Sustainable intensification means increasing efficiency through higher yields - right?

Since the latest report produced by Food Climate Research Network (FCRN) has been selectively interpreted in Guardian columnist George Monbiot’s unsympathetic assessment of livestock production systems, we would like to present an alternative, more nuanced view.

Papers by Capper et al. have shown that using the ‘dilution of maintenance’ concept has resulted in ruminant production improvement in efficiency between 1944 and 2007. The ‘dilution of maintenance’ concept is fairly simple. It states that an animal needs a relatively fixed amount of nutrition to perform the basic functions needed to maintain itself, but that on top of this the animal also requires energy for production (growth, reproduction and lactation). Therefore, the fixed amount for maintenance has been diluted by the proportional increase in yields per animal that has occurred over the past decades. 

An example used by Capper et al. (2013) shows the average dairy cow in 1944 USA yielding 7kg/d with 69% of the animal’s energy requirement used for maintenance. In 2007, the average US dairy cow yielded 29kg/d with just 37% of its energy requirement used for maintenance. This means the higher yielding animals of today, on average, require less energy to produce each unit of product.   

There we go! The industry has increased the efficiency of each cow – right? And to keep increasing efficiency to achieve the ‘more from less’ slogan of ‘Sustainable Intensification’ the industry just needs to focus on further yield increases – business as usual then? 

Not quite. Although the dilution of maintenance concept is correct, that as yields have increased the energy required per unit of product has gone down, it doesn’t look at the unintentional ‘knock on’ environmental effects  associated elsewhere in the supply chain or the nutritional quality of the product produced. For example, if yield increases are due to better management of current on-farm resources to reduce on farm loses e.g. manure management or generally improved utilisation, then increases in yield are more likely to be sustainable. However, if the increases are achieved through more materials being brought on to farm and these new materials are produced from areas where deforestation or other land use change has occurred directly or indirectly to produce them, then the yield is not likely to be as sustainable – or even unsustainable. 

To highlight the real level of complexities around increasing efficiency the late Professor Kevin Shingfield emphasised the improvement for milk yield at the expense of the typical working lifespan of a dairy cow (See Knaus (2009) for a good overview). In some breeds genetic selection has also caused complications at key points in production that need careful management; or high levels of veterinary intervention.  Professor Shingfield also questioned whether enough has really been done to ensure the industry is always using up to date figures for calculations, such as for feed requirements, to account for the latest genetic improvements? 

When we add human health consequences to the picture it becomes more complex still. The nutritional benefit of ruminant products to consumers has become a focus of research, namely the composition of fats, and how these are affected by different systems of production. However, there is very little known about how the nutritional qualities of meat and milk have been affected by the long term increases in yield, which underpin the ‘dilution of maintenance’ concept.  On the flip-side to this area of human health, there is the issue of over-consumption and the related long term health issues of obesity, diabetes, heart disease. This over-consumption could also be considered a waste to the system as the product was not needed and is potentially leading to avoidable increases in the footprint of healthcare. Therefore, if increased yields just supply more to markets where over-consumption is already an issue, then no matter how sustainable the production might seem, the fact the product goes to where it isn’t needed must bring into question its sustainability. 

So, does sustainable intensification mean simply continuing to increase animal yields as we have done in the past? In short, parts of the industry have to become more efficient through reduction of loses and better utilisation of on-farm resources such as water, home grown feeds and manures which have seen sustainable increases in yields. The industry is becoming increasingly aware of the need to reduce losses on the farm and elsewhere in the supply chain e.g. via improved animal health/welfare. It will also be important to recognise that continued yield increases may not be appropriate everywhere. There are some systems of production that are yielding enough; in fact, there are those who suggest de-intensification of the most intensive systems of production may be needed in some areas of food production to ensure long term sustainability (Squire, G. (2015) SRUC Conference, Edinburgh). There are also concerns that environmental sustainability continues to play ‘second fiddle’ to the industry’s drive for ever higher yields.

Despite all these issues, many in the industry understand what is needed and are working hard to ensure that enough food can be produced in ever more sustainable ways. Researchers are working closely with the industry to find solutions that work without destroying markets and livelihoods. However, it is important for those outside and inside the agri-food sector to realise that ruminant production has a role in the world’s future food production as often the only way of providing food from areas of the world where human edible food crops cannot be produced efficiently or providing many people in our world with a way to work the land and/or to have some sort of alternative nutrition in their lives.  The critics of the livestock industry must also remember that the most sustainable way to change something is to help the industry develop through working positively with the people who help feed and clothe us all, as the FCRN and ourselves are doing.

If you are interested in exploring these issues further, the AFTP run several modules relating to sustainable livestock production. These include online courses in: Global Ruminant Production, Ruminant Health and Welfare, Ruminant Nutrition, Genetics and Genomics in Agriculture, Ruminant Gut Microbiology, Organic and Low Input Ruminant Production, Farm Business Management run by Aberystwyth University and residential courses on Ruminant Animal Production and The Feed Industry and Principles of Ruminant Nutrition at Harper Adams University. There are also a wide range of other livestock-related courses that can be found in the Livestock & Forages section of ‘Our Courses’ on this website. 

Original Article by Dr Neil MacKintosh, Livestock Lecturer, Aberystwyth University

Edited by Craig Farrell, University of Reading

  1. Capper, J. L. & Bauman, D. E. (2013) The Role of Productivity in Improving the Environmental Sustainability of Ruminant Production Systems. In: LEWIN, H. A. & ROBERTS, R. M. (eds.) Annual Review of Animal Biosciences, Vol 1.

  2. Knaus, W. (2009). Dairy cows trapped between performance demands and adaptability. Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, 89, 1107-1114.

Our partners