What’s ahead for animal protein?

As I explained in previous articles about protein, the future of animal farming looks rather good, actually. This does not mean that current productions systems are perfect. They are not, and many changes are necessary. Four drivers are going to make animal farming evolve towards systems that meet future requirements in term of environment, health, sustainability and consumer demands. They will not affect only farms, but the ways entire value chains are organized and even future flows of animal protein in international trade.

Two pillars of sustainability are externalities and the necessity to close the loops. Strangely enough, these two fundamental topics rarely ever get mentioned. Yet, they will define the future. I mentioned externalities quite a few times on this blog and if you are interested to read what I say about it, just do a search on the search window on the right side of this page. Basically, externalities are the long-term economic effects and in particular long-term costs of repairing the damage that any human activity causes. Closing the loops is simply following the basic principle that nothing ever disappears or get created, but that everything gets transformed. These two pillars of sustainability are going to force us to review how balanced -or not- productions systems are. Greenhouse gases and minerals balance from manure will force a change in location of animal productions, in regard to the location of production areas of ingredients for animal feed, feeding programs, logistics of both feed ingredients and animal products, in particular in terms of transport. Distance between markets will be only one part of the equation. Transportation systems will weigh even more. Will trade rely on road transport, rail or water ways? Different transportation systems have very different carbon footprints and this will affect the future of some industries depending on how they are organized and where they are located. It will also force countries to invest heavily in their infrastructure, which is another topic that is too often ignored and yet so critical for the future. Of course, infrastructure is not as sexy as tech start-ups and more importantly, it does not have the same appeal for investors. After all, infrastructure is an expense that benefits all, while the current thinking about money is more about individualising profits. Yet, infrastructure will have more impact than tech. Location will also be influenced by water availability, as water will become an increasingly influential aspect of sustainability. Just as an example, California has been struggling with water availability for decades. Yet, it keep sending water-rich produce to other regions, thus exporting its already scarce water. On top of that, California produces about a quarter of American agriculture. See the danger ahead? For the future, the economic paradigm will shift from “producing where it is the cheapest to do so” to “producing where it is the most sustainable to do so”.  The main reason for the shift will be externalities as we will have no choice but internalizing the externalities (sounds fancy doesn’t it?… try to place that one in a cocktail party when you have a chance).

Location is one of the changes, but of course when it comes to greenhouse gases, there will be other solutions to reduce the impact. Feed programs are one, and gas capture from manure will be another one. Tech and innovation will play their roles in those areas. Markets will do to, and I expect manure to become a highly valued co-product, and not a by-product anymore. Just as manure is a side effect of intensification and high densities, so are diseases. Last year saw the huge outbreak of African swine fever in China, which so far has lead to the destruction of 25% of the world’s pigs. That is the perfect example of what can happen again. It is not the first outbreak. There have been other ones before of the same disease and of avian influenza. The risk of diseases and their huge cost will also contribute to a readjustment of location of animal production, in terms of production centers, in terms of density of farms and also of densities on the farms themselves. So will the prospect of possible transmission of diseases from animals  to humans.

Next to such production issues, consumer demands will also change the way animal products are produced. The pressure for better animal welfare is increasing and will not weaken. It is just fair and it also makes a lot of economic sense. In my times in the pig industry, the poultry industry and in aquaculture, I did quite some research on the topic and the numbers spoke chapters. Treating animals with the proper respect pays off big time. Yet, I also faced a lot of resistance when I tried to show my conclusions by then. I guess that it did not fit in the thinking of the times. The future proved me right, though. The need for better animal welfare will also contribute to a change in production systems, housing and feeding in particular. Animal densities on farms will also be reduced. This trend is already taking place in Europe and there are more and more farming programs that go in this direction. And so do government policies. Along with animal welfare, environmental concerns from consumers will also push towards more “natural” methods of farming. Intensive animal husbandry is not going to disappear but its excesses will. The problem is that too many people tend to associate intensification with efficiency but it is only true to a point. When we reach that point, any incremental intensification does not lead to incremental efficiency anymore and the further we pass this point, efficiency actually decreases and externalities increase substantially. The future will be about finding the optimum between intensification, animal welfare, environmental impact and long-term effects. Next to that, as consumer markets mature, especially when people already eat more than they really need, demand shift from quantity to quality and we will see more and more quality programs appear. It will be good for consumers, for health, for the environment, for the animals during their life and for the profit margins of farmers.

As the graphs from my articles Cow farts, or quite a bit of hot air?  and What’s ahead for plant-based foods? show, demand for animal products is expected to increase and a number of products will do quite well. As I mentioned in the same article, ruminants actually play a important role in the management of grasslands and I mentioned their importance for a healthy environment, I believe that responsible animal production systems will help mitigate climate change. Of course, this means that the necessary changes be carried out as I mentioned earlier on in this article. I also believe that animal productions will play an important role in economic development, especially in developing countries and in regions where the population is expected to increase the most. It is nice to expect that the urban population will increase, but it is essential for a prosperous future that we also make sure that people in rural areas can be prosperous and that we do not end up with a demographic desertification of regions that can contribute to a prosperous future. Just as animal productions, although they were intensive and have had a negative impact on the long term, have helped many European young farmers stay in their regions and make a decent living for themselves, it can play the same role in rural areas in developing countries. It is true that mistakes have been made in the past and grave ones. We cannot change the past, but we can learn form past mistakes and make sure not to make them again. Productions that I expect to be successful and popular as economic development tool are poultry (meat and eggs) and aquaculture. Poultry and chickens in particular have the advantage to have a short production cycle and this helps farmer getting a quick cash-flow, which is essential to limit the need for capital. Aquaculture can have the same advantage with fast-growing species but less with species that have a longer production cycle as capital requirements can be heavy, although this can be attractive to investors. Two big pluses for aquaculture are the strong deficit between supply and demand and the health aspect of aquaculture products. The world is quite short of healthy seafood.

I see many areas of success for certain types of animal productions and I have summed them up in the following illustration. In particular, I would like to emphasize is my expectation for the future to see a surge of grass-fed beef with special breeds in semi-intensive systems in which there will be a minimum amount of high energy feed and no hormones at all. For all productions, I expect to see more and more of old-fashioned “authentic” products and recipes, and also a lot of “happy animal” products to be marketed more aggressively than has been the case so far.

Copyright 2020 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

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