SPEAKER: As you can see, we've now moved to another site where we're looking at some of our cattle herd here at the Teaching and Research Center of Cornell University. And that's the logical background for the section I'd like to talk about, which is I call Ruminants Reign.
Ruminants are those animals that have four stomachs, including a rumen, which has a unique capacity to digest grass and other high cellulosic materials-- that is materials containing a lot of cellulose, which is what we find in plants, particularly in their leaves, and stalks, and stems. And I think most of us aren't really quite prepared to eat grass.
And in fact, a large part of the surface of the Earth is grassland. A large part of what we raise agriculturally is high-cellulosic materials. And many of our forests contain a lot of this type of material, which, in fact, that piece was would've probably done at the sheep farm because the animal that loves the forests are goats, which they're now using to, in fact, replace people and clean out the bottom of the forests to prevent forest fires.
But the important point here is that a large part of the Earth's surface is not cropland but is various other kinds of lands, which we're happy, I think, in most cases, to try to keep that way. For example, even a whole country like New Zealand, which has a large ruminant animal population-- cattle, sheep, and deer-- is based on the fact that they have a very volcanic base with very narrow topsoil, on which they grow a lot of grass. And so to produce human food using that kind of land, the only animals we can use are ruminants.
And the beauty is we can keep that land in that form. And, in fact, as a food chain, as a food web, it's also a very efficient food web. You have grass, the ruminant, the human. And so you don't go through a whole bunch of little animals eating bigger animals, eating bigger animals. You go directly from grass to one animal, to a use for human food.
And that's very hard to do any other way. And so again, if we look at what's happening, we really need to think in terms of the cattle and sheep doing an important service.
And there's a second way that ruminants help us. And that is in the area of the eating of grains. And we raised some grains directly to feed animals.
I do realize that many people question this, and I have some misgivings about it. However, when we talk about the grains that we're feeding these animals, not all the grain is specifically the grain that we raise specifically for animals. A lot of the grains we're feeding the animals are things like rice hulls, wheat bran, wheat husks, stalks of plants, rice hulls, brewer's yeast, waste-- brewery waste. That is what comes out after you've made beer.
And all of these are ingredients that we call grains when we're feeding animals, but which are really byproducts of plant agriculture that humans don't eat. So even if we keep the rice or the wheat for humans, there's a great deal of the rest of the plant that's not being used. And it's major use is with animals.
So, therefore, I like to think of ruminants reign, and that's why all vegetable-based, plant-based agriculture, it's going to have a heck of a lot more waste that is either going to be burned or landfilled, or plowed under, which means that much of the capturing of the sun's energy, which is what green plants do so well, is being lost in terms of the biological molecules that we've already invested energy into making. And I have yet to figure out how to do this efficiently without using ruminant animals.
Even though ruminants reign, pigs and poultry also have an important role to play in terms of our thinking about where we need to go with animal agriculture. And the point he made is that these are both animals that will eat a lot of the things that are table waste. So in many countries where people have, again, limited access to resources, they will keep pigs and poultry to use food waste.
Historically in this country, that was something we did rather regularly. And, for example, having grown up in New Jersey, we have a place called Secaucus where we raised pigs in the metropolitan New York area. And, of course, that became socially undesirable.
But the fact is we may need to think about that again as we try to avoid filling up our landfills and make better use of our plate waste, and our food waste, and some of the other feeds and food that we currently waste. And for this, the smaller animals, the pigs and the poultry, are very, very handy for this.
Now one of the concerns people have raised, and that's a legitimate one, is the question of the food safety of transmittal of diseases from people to animals, and back to people. Now there's been a lot of work done, and we now have available to us systems for heat treating the slop, which is what it is, to the food waste, so that we can recycle them safely back through these animals. And, again, this is a way to provide much more food to people, who, as we get to a greater population, will need the food.
A few other points I'd like to make while talking about this aspect is one of the things we do a lot of is feed the same type of food to our dogs and cats. And dogs and cats are wonderful, and I have no qualms against them. But, of course, in our society, we don't actually eat them.
And so, again, we had an animal which we're using a lot of food resources, but we're not gaining any benefit from it. So one could argue that it makes more sense to raise pigs and poultry and eat them than to raise dogs and cats and have waste created on our streets but not having much else.
And again, I'll throw in a little [INAUDIBLE], I guess, for those with pets. One of the things we're seeing is a large number of our pets are obese these days. And we see a lot of other strange behaviors in our pets as we keep a hunting, herding animal, the dog, in confinement, often by itself for most of the day. So in the long term, we really need to think critically about the role of pets.
Another idea I'd like to share with you is one that is for me a little embarrassing to have to talk about, but I think it's fair to cover. One of the areas I've done a lot of work and teach in is in the area of composting. And clearly one of the social goals, and a good one in the short term, has been to take more and more materials into compost, again to avoid landfilling and to avoid incinerating, which these organic materials don't do that well at in the first place because of the high water content.
Now I'm a great believer in composting. But again, much of the materials that we're composting, if we had the proper design systems, the ability to capture them would actually be beneficial as feed materials for raising animals that we can use in a more healthy diet for things like pigs and poultry.
Another problem with crop lands that we don't always think about is the issue of all the equipment that is run on the farm land and what this equipment may do to animals that already in the field. This may involve birds. This may involve small rodents, which if we take animal welfare seriously, we should be concerned about them also.
And these animals are often killed during the process of preparing croplands. So that cropland, in fact, may kill more animals per acre of land than we do when we slaughter animals for food. And, of course, the nature of the death when caused by this kind of equipment killing them is, of course, more painful. So again, the keeping of land and grass and in forests is something to be desired.
And finally in this segment, I'd like to point out very specifically that I am very opposed to the idea of taking forest land, particularly things like the Amazon rain forest, and creating land specifically to either grow crops to feed animals or growing more animals. We need to do a better job of using land that is appropriate for them, feeding them sufficiently, and also limiting what we then pass on to individuals, which segues nicely into the issue of diet and health.
We currently in this country eat too much animal protein. That is clearly a problem. And it has health ramifications.
However, the idea that no animal products would be even healthier, is one that I have not bought into. I believe that low levels of meat, low levels and appropriate levels of dairy and eggs are beneficial. And, of course, this is very difficult to prove either through research, where we overfeed excesses of things to learn what issues are, or where we do epidemiology, where again, it is most difficult to sort out what low levels-- what impact low levels will have on human health.
So I believe strongly that we need to adjust our diets, and that hopefully if we adjust our diets down in developed countries to a more optimal level of animal products, that that will free up animal products for countries that are beginning to develop and are developing a desire for meat and dairy products, which happens in almost every country of the world when their economics improve. And so again, from a diet point of view, yes, we are eating too much meat and dairy right now. But the ideal is not necessarily to get rid of it.
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Animal welfare is a controversial topic in modern agriculture. Join Joe Regenstein as he examines the ethical issues involved with the production of food and fiber in modern agriculture.
This video is part 5 of 9 in the Animal Welfare series.