FIRST IT was palm oil. Now environmental NGOs have set their sights on a new crop: soya. But pork producers are trying to get one step ahead of the game.
In the last 15 years, the production of soya has doubled. Thats good news for farmers in Brazil and Argentina where production has exploded in Brazil the cultivated area is already the size of the UK. But perhaps not so good for the local environment.
Theres a very real concern emerging that as the world demands more meat, it will demand more soya on which to feed livestock. And as demand begins to outstrip supply that could mean two things. First, the cost of soya rises, and so does the price of meat. And second, soya production expands further into sensitive environments such as the little-known but species-diverse Brazilian savannah, the cerrado.
Its no surprise, then, that the likes of the wildlife charity WWF have been campaigning for food businesses and producers to sign up to the Roundtable for Responsible Soya, which sets strict environmental and social standards for soya production. That is one solution, but one which some see as unsustainable given that responsible soya can include genetically modified soya.
The other solution is to replace soya with something else. The UK imports 70% of its soya directly from Argentina and Brazil to feed livestock, in particular pigs and poultry. Swapping soya for pulses like peas and beans could have environmental and economic benefits for pig farmers, says Tony Goodger, trade sector manager for foodservice at the pork industry body BPEX. Through incorporating domestically grown peas, beans and legumes into the feed ration for pigs the reliance on soya is reduced, he explains. That then reduces the need to transport soy across the world, which in turn also makes a saving on the financial and environmental costs associated with transport.
And so the Green Pig project was born. Sponsored by the Environment Departments LINK programme, Green Pig set out to establish the practical limits for inclusion of peas and beans in pig diets in other words, the impact of the crop swap on productivity and growth. A commercial-scale trial was set up on a Midland Pig Producers farm, during which it was discovered that 30% of a pigs diet can consist of peas or beans with no detrimental effect.
This is higher than the accepted norm and makes it possible to significantly reduce the reliance on soya bean meal, says Goodger. There was also a benefit to the farm business, as Martin Barker, managing director of Midland Pig Producers, explains: Incorporating beans into the arable crop rotation reduces the requirement for purchased fertiliser beans and peas help to retain key nutrients in the soil and allows the manure from the pigs to be spread on the wheat and barley in the rotation.
In simple terms, if we grow a rotation of only wheat, wheat and rape we do not have enough manure to supply the needs of the rape, let alone the cereals, whereas if we grow a rotation of wheat, wheat, barley and beans, the manure is enough for nearly all the land.
A small number of pig producers already feed the animals peas and beans where it suits their system, but the yields can be low and inconsistent. That means more work needs to be done to improve the genetics of the crops to make them a more viable alternative to soya. Goodger says thats a possibility but it requires the co-operation of businesses further up the supply chain for example, foodservice operators. I suppose many in the foodservice sector will ask themselves why they should support the Green Pig project when it is unlikely to mean cheaper pork. But this project provides foodservice operators with the opportunity to be leaders in sustainable responsible business practices. For medium-sized foodservice operators who are continually striving to be good corporate citizens, reducing their demand on imported soya and increasing business opportunities for domestically grown crops has to welcomed. But there is a business benefit here too, he adds. Reducing the reliance of soya in the supply chain means that we wont be beholden to the vagaries of the soya commodity market.