the long run.

While these technologies can be revolutionary, it will take both dedicated effort by individuals and a new model of collaboration across a wide diversity of disciplines. This type of collaboration is happening, but traditional academic models and funding sources, the historical origin of most improvements to animal production, have not lent themselves to these collaborative research models. I am encouraged that people are excited about building these diverse teams among academics and industry. Non-traditional sources of funding, while limited in scale, have been excited to be involved with these innovative teams.

So how can each of us help build a sustainable way to feed the world? I am going to focus on building cross-functional teams that leverage existing technology to address these complex problems. We can create better animal management systems. Which, by design, are more resistant to disease, provide a low cost, safe supply of meat and preserve the planet. How are you going to help us feed the world?


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