Protein Production Essential in Feeding the World
China's per-person annual consumption of beef is roughly nine pounds. If that were to increase by just one pound per person, per year, that increase alone would be roughly as much or more beef than Nebraska produces annually. And Nebraska is the largest commercial producer of red meat in the United States.
"Those kinds of numbers are staggering, and are a reality," said Matt Spangler, associate professor of animal science and UNL Extension beef genetics specialist. "The task is pretty evident. We have a lot of protein to produce, and it will come from all species- beef, swine and poultry."
Demographers predict the world population will increase by 40 percent by 2050, but expect that 100 percent more food will need to be produced to meet demand. Included in that demand will be more high-quality protein, such as the meat products produced in Nebraska. Currently, one billion people in the world have access to too much food, while another billion have too little Food scarcity not only can affect health and longevity, it can create serious political problems.
For some people, meat is either unattainable due to economic constraints, or is simply unavailable. And for those in crisis, "they flat don't care how they get protein. They just want to get it," he added.
Protein, Spangler said, is a fundamental building block of muscle in the body. "Every human needs to consume protein," he said, "and a great source of protein is meat products, be it beef, poultry or pork."
Meat consumption provides other nutritional benefits including fat-soluble vitamins that are in abundance in meat products. "Because of that, I think meat production becomes increasingly important," he said.
Meeting the demand through research
Meeting the global demand for meat products will depend on the scientific research of universities to develop efficiencies in production. For example, research is being conducted in the UNL Department of Animal Science in the areas of nutrition, reproductive physiology, genetics and meat science.
Nutrition research at UNL focuses on the dietary needs of ruminant and non-ruminant animals, with the goal of more efficient production of meat, using less feed. Cattle are ruminant animals, meaning that they have more than one compartment in the stomach. Because of that, they can digest forage, such as grass and corn stalks that other animals can't digest. "Cows can turn what would otherwise be worthless and turn it into a protein resource that we can use," Spangler said. That nutrition research focuses on constantly trying to increase meat quality while improving efficiency. Food safety always is part of the research, he said.
Reproductive physiology researchers at UNL work on improving reproductive rates of livestock animals, which is critical to overall efficiency, Spangler said.
Genetics research, which is Spangler's expertise, develops methodology and technological advances that help livestock producers select for animals that might grow faster, be more efficient and less-susceptible to disease.
Meat science research at UNL not only prioritizes food safety, it looks at new ways of using animal carcasses efficiently. This research reduces waste and sometimes creates new cuts of meat, resulting in variety for the consumer and economic value for the producer.
"All those disciplines work in concert to look at an entire system and how we make a system more sustainable and more profitable, while not ever jeopardizing animal health or wellbeing," Spangler said. "That's something we take extremely seriously- the well-being of animals."
The well-being of an animal, he said, means that it is not jeopardized in terms of health, has available and adequate food and water and is as free as possible from pain and distress. "Animal production is critical and it is done with best practices and animal well-being in mind. Always."
Efficiencies in production; technology adoption
"Our charge, every day, has been to increase the efficiency with which we produce food, making sure that it's safe, that we don't jeopardize animal well-being and that we don't just discover... we also deploy technology," Spangler said.
"I think that's exciting in terms of what that means for the research discoveries that are going to be made, for the efficiencies that are going to be made," he added.
Spangler's teaching, research and extension work focuses on developing and evaluating beef genetics technologies that help beef cattle producers improve their beef animals. His research helps producers make decisions that are economically important, as well as important to the well-being of the animals.
Developing technological efficiencies not only benefits Nebraska farmers and ranchers; the technologies can translate to other states and other countries when the technologies are adopted.
"I think a key to technology adoption, using the example of genetic selection tools, is actually to engage producers or industries as we evaluate them for the efficacy, so they can learn by doing," Spangler said. "Then they grow comfort with those kinds of technologies and are more likely to adopt them." Spangler added that other producers tend to follow the "technology adopters," not only here in the U.S., but in other countries, as well.
"We need to be able to produce animal protein in a variety of climates," Spangler said. Humans control the majority of climate differences in swine and poultry production, as those animals often are produced indoors. Cattle, however, are another story. They are raised outdoors- in Nebraska's hot summers and cold winters.
"We raise cattle in a variety of environments now- extremely hot and humid to extremely cold and dry. And we're able to do that because we can alter feeding regimes, we can alter the breeds of cattle that we use and we can exploit genetic differences," Spangler said.
Researchers in both basic and applied science are working to understand the biological mechanisms that make some animals thrive in one environment versus another.
"With that kind of knowledge, we can easily prepare ourselves for any kind of climate that might face us in the future," he said.
Meaning of the land-grant mission
The land-grant mission of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln often is called the three-legged stool and includes teaching, research and extension, or outreach.
"The land-grant mission means that we really serve the clientele within not only our respective state, but our respective industries- across state lines. And that our research, our teaching and our outreach work is always meant to try to increase the standard of living of what we consider our clientele, which are the citizens," Spangler said.
The extension mission can be considered teaching and learning outside of a formal classroom. Extension specialists, like Spangler, take research findings out to the field and implement them so they can be used by the public and by different industries.
"It's an unbiased educational arm to evaluate technologies and tell producers the best way to adopt them, or if that technology is really the right thing for them," he said.
Opportunities in animal science
Teaching is another leg of the land-grant mission stool. Educating the next generation of animal scientists is essential to continuing the pipeline of researchers and practitioners and encompasses a variety of disciplines. Researchers in the UNL Department of Animal Science could have been statisticians or mathematicians, biochemists or engaged in a variety of other disciplines, but instead are using those skills in animal agriculture, Spangler said.
"Letting students know that there are those kinds of careers available with animals is critical," he said, including students ranging in age from kindergarten on. "Every little kid has a dream of what they want to be when they grow up. I think it's important to teach them there are those opportunities out there," he said.
"If you want to go into animal science as a scientist, if you want to be an agricultural producer, I think now is the time. I think now is at least as exciting as ever," he added.
A Message From:
Facing the Global Food Challenge
A Place Without Limits: NU's Leading Role in Ag Innovation - J.B. Milliken
"Ag is Sexy Again" as Global Need for Food Increases- Ronnie Green
"Failure is Not an Option" in Addressing Global Food Scarcity- Archie Clutter
Dickey Reflects on Years as Dean of Extension- Elbert Dickey
Food Scarcity Information Dissemination Complex, Vital- Karen Cannon
Technology and Food
Nebraska- the Food Capital of the World?- Rolando Flores
Is a Fully-Sustainable World Within Reach?- Mark Burbach
Agricultural Efficiency Sustains Resources, Produces More- Roch Gaussoin
Technology, Teamwork and Stewardship Vital in Meeting 2050 Global Food Need- P. Stephen Baenziger
Protein Production Essential in Feeding the World- Matt Spangler
Nebraska's Irrigation Research Goes Global- William Kranz
The Plight of the Honey Bee- Marion Ellis
Society's Health Reflects Changing Food Culture- Georgia Jones and Marilynn Schnepf
Steps to Building a Healthier World- Jean Ann Fischer
Economics of Food
Ag Economists- Working to Assure Abundant, Safe Food- Larry Van Tassell
Global Food Scarcity, Distribution, Roadblocks- Dennis Conley
Global Economics Research Explains Food Scarcity Challenges- Lilyan Fulginiti
World Food Supply Adequate, but Poverty is the Problem- Wes Peterson
Ag Land Reflects Value of Growing Food for the Future- Bruce Johnson
A Land of Plenty- Exporting to the World Stan Garbacz- Stan Garbacz