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Role of Livestock in Future Food SystemsOrganization logo: Wageningen University & Research

About this course

The role of livestock in our current food system is heavily debated. On the one hand, the livestock sector provides essential nutrients, while generating labour, economic benefits and improving livelihoods for the worlds’ growing population. On the other hand, livestock production possess severe impacts on the environment, while putting high demands on limited-available resources (e.g. land, water). For these and other reasons, people argue that in future food systems the consumption of animal-source food (ASF) should be reduced or avoided. However, is it true? Is eliminating the production and consumption of ASF most sustainable from a food systems’ perspective?
The aim of this course is to discuss the role of livestock in future food systems. Different opportunities for livestock production in sustainable food systems will be outlined based on scientific literature. Also, various underlying arguments will be explored and evaluated according to three narratives. Arguments that refer to sustainable intensification of livestock production, i.e. producing more ASF with less impact, fall under the so-called production narrative. Under this narrative, people focus on reducing the environmental footprints of individual ASF products so that more ASF can be produced in order to meet the increasing demand. Arguments that refer to reducing or eliminating the consumption of ASF, fall under the consumption narrative. Under this narrative, it is argued that consumption of ASF needs to be avoided considering the environmental impact and resource-intensity of livestock production, or because of ethical (e.g. animal welfare) and/or health-related (e.g. obesity, heart diseases, cancer) issues associated with meat consumption. Former production and consumption narratives mainly focus on linear approaches, in contrast to the last so-called circular narrative. Under this narrative, focus is put on the use of biomass to its' highest utility, just like in natural ecosystems. In such a system, biomass that is inedible for humans, e.g. food leftovers and grass, are converted into nutritious food through livestock (i.e. ASF). In this way, feed-food competition will be avoided. The amount of ASF that can be obtained from leftovers, however, depends on the type and availability (e.g. by-products food industry, food waste, crop residues, grass from marginal land), and utilization potential of animals. Hence, aside from livestock productivity, changing to a circular food system also affects the amount of ASF we can consume. To be able to answer the question -‘Is eliminating the production and consumption of ASF most sustainable from a food systems’ perspective?’ - you need to understand all three narratives. Not one of them is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, yet they do yield different answers and opportunities for the role of livestock in future food systems.
During this course we will discuss the current state of livestock production and strategies to improve the role of livestock in a sustainable future food system considering the three narratives. These strategies include the utilisation of leftovers by animals, the use of insects as livestock feed or human food, and the potential of precision livestock farming or breeding for certain animal- traits or types. We will also discuss human consumption patterns, the need for manure to fertilize (crop)land, the importance of nose-to-tail eating and reducing waste, and the potential trade-offs and synergies between animal welfare and the environment. In the end you should be able to discuss to role of livestock in future food systems yourself.

Learning outcomes

After successful completion of this course students are expected to be able to:

  • discuss the differences among the three narratives existing in the debate regarding the role of livestock in future food systems, and evaluate underlying arguments;
  • explain how we can reduce the environmental impact of producing animal-source food through livestock production;
  • explain how we can reduce the environmental impact of consuming animal-source food through altering human diets;
  • argue what role animal-source food can have in sustainable future food systems.

Prior knowledge

Assumed Knowledge:
General understanding of animal production systems, and disciplinary knowledge on nutrition, breeding, reproduction, health and welfare of kept animals as acquired in the 1st and 2nd year BAS courses at WU [or HAS Den Bosch].

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