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Beef’s contribution to global food security

Dr. Vaughn Holder is ruminant research director at Alltech.

The following blog is a summary of an Ag Future podcast episode with Dr. Vaughn Holder, hosted by Tom Martin. Click below to hear the full audio, or listen to the episode on Apple PodcastsSpotify or Google Podcasts.

The research behind food security suggests that only a handful of nations are protein-insecure. But is the data overlooking the importance of protein quality? Dr. Vaughn Holder, ruminant research director at Alltech, joined the Ag Future podcast in 2022 to discuss the role digestibility plays in getting an accurate gauge of global protein security and the positive impact that cattle have on the health of people and the planet.

Rethinking protein security: a paradigm shift

Dr. Holder kicked off the conversation by challenging the conventional approach to evaluating food security. The existing framework primarily focuses on the quantity of protein consumption in different nations, overlooking the crucial factor of protein digestibility.

Not all proteins are created equal. Animal-derived proteins tend to be complete proteins with high digestibility, closely aligned with the human body’s needs. In contrast, plant proteins often have lower digestibility, making them less efficient sources of nutrition.

Dr. Holder referenced the groundbreaking work of Paul Moughan, a researcher from a university in New Zealand, who highlighted the necessity of adjusting protein intake based on the body’s ability to absorb and utilize it effectively. By factoring in protein quality and digestibility, the scope of protein insecurity expands significantly, potentially affecting a much larger portion of the global population.

Impacts on human health and development

Protein malnutrition has far-reaching implications for human health, particularly in terms of its effects on brain development in infants and on overall physical development. Dr. Holder cited research suggesting that addressing protein insufficiency could potentially elevate the global population’s average IQ by ten points. This underscores the profound impact of protein quality on societal progress and well-being.

Plant-based alternatives and food production

In discussing the rise of plant-based meats and milks as alternatives to conventional animal products, Dr. Holder acknowledged the value of these products in terms of taste and consumer preferences. However, he raises a critical point: While plant-based options can be part of a nutritious diet, they should not replace actual protein production. The distinction lies in the fact that plant-based alternatives are essentially processed foods.

Ruminants as nature’s recyclers

Annually, about 40 metric tons of byproducts are being fed into the dairy industry. Dr. Holder described ruminants as natural recycling centers, converting both food waste and nutrient-rich plant byproducts that humans can’t use into valuable protein sources.

What’s more, cattle are reducing the greenhouse-gas footprint of those byproducts.

“If there aren’t cattle utilizing those byproducts, those byproducts end up in compost heaps or landfills,” Dr. Holder explained. “As byproducts entering compost heaps, they will end up generating five times the amount of greenhouse gases that they would if they went through a cow, and they’d generate 49 times as many greenhouse gases if they went into a landfill than if they went into a cow.”

The path forward: an ecosystem-centric approach

Dr. Holder concluded with an exciting glimpse into the future of ruminant research. He introduces a paradigm shift in viewing protein production, emphasizing the importance of ecosystems as units of production. This holistic approach considers not only the role of cattle in protein production but also the broader impact on carbon capture and nutrient cycling within ecosystems.