Should Livestock Eat Garbage Instead of Grain?

Should Livestock Eat Garbage Instead of Grain?

Two years ago, as the Food and Drug Administration was rolling out new proposed rules following passage of the landmark Food Safety Modernization Act, one regulation caught the ire of brewers, ranchers, and the sustainable food-loving public. As part of the agency's massive overhaul of food-safety regulations, spent mash given to area farmers, who then feed it to livestock, would have to conform to the same kind of process as products made for human consumption. With the costs that the regulation would add to the practice (known as “happy hour” for cattle and other animals), the very old, sustainable tradition of processing waste in ruminants rather than landfills would likely have ended.

Because of media coverage and a host of public comments made through the FDA website, the rule was revised. Used brewers’ grain is just one of the many types of “garbage feeding” that have been common on farms for centuries. But unlike cattle happy hour, diverting other scraps and waste from the trash and into the slop trough has been limited by food-safety-related regulations since mad cow disease and other food-borne illnesses cropped up in the 1980s. Today, however, with better understanding of what elements in animal feed can spread deadly disease (in short, don’t feed beef byproducts to cattle) and increased focus on the scourge of food waste, the old practice of dumping a bucket of slop in front of the hogs for dinner is getting a second look as a sustainable practice that can and should be practiced at scale.

Thanks to a new report from The Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic and the Food Recovery Project at the University of Arkansas School of Law, farmers and ranchers may now have a better understanding of how they can use waste as feed without running afoul of local laws or creating a food-safety risk. Not only could increased use of garbage feeding help reduce the 1.3 billion tons of food that goes to waste every year but, according to a recent study published in the journal Food Policy, using food scraps to feed hogs could free up some 4.4 million acres of farmland in the European Union that is currently dedicated to growing soybeans and other grains used as feed. According to U.N. estimates, if hogs across the globe were fed on waste, it would save enough grain to feed an additional 3 billion people.

The Environmental Protection Agency lists feeding animals third in its hierarchy of ways to limit waste, after “source reduction”—wasting less before food gets to people—and feeding the hungry. “With proper and safe handling, anyone can donate food scraps to animals. Food scraps for animals can save farmers and companies money,” according to the EPA’s website. “It is often cheaper to feed animals food scraps rather than having them hauled to a landfill.” But with a patchwork of laws that regulate which animals can be fed what, it can be difficult to use this cheap, sustainable source of animal feed.

In the Harvard–Food Recovery Project report, the federal and state laws are examined in detail, down to the vagaries in the official definitions of garbage across these United States. For example, in Iowa, the top pork-producing state, “garbage” includes “putrescible animal and vegetable wastes resulting from the handling, preparation, cooking, and consumption of foods, including animal carcasses or parts.”

Beyond issues of land and resource use and environmental sustainability, there are economic upsides to garbage feeding for farmers and food-service institutions alike. The report cites the success of a program at Rutgers University, where scraps from the dining halls end up as feed at a nearby farm—a program that costs the university half as much as sending the same waste to a landfill.

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