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Beef's contribution to global food security

June 23, 2022
Dr. Vaughn Holder on stage at the 2022 Alltech ONE Conference

As a ruminant nutritionist, Dr. Vaughn Holder understands the critical role quality protein plays in a diet.

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, joins the Ag Future podcast 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.

The following is an edited transcript of the 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 Podcasts, Spotify or Google Podcasts.

Tom:            Welcome to Ag Future, presented by Alltech. Join us from the 2022 Alltech ONE Conference as we explore our opportunities within agri-food, business and beyond.


                     I'm Tom Martin with the Alltech Ag Future podcast, talking with Dr. Vaughn Holder, director of the Ruminant Research Group at Alltech, and he joins us to talk about the contribution of beef to global food security. Welcome, Dr. Holder.


Vaughn:        Thanks, Tom. Great to be here.


Tom:            How would you characterize world food security today?


Vaughn:        This is a really important question to start this conversation, Tom, because it's important to know where you are before you can decide whether we need to do something about the situation. I think it's a really important thing that we look at this.


Now, Paul Moughan is a researcher from a university in New Zealand, and he was the one who actually discovered that the way that we're looking at food security in the world today is probably incorrect, which is quite the realization to come to in 2022 — or this was probably 2021 when it was published. Basically, what it is is that they've been looking at the amount of protein that populations get and using that on what they call a gross protein basis. What that means is essentially the total amount of protein that those populations are getting and comparing it to how much we need.


Now, the problem with that is that we've known this in animal nutrition for a long time, so that's what makes it kind of entertaining for an animal nutritionist, but you need to correct the protein that you're eating to the amount that you can actually absorb and the amount that your body can actually use at the end of the day. When you do that, you go from a small handful of nations being protein-insecure to probably almost half of the planet being protein-insecure, because you are correcting for the poor digestibility primarily of plant proteins, because plants are quite difficult for us to digest as a species.


Tom:            Why is it important when we're talking about food security to include protein quality in the equation?


Vaughn:        That's just it, is that the requirement of our body is in a certain amount that can get into our body and that we can utilize.


Tom:            Is a protein a protein no matter where it comes from, or are there differences between proteins derived from plants versus animals?


Vaughn:        No. Certainly, that's the point. Proteins coming from animal origin are usually complete proteins. They are usually highly digestible because they're in the form that the body needs them. It's how the animals store them.


Tom:            What are your views on plant-based meats and milks and so forth and talks that they will someday replace conventional products?


Vaughn:        This is a really interesting conversation because we need to be very careful about how we talk about them replacing it. I think it's fine if you talk about them replacing it in terms of the food that we eat, the taste of the food. But we need to be really careful to not make the statement that the plant-based meats and milks are actually being produced. In other words, they are not a source of food production. They are made from existing food that we have within our systems and essentially mixed in recipes to taste like meat and milk. That's no problem in and of itself, but if we start replacing protein production with protein processing, we're going to end up with a starving planet pretty quickly.


Tom:            So how do ruminants fit into this world's food supply picture?


Vaughn:        I'm a little biased as a ruminant nutritionist, but ruminants are essentially the natural recycling centers of the world. They turn all the things that we can't use, all the nutrients in the world that are locked up in these plants —  particularly in grasses, byproducts and also food waste — it allows us a second crack at those nutrients. It allows us another way of getting those nutrients back into our systems and actually being able to utilize them through the ruminants themselves.


Tom:            We've touched on this a little bit a few seconds ago, but I want to just take it a little bit further. There may be only a handful of countries in the world that are experiencing protein malnutrition, but for many of the rest, are there issues and concerns around the quality of the protein that their populations are consuming?


Vaughn:        Yeah. That's at the center of Paul Moughan's work, and that's saying that on a gross protein basis, there are only a handful that are protein-insecure. But when you factor quality into it, the amount that people are actually getting into their systems means that probably more than half the world is protein malnourished.


Tom:            What are the implications of that on human health?


Vaughn:        There are dramatic implications, particularly on development in children. We had a speaker at the conference now this week who spoke specifically about the role of protein, protein quality and brain development in infants. It's critically important both to brain development and in terms of development of the body itself. Stunting is obviously a very, very big issue in nations where protein security isn't what it should be.


Tom:            It's been interesting. In the course of the interviews that we've done over the past several days, there's been something of a recurring theme about how we're awakening to just how really profoundly food — what we take in — really does govern how we feel, our actual overall health. I don't think we think of it that way day-to-day.


Vaughn:        No, we certainly don't, but it is at the heart of everything. It's the interaction, it's the direct interaction between us and our environment.


Tom:            It should make sense, but I just don't think we realize it.


Vaughn:        It doesn’t take a lot to step back and just think about why it should make so much sense, Tom, because that's everything that goes into our bodies.


Tom:            Right. Many food production industries generate byproducts. Rather than allowing those byproducts to become waste to be tossed aside, are some provided to the livestock industry as feed?


Vaughn:        Yeah. I was just giving a talk today about the dairy industry's use of these byproducts. There are two factors with that. The byproducts — about 40 metric tons a year — are all fed into the dairy industry, and those byproducts have another crack at entering our food system, at being nutrients that we can actually utilize.


                     But the second piece of that, Tom, is that if there aren't cattle utilizing those byproducts, those byproducts end up in compost heaps or landfills. And 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 49 times as many greenhouse gases if they actually went into a landfill as if they went into a cow. So, the role that cattle play at keeping those byproducts out of the environmental greenhouse gas picture is one that we don't really talk about very much.


Tom:            When we're talking about byproducts, are there dominant byproducts in the industry?


Vaughn:        Yeah. It depends on where you are regionally, but if we're talking about North America, probably the biggest one would be distillers grains. We put a lot of infrastructure and funding into ethanol production in this country to subsidize the fuel industry. There's a ton of byproducts that come out of that. That's probably the most dominant one, but then you go back to the more traditional ones, like soybean meal, canola meal. These are the things that we use as the basis of many animal nutrition rations.


Tom:            What are the advantages and the benefits of using byproducts in countering the effects of greenhouse gas emissions in climate change?


Vaughn:        I referred to it a little bit earlier on in the conversation, but it's essentially keeping those things out of landfills and compost heaps. It reduces the greenhouse gas footprint of those. It seems counterintuitive, right? We're all told, “We feed cattle, and when we feed cattle, that makes methane,” but those products that are going through those cattle will make a lot more methane if they don't go through the cattle and get a lot of those nutrients actually captured up.


Tom:            Any unintended consequences of the process?


Vaughn:        Of the use of byproducts by cattle?


Tom:            Yeah.


Vaughn:        I think that it's been in use long enough that we know pretty well what they do in the cattle, and it really is quite well-quantified.


Tom:            Back to quality protein. I seem to be stuck on that, but it's interesting. When a society that has been protein-deficient transitions to higher-quality protein sources, what happens? What sorts of changes take place among the consuming population?


Vaughn:        It's interesting. We had a speaker speak in our beef session earlier in the week. He actually spoke about (how) if we could fix the protein insufficiency in the nations of Earth that are protein-deficient, that the IQ of the world population would go up by ten points. We're talking about the world population as a whole. The entire world population's IQ would go up by an average of ten points. You can imagine the knock-on effects on economies of stunting and brain development and these types of things in the poorer nations. You expect these nations to lift themselves out of poverty, but if they are stuck with a situation where they have improper physical and brain development, that becomes quite difficult.


Tom:            I have a question here that, if you have the answer for it, I think the world will beat a path to your door, but let's go for it. Agriculture, food and climate join at the hip pretty much. How do we fix food insecurity while staying mindful of the climate crisis and the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions?


Vaughn:        I think the world assumes that these things are in diametrically opposite directions, and they are not in diametrically opposite positions. As we learn how to do food production better, it involves the elimination of waste necessarily. The better we get at this, the less waste (that) gets generated through the process of generating protein. We've been doing this all along. I know it sounds like a cop-out for agriculture to say, “This is what we've been doing all along,” but it is what we've been doing all along. We just have to now become a little bit more deliberate about the environmental side of things to say that, now, (it) becomes very much a primary part of our consideration alongside food security.


Tom:            Can environmental impact provide a new value proposition for agriculture?


Vaughn:        I think that that will happen eventually. There is going to be a situation with — agriculture sits in a unique position in that we actually capture carbon to produce food as our industry. Our industry is capturing carbon and turning it into food, so we're halfway there. We're the only industry that captures carbon for a living. I think, certainly, there's no other industry that exists at the scale and at the interface between carbon and the Earth as agriculture does, so I think we certainly will. It's just going to take carbon credit systems to come into place to fund a lot of this stuff.


Tom:            How close to that are we?


Vaughn:        Very certainly, by marketplace, I think there are some market drivers that will push that forward. Places like Europe have active carbon trading systems. Places even like California are actively trading carbon, so it's happening at varying degrees in different places, but I think it's not going to really take off the way the world envisions until everybody gets onto the same program (of) this trading carbon internationally.


Tom:            What's going on out there in your world, in your field, right now that really excites you?


Vaughn:        We're a group of ruminant nutritionists at Alltech. That's my group, and that's our major role. As ruminant nutritionists, we look very, very closely at the cow. A major mind shift that's occurred with us probably in the last two years, since we've been working with an ecology group down in Florida, is to change our mindset a little bit as to what the unit of production is. Instead of looking at the cow as the unit of production, we are looking at an ecosystem as a unit of production, because not only do we want to look at what the cow is doing — what's coming in and out of the cow — but the most important thing is what's coming in and out of the ecosystem.


                     If we're talking about carbon, how much carbon is captured? How much carbon is going out? We need to know what the ecosystem is doing, so we have to really have a mind shift in how we think about this and think about (the) ecosystem production of protein with cows as a piece of that ecosystem.


Tom:            That's fascinating. Dr. Vaughn Holder, director of the Ruminant Research Group at Alltech. Thank you so much, Dr. Holder.


Vaughn:        I appreciate it very much, Tom.


Tom:            I'm Tom Martin for the Alltech Ag Future podcast series. Thank you for joining us. Be sure to subscribe to Ag Future wherever you listen to podcasts.