Sustainability - it’s a word we’ve all heard, and we all have at least a vague understanding of what it means, but what does it realistically entail for human beings?
And what does it mean when it comes to the food we consume every day? As a society that was built on agriculture and livestock farming, it’s becoming ever more important to work out how to maintain this without harming the planet.
Would the world’s food ecosystem just be better off without livestock? One thing is certain – we would easily be able to reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions by at least 0.36% globally; but at the same time, we would also be upsetting our balanced food ecosystem.
There would not only be a lack of dietary nutrients essential to the health of humans, there would also be a major change in our current ecological balance - and that’s not necessarily a good thing.
A sustainable food ecosystem requires both plants and animals – and more specifically, livestock such as cattle. Cattle play an incredibly important role in our sustainable food system by simply taking the inedible byproducts of human food and making it nutritious.
Livestock act as upcyclers, meaning they consume (reuse) leftovers from human food production, and then convert it into nutritional, high quality protein. The majority - more specifically 86% - of cattle’s diet consists of human-inedible plants and leftovers, including the residue from grain harvests, byproducts from milling grains for the production of flour, cottonseed, as well as distillers’ grains from leftover soy biodiesel production. Research has shown that cattle are actually consuming less than 10% of grain in their diets.
It's all in
Cattle’s contribution towards a sustainable food ecosystem doesn’t end at upcycling. Think about the fresh produce you consume each day in the form of vegetables, grains and fruits. Most of this has been fertilised by animal manure. Managed efficiently, manure can provide great benefits to society in the form of organic fertilisers.
But what makes manure such a great fertiliser? Manure is full of a wide range of organic substances that plants thrive on. When manure is recycled, it returns almost all of these nutrients to the soil, and it also generates significantly fewer greenhouse gas emissions than any synthetic fertiliser.
Research shows that synthetic fertiliser releases four times more nitrous oxide into the atmosphere than manure. At the end of the day, humans receive the essential nutrients that are vital for our well-being through manure fertilisers.
It has also recently been discovered that organic waste offers a renewable source of energy. Over the last couple of years, many households have switched to using solar energy or filling up their cars with ethanol-blended fuel. Farmers, however, have taken to using alternative energy solutions. According to a recent survey, 30% of cattle farms are now using biofuels.
We are proud to say that our Beefcor feedlot in Bronkhorstspruit is South Africa’s first commercially viable biogas-electricity plant, providing renewable energy to BMW’s Rosslyn plant, just north of Pretoria. The biogas process relies fully on a combination of manure, abattoir waste, fruit
and vegetable waste as well as recycling sludge, which is processed in an anaerobic digester, producing biogas that passes through a gas engine to produce electricity. This electricity is then sold on to customers like BMW. Beefcor uses.
is our main concern here?
The ongoing debates surrounding beef - grass-fed vs grain-fed, local vs non-local - are minor issues, and not what we should be worrying about. We need livestock to be a central part of our food system that is balanced and sustainable for the purpose of providing affordable choices, as well as healthy, nutritious options to consumers.
It is much more important to consider the greater picture; we need a sustainable food system to improve soil health, lower greenhouse gas emissions, and maintain the economic viability of our farmers and ultimately the welfare of animals. At Beefcor, we are continuously trying to improve our contributions towards a more sustainable environment.