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Canadian Beef For Nine Billion Guests!

This month I am going to take a bit of a different slant to the topic of nutrition. One of the great things about working at a university is the opportunities you have to meet a wide variety of students and visitors from all over the world. Last month at the University of Saskatchewan we had the privilege of hosting Dr. Robert Thompson, professor emeritus from the University of Illinois at Urban-Champaign and advisor to government agencies in the United States and the United Nations and World Bank.

Listening to Dr. Thompson was a thought-provoking experience. His presentation was entitled “Feeding Nine Billion — the Challenge of Doubling the World’s Food Supply.”

His most striking point was that with the world’s population projected to reach nine billion by 2050, the global demand for food will double. His projections were based on the fact that half of the increased demand will be due to population growth (six to nine billion people), while half will come from an increase in purchasing power of consumers in many of today’s developing countries. The challenges we will face in meeting this increased demand for food are daunting and include competition for arable land and fresh water with the growth of massive urban centers, increased industrial demand for world grain supplies, climate change and the potential for social and political unrest that comes with 40 per cent of the world’s population living on less than $2 a day.

The essence of his presentation was that “we” will be faced with doubling the world’s food supply on basically the same arable land base that exists today and with reduced water resources. How we meet this demand will be one of the great challenges facing society. To this point, advances in technology including increased cereal grain yields, intensive aquaculture and livestock development and the ability to increase our agricultural land base have for the most part allowed the agriculture sector to keep food production on an even pace with global demand. However, Professor Thompson does not believe that we can rely on the solutions of the past to meet the challenge of feeding nine billion people and as an agriculture community we will have to be much more focused on the efficiency of agriculture production if we are to avoid the unthinkable outcome of failing to meet this demand.

What does this mean for Canadian beef producers? ithout a doubt increased demand due to increased purchasing power in countries like China speaks well for the potential to increase exports of Canadian beef. High-quality, grain-fed beef is our strength and we should be well positioned to develop these export markets. However if Professor Thompson is right, livestock producers will be faced with the challenge of operating in an environment of shrinking natural resources. We see this today with a third of the U.S. corn crop going to ethanol production and all indications are that this use will increase in the foreseeable future. The immediate effects on cattle feeders have been higher feed costs. In Western Canada and I am sure in Eastern Canada as well, we are seeing first hand competition between urban and agriculture interests for land and water not just in terms of prices, but in access to these resources.

How will this competition influence the structure and development of the Canadian beef industry? This is an interesting question. Increasingly we hear calls for less-intensive beef production systems and for a move away from implementation of technology that can improve efficiency and reduce production costs. A classic example is the increasing resistance to the use of feed additives such as ionophores or growth-promoting agents that increase feed efficiency and lean tissue growth. I have a hard time rationalizing why we would not use these products. If we have faith in our government regulatory bodies, then safety is not an issue. Quite simply their use results in more lean beef on less feed! Never mind that they put more money in your pocket, they are part of the solution to meeting an increasing demand for food on reduced resources. Similarly when it comes to the argument that intensive cattle feeding operations are part of the problem and not the solution, I get confused. While I have no issues with those who act on opportunities with niche markets, I do not see how less-intensive cattle feeding systems can address Dr. Thompson’s challenge of doubling the world’s food supply on fewer resources. If Canadian beef producers are going to have a share of this increased global demand for food, particularly in those countries with rising income levels, then we need to remain focused on production of high-quality beef in the most efficient manner possible. In case you are not aware, there is no more efficient production system than a well-run Canadian feedlot.

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JohnMcKinnon isabeefcattle nutritionistat theUniversityof Saskatchewan

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John McKinnon

John McKinnon is a Professor Emeritus at the University of Saskatchewan and a consulting nutritionist who can be reached at [email protected].

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