Feeding the WORLD

2011-05-06 00:00

THERE is a growing sentiment among consumers, particularly higher-end consumers, that we should move away from so-called factory farming back to the old fashioned way of rearing animals for food. While the sentiments are noble, they are unfortunately misguided given the realities of the modern world.

I am a qualified veterinarian with over 20 years’ experience in mixed veterinary practice. In the past 10 years, I have concentrated on the poultry industry and have studied further at Onderstepoort and at the Scottish Agricultural College, where I obtained a Master’s degree in applied poultry science. I have worked as a state veterinarian responsible for abattoir hygiene in KwaZulu-Natal, a company veterinarian for a large poultry producer in the United Kingdom, and for the past five years I have consulted to the local poultry industry in poultry health and production. I would like to point out some of those realities.

Before I start I would like to state unequivocally that I share most people’s desire to see animals treated humanely, and I work within the industry to promote animal welfare. However, I am also aware of the reality that most people want animal protein as part of their diet.

According to the World Bank, as of 2008 there were 2,8 billion people living on less than $2 per day. Research has shown that as people’s income improves between $2 and $10 per day, so does their access to protein, to the point where they are able to eat meat nearly every day. A good example of this phenomenon is China, where in 1985 the average meat consumption per capita was 20 kg and by 2000 this had grown to 40 kg. It is predicted that this will double again by 2030. By comparison, in the United States, meat consumption in 2000 was 95 kg per capita. I don’t think anyone would deny the poor the chance to lift themselves out of poverty, and unfortunately these people will require animal protein for their diets. It has been suggested that within the next 50 years, the world will be required to produce 100% more food and that 70% of this increase must come from improvements in the efficiency and technology of production.

If we were to convert the current poultry production capacity in South Africa to organic production, the amount of poultry produced would decrease to 30% of current production if no further facilities were added. In addition, to satisfy the organic requirement, only organically grown grains and cereals may be used. To supply enough organic grains and cereals we would have to increase the area under crops by about 70% to produce enough just for current requirements. As it is, South Africa only produces enough poultry to satisfy about 70% of our requirements. Clearly, the country cannot afford to convert to organic poultry production and the same argument applies to the rest of the world as well as to other animal-protein based farming (dairy, beef, lamb etc.).

That is not to say that we must not be vigilant against abuses of animals in intensive farming, or small-scale farming for that matter either. My experience in the industry has shown me that larger commercial farming operations tend to have a better welfare record than smaller back-yard operations. The reason for this is simply that well cared for stock produce better, and the larger corporations have the budgets to ensure that their facilities and procedures are of the highest standards, whereas smaller operations frequently do not.

Many people I speak to have the erroneous belief that small-scale production produces healthier food. This is not the case. One of the pillars of modern industrial agriculture which is driven by the veterinarians is the so-called farm-to-fork concept of food safety. The aim of this concept is to reduce food-borne pathogens by the introduction of pathogen-reduction programmes, together with intensive monitoring. Many food-borne pathogens, such as Salmonella, once introduced into the food chain, pass through successive steps such as slaughter, chilling, packaging and distribution. By introducing the pathogen-reduction programmes, we are able to monitor where pathogens enter the chain and take action to prevent their entry. We will never eliminate food-borne pathogens, but we can lower the incidence to the point where the risk to human health is minimal. Unfortunately, smaller producers have neither the budget nor the capacity to implement such schemes. Industrially produced food contains fewer food-borne pathogens, that is a fact.

Finally, I would like to highlight a situation that I believe many people are not aware of, or do not give any thought to. In the eyes of many people, the way we produce food in the modern era is the cause of many of our health issues. I would argue that the opposite is true. Famine is still prevalent, but only in undeveloped countries which have no intensive farming industries. Famine does not occur in developed countries that have intensive farming industries. In 1850, large-scale famine occurred in Ireland with the failure of the potato crop due to blight, but advances in agriculture in the industrialised world in the second half of the 20th century have led to the eradication of food shortages in these countries. It is true that people in industrialised countries are increasingly unhealthy, but that is as a result of too much food and poor food preparation. Instead of cutting back on industrialised agriculture, we need to encourage the responsible advancement of it.

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