February 28, 2024

Opinion: How to make agriculture work for farmers, consumers and the planet

By Justin Welsh, DVM

Americans are eating more meat. Between 2014 and 2018, consumption of beef, pork and poultry increased by more than 8 percent per person. By the end of this decade, the average American will eat more than 228 pounds of animal protein per year.

Farmers and ranchers have been able to meet rising demand for meat with fewer inputs like land and water by operating more efficiently — in large part thanks to the advent of new technologies that better care for and protect livestock, especially from disease.

A more efficient operation is a less wasteful one. And reducing waste is one way to make meat production more sustainable — not just for the environment but for the people who produce and consume it.

According to the World Organisation for Animal Health, 20 percent of livestock production is lost each year to disease — ailments like African Swine Fever and Bovine Respiratory Disease. In 2020, that equated to enough “lost” meat to meet the needs of 1.6 billion people.

Such waste is unsustainable on multiple counts.

Sick cattle, sheep, and goats produce more of the greenhouse gas methane than healthy animals. And if farmers with diseased livestock hope to maintain production levels, they need more land for feed or to sustain new flocks or herds.

Higher greenhouse-gas emissions and less efficient land use are of course environmentally unsustainable.

A sick herd or flock also makes ranching or farming less sustainable for a meat producer. Restoring animals to health is hard work. And animals that are ill may not yield as much meat — or may not be suitable for slaughter.

Finally, less efficient meat production is unsustainable for consumers because it results in higher prices. An increase in waste — in “lost” meat — may put animal protein beyond the financial reach of ordinary people.

Preventive health tools — including vaccines and livestock monitoring technologies — may be able to address these challenges by helping farmers streamline their operations.

For example, vaccinating livestock can protect against disease — and thus make for healthier, more environmentally sustainable animals. We have the tools to prevent common respiratory diseases — like pneumonia and clostridial disease — in cattle.

The HealthforAnimals report found that a 40 percent vaccination rate for cattle worldwide in a given year is associated with a 5.2 percent reduction in land requirements.

Precision livestock monitoring and identification technologies can also help promote the health and well-being of their animals. Under this approach, farmers and ranchers use biometric tools to assess the behavior of individual animals so that they can identify any deviations from the norm and make informed decisions quickly about whether to isolate or treat potentially sick animals quickly in order to stop the spread of disease.

Farmers and ranchers have always known that raising livestock free of disease enables them to run productive and sustainable businesses. Fully utilizing techniques to promote the health and well-being of livestock will ensure that they can continue to do so while meeting the challenge of feeding a growing world.

Justin Welsh, DVM, is the executive director of U.S. livestock technical services at Merck Animal Health.