The European Alliance on Agricultural knowledge for Development

Assessing the Role of Cattle in Sustainable Food Systems

Nutrition Today: July/August 2018 – Volume 53 – Issue 4 – p 160-165

Balancing agriculture production with nutrition goals and environmental concerns forms a complex trilemma for food policy decisions. Critical questions within the trilemma debate revolve around (1) what is the optimal measure of environmental impact, (2) what is the optimal target for diet quality, and (3) what constitutes optimal land use? For each of these questions, the essential information remains incomplete and controversial.

The current environmental debate about agriculture is focused on the cost and impact of producing grains versus meats. This is an overly simplistic view of both agriculture and nutrition. Grains appear beneficial in LCA models because they produce lower GHGE/kcal, but they also have low nutrient density, whereas meats have comparatively high GHGE, but also have high nutritional value and are rich sources of protein and EAAs.
Sustainable production of protein needs to be a foundation of a sustainable diet, and livestock have a critical role in production of high-quality protein. Livestock currently produces more than one-third of world’s protein, and ruminant animals have a unique capacity to convert nondigestible biomass into proteins providing the optimal balance of EAAs. These factors call for prudent use of ruminant animals to optimize land use for production of high-quality protein. Any recommendations for changes in agriculture production should consider the impact on climate but must also focus on maximizing use of natural resources for creation of healthful diets.