Feed into Food

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Byproducts add to food sustainability

By Gonca Pasin, Ph.D

Executive Director, California Dairy Research Foundation

Producing 42.3 billion pounds of milk in 2014 (more than one-fifth of the nationwide total), California dairy producers have become an integral part of sustainable food systems by repurposing huge amounts of agricultural by-products that are inedible or not valued as human food, and converting them into nutrient-rich, affordable and delicious dairy products.

The world population currently numbers 7.3 billion people, of which more than one billion are malnourished and more than 805 million face hunger. Even in the U.S., hunger is an everyday reality for 9.6 million Americans, including 3 million children.

As the world population increases to a projected 9.6 billion people by 2050, food production will have to increase by 60 percent and food and nutrition security will continue to be urgent national and global issues.

Protein is the limiting nutrient for health in many regions and is critically needed to combat malnutrition and a range of nutritional deficiencies. Yet not all proteins are created equal. Animal-source foods (milk, meat and eggs) are high in protein, supplementing and adding diversity to plant-based diets. Demand for these foods is projected to double to meet global needs by 2050.

Worldwide milk consumption is also growing, with demand by 2050 projected to increase by 50 percent. Milk and dairy products are considered high-quality protein sources that provide the full package of essential amino acids needed for muscle function and maintenance, plus nine essential nutrients supporting bone health, and heart and nerve function.

California milk alone is able to provide enough high-quality protein to meet the full daily recommendations for over 35 million people, while concurrently providing enough calcium to meet the daily recommendations for over 60 million people. Food production systems which are focused on foods and beverages, such as milk and milk products that provide high levels of both protein and essential nutrients, will be crucial for securing the nutrition necessary to feed our growing population and its future generations.

The challenge of fulfilling the nutritional demands of a growing population while combating malnutrition is compounded by the need to reduce our environmental footprint and protect valuable ecosystems. Every human activity uses natural resources (land, water, energy, etc.) and all food production systems have an environmental impact.

Considerable diversity within food systems means that nutritional, environmental, economic and social impacts vary. Fortunately, milk has the lowest carbon footprint of animal- source foods, which helps limit greenhouse gas emissions.

Yet can dairy production be part of a sustainable food system? It is often suggested that dairy cows compete for resources with human food production, thereby contributing to food and nutrition insecurity. Some animal feed crops clearly compete with human food production, and (as with other livestock) dairy production does compete for natural resources such as local land and water use, and for global trade. Yet more than 80 percent of dairy cow feed is not suitable for human consumption.

Cattle have a unique four-stomached digestive system, including a rumen that helps them obtain nutrients they need from food and crop byproducts that humans don’t or won’t consume. Dairy cows can convert more than 50 different categories of by-products from food, fuel, and fiber industries (including cottonseeds and hulls, crop residues, distiller’s grain, fruit pulps and pomaces, and bakery waste) into milk, providing an incredible contribution to resource-efficient sustainable food systems.

In essence, dairy cows efficiently upgrade low quality feed protein into high-quality food protein for human consumption.

The California dairy industry epitomizes this resource use efficiency.

For instance, a recent analysis showed that approximately 82 percent of California cow feed is unsuitable for human consumption. Forty-one percent is comprised of human-inedible forage such as alfalfa hay, corn silage and earlage, and cereal silage; while 18 percent is corn grain. The remaining 41 percent is comprised entirely of high-fiber by-products from other agricultural industries, which reduces reliance on forages such as hay and alfalfa.

Less reliance on forage means a relative reduction in the amount of water used to grow feed crops. At the same time, using by-product feeds means more land can be freed for human food production.

The California almond industry produces a notable quantity of by-product feeds in the form of almond hulls and shells that were previously burned or used as livestock bedding before dairy producers began using them as cattle feed. Nowadays, almond hull usage for California dairy feed accounts for approximately two million tons each year – almost 100 percent of what is produced by California growers.

Feeding food and fiber by-products such as almond hulls to dairy cows is the most economically and environmentally ingenious way of disposing of these materials.

No single solution exists to create a sustainable food future; a menu of consumption and production-focused strategies is needed to close the food gap, improve food and nutrition security and generate environmental, health, and development co-benefits.

California’s dairy producers are continuously doing their part to integrate science-based best sustainability practices to their businesses and brands. By using by-product feeds to produce nutrient-rich dairy products, they are playing a leading role in providing high-quality protein for our communities through resilient, sustainable food production systems.

Rather than focusing only on the environmentally depleting effects of food production, we need to recognize the amazing synergies between dairy systems and other agricultural industries (such as almond production) and the benefits they bring to human health and society.

Being part of sustainable food systems benefits dairy producers and consumers alike. It is a genuine win-win situation.