Food-feed competition: Cows don’t belong on cropland
Not all milk is the same. Whether it is sustainable depends on factors such as animal welfare or what the cows are fed on. If animal feed is grown where food could also thrive, competition between animal and human nutrition arises. This competition can now be measured. On behalf of WWF Switzerland, Emmi, the Swiss Milk Producers (SMP) and the Central Switzerland Milk Producers (ZMP), Agroscope and the School of Agricultural, Forest and Food Sciences (HAFL) have developed two corresponding indicators. The results of an initial practical test show that Switzerland, with its numerous alpine pastures, is ideal for milk production.
Whether a food is sustainable or not depends on many ecological, ethical and economic factors. Not all milk is the same in this respect. There are substantial differences – especially in a global comparison – when it comes to important issues such as animal welfare, environmental effects and conditions for dairy farmers. What almost all sustainability aspects have in common is that they are difficult to measure. From Emmi’s perspective, however, this is important in determining the credibility of its sustainability efforts. For this reason, Emmi has committed itself to a project to develop sustainability indicators in the area of dairy cattle feeding.
Avoiding food-feed competition
Grass is the natural food source for cows and is therefore healthy for the animals. Depending on availability, roughage is also the cheapest option for farmers, and from an ecological point of view roughage cultivated on a farm – or alpine pasture – is the best choice.
Another advantage of roughage is that it does not compete with human nutrition. Food competition occurs when feed is used that would otherwise be suitable for human consumption, for example, when wheat is fed to cows. That doesn’t apply to grass and hay. On the contrary, thanks to cows and other ruminants, grass that is useless for human nutrition becomes a valuable foodstuff.
But even grass can compete with human nutrition. This is the case when it is grown on land on which food could also be grown, creating competition for land.
Land and food competition are referred to as food-feed competition. Against the backdrop of scarce resources and a growing world population, such competition must be avoided. This first requires objective measurement parameters. With this in mind, WWF Switzerland, Emmi, the Swiss Milk Producers (SMP) and the Central Switzerland Milk Producers (ZMP) commissioned Agroscope and the School of Agricultural, Forest and Food Sciences (HAFL) to develop appropriate indicators. Around one year on, these have not only been formulated in theory, but also tested in practice.
From theory to practice
The two newly developed food-feed indicators have been tested on 25 Swiss dairy farms, and the balance of food competition was found to be positive on each. In other words, more energy and protein available to humans in the form of milk and meat was produced than was contained in the feed used. However, most farms also had land that should be better used for arable farming in order to produce more energy and protein for human consumption. As expected, mountain farms had the least competition for land because they cultivate few or no arable plots.
Further details on the indicators can be found in the study
Arguments for Swiss milk
Competition in the dairy market is fierce. From Emmi’s perspective, Swiss dairy products will have to offer even more in the future in order to compete with foreign products in particular. Sustainability is one possibility. For this reason, Emmi is now particularly interested in the results of a land competition comparison between Swiss milk and that of its most important international competitors. Ideally, the food-feed indicator will thus become another argument in favour of Swiss dairy products.