“Pretty amazing,” commented one man standing next to a demonstration model at the Alltech International Animal Health and Nutrition Symposium this week in Lexington, Ky.

The large-scale model, measuring approximately 4 feet by 4 feet, showed a farm with a cellulose biorefinery, a solid-state fermentor, algae fields, an aquaculture center, wind turbines, solar panels, as well as traditional crops and livestock — all designed to work together to produce feed and fuel. Find out more.

And, cellulosic sources of fuel, such as corn cobs and switchgrass, wouldn’t compete against the feed supply like corn-based ethanol does.

“It’s a very nice cycle,” said Becky Timmons, director of applications research and quality assurance at Alltech. The products from one system can be used by other systems down the line. For instance, carbon dioxide from the fermentor could be used to help grow the algae. The algae, in turn, could be used as a feed source for livestock.  

The take-home message at this week’s Symposium was that agricultural systems will have to become more sustainable — economically, environmentally and socially — in order to feed 9 billion people in the world by the year 2050. Many of the speakers pointed out the importance of efficient production systems

Lauriston Fernandes, technical director for Premix, a feed company in Brazil, said that as more pasture land in Brazil is kept viable, there is less need to open up new agricultural areas. He said the soils in Brazil can be very acidic. But by treating them with limestone and phosphorus, a “degraded” pasture can be used again. That, in turn, keeps arable land in production and lessens the pressure that might otherwise contribute to massive deforestation. In recent years, the amount of deforestation in the Amazon region has dropped significantly — from 27,423 square kilometers in 2004 to 6,450 square kilometers in 2010.

Fernandes, who owns a beef cattle farm in Brazil, pointed out that the more-intensive, higher-production beef operations can be viewed as environmentally sustainable. For instance, they produce less methane per kilogram of carcass than the less-intensive, lower-production farms, he said. The economics of the higher-production systems also pencil out. “So, in that situation, we are producing sustainable meat,” he said.

“It’s time to take full responsibility for producing food with safety and sustainability,” Fernandes said.

His observations about efficient beef production are similar to what people in the dairy industry are finding. (For more on that, click here.)

Besides raising food in an economical and environmentally friendly way, farmers have a social responsibility. One way to fulfill that responsibility is to add value to their products throughout the food chain, which speaks to the health and well-being of consumers.

Patrick Wall, professor in the School of Public Health at the University College Dublin (Ireland), provided several examples. He told about how whey protein, a byproduct of the cheese industry, has anabolic properties that can help elderly people retain their muscle mass. “We have the potential to slow down the aging process,” he said.

Bottom-line, he told the audience, “You’re in the human-health business.”