Feed for thought

Why campaigners are trying to make animal feed a mainstream issue in 2019. By Nick Hughes.

Ask your average restaurant diner what they think about the feed behind their food and there’s a fair chance you’ll be greeted with a blank expression. Ask the same question in 12 months’ time and the hope is the response may be rather more discerning. That’s because food sustainability experts are aiming to make 2019 the year that animal feed becomes a mainstream sustainability issue.

It has long been understood by campaigners that feed lies at the intersection of some of the world’s most urgent environmental challenges. But while there is growing public awareness that the livestock industry is responsible for about 15% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, far less well known is the fact that almost half of these emissions are caused by the energy and change in land use needed to fuel the world’s growing demand for animal feed.

Each year, vast swathes of the planet’s forested areas are cleared to create new land to grow commodity crops such as maize and soy to feed not humans, but animals. A report from WWF published in 2017 found that soy has become such an important feed ingredient that the average European consumes about 61kg each year, largely indirectly through animal products such as chicken, pork, salmon, cheese, milk and eggs. The same report warned that if global demand for animal products grew as anticipated, soy production would need to increase by nearly 80% to feed all the animals destined for our plates.

And the impacts don’t end with GHG emissions. According to Forum for the Future’s The Feed Behind our Food report, of the total water consumption in animal production, 98% is associated with feed crops.

Faced with such alarming facts, it’s no surprise that global food giants, whose business models depend on producing and selling animal products, are looking at ways to reduce the impact of their feed supply chains.

For many businesses already engaged with the feed agenda, sourcing certified sustainable soy is seen as an obvious starting point. Yet with just 1-2% of soy currently certified and with the area converted for soy production increasing annually, there is growing recognition that innovative alternative feed sources will also be needed to meet the sustainability challenge.

And it’s here where Forum for the Future comes in. As part of the Protein Challenge 2040 coalition, the not-for-profit organisation has convened a group of leaders from across the food industry for a project aimed at accelerating progress on sustainable animal feed. The goal of Feed Compass is to reduce the dependency of the global food system on protein sources such as soy and fishmeal by scaling up a range of sustainable alternatives that have the potential to reduce environmental impact on land and sea, release land for cultivation of other foods, and free up high-quality plant protein for human consumption.

One specific strand of the project has involved the creation of a guiding framework based on nine qualities of a sustainable animal feed that can be used by businesses to compare one feed option with another and identify options that are more sustainable and commercially viable.

Sam Smith, a senior strategist at Forum for the Future and co-ordinator of the Feed Compass initiative, explains: “Often there’s a tendency to focus on one issue such as greenhouse gas emissions or land use footprint, so what we’re trying to do with the Feed Compass framework is to raise the understanding of how best we can profile the sustainability of each alternative feed source alongside existing sources looking across a range of issues.”

With a diverse advisory group consisting of international retailers, food manufacturers, feed ingredient companies, innovators and NGOs, Feed Compass has big plans to become the go-to platform for animal feed sustainability.

Many of its members are either at the leading edge of feed innovation or early adopters of more sustainable feed commitments. Waitrose, for instance, has achieved 77% of its target of procuring 100% of soy in its supply chain from sustainable certified sources by 2020, including an increase in volume from local sources such as the Danube region.

But beyond soy, the retailer is looking at ways of integrating other more sustainable protein sources into its livestock feed. Over the past five years, Waitrose has been engaged in a collaborative Sustainable Forage Protein project, which brought together eight of its commercial farms, researchers and processors to look at the potential for forage crops, such as protein-rich chicory, lucerne, and red and white clover, to reduce dependency on imported soy. The results were sufficiently promising for the Waitrose Farming Partnership to subsequently launch a range of grass and protein mixes for its own farmers to grow.

“The UK is very good at growing pasture and the scale of UK grassland offers a huge opportunity to source home-grown alternative protein for livestock feed to substitute an increasing proportion of soy based feed,” says the Waitrose agriculture manager, Duncan Sinclair.

Fava beans are also being trialled by Waitrose farmers as a long-term soy replacement for chicken, pigs, ducks and salmon. Successful feeding trials have been carried out across Waitrose’s pig, poultry, egg and fish supply chains and Sinclair reports that Waitrose has established a group of arable farms to grow these beans under contract.

Plant protein is also on the agenda for the pork giant Tulip, which has created its own trial farms to grow peas and beans. As evidence of just how seriously the meat industry is taking the issue of feed, Tulip’s parent company, Danish Crown, recently produced a report titled Meat 2030, which identified sustainable feed as one of nine “tracks” with the potential to contribute towards a sustainable meat future by producing locally grown and technology-based feed to reduce pressure on land and water use.

The term “technology-based feed” is a catch-all expression for novel feed sources such as insects, algae and single-cell proteins that don’t rely on traditional agricultural methods for their production. While the mainstream media obsesses over whether humans will ever be persuaded to incorporate insects into their diets, the food industry is far more interested in attempts to commercialise the production of insects as a reliable high-protein source of animal feed. “In Europe, several insect companies are scaling-up as we speak and we should expect prices to become more competitive,” says Smith.

Less developed, but with significant potential, is the use of algae which contain high levels of omega-3 and essential amino acids, making them ideal replacements for fishmeal. In an industry first, DSM and Evonik are investing $200m (£150m) to build a manufacturing plant in the US that produces marine algal oil as an alternative to fish oil.

There is excitement too around the potential of single-cell proteins that can be created using bacteria that metabolise methane. At least two companies, Calysta and Unibio, are scaling up their feed production facilities with the aim of bringing a single-cell protein to the market, although Smith cautions that there’s “still a long way to go” to move from demonstration and trials to commercial propositions.

One of the key objectives of Feed Compass is to help companies that risk being overwhelmed by the plethora of different feed alternatives understand which options can shift the entire food system onto a more sustainable footing. “We know from experience the power of collaboration to drive change,” says Smith. “Organisations acting alone cannot drive change across the whole feed system. By working together, we stand a better chance.”

The Feed Compass framework will be piloted this year and Smith is keen for as many businesses as possible to engage with the wider initiative.

For those companies still at the start of their feed journeys, Smith has this advice. “Building knowledge about feed security and sustainability is critical to moving forward on this issue. This includes identifying what products and categories are most relevant to animal feed. Start a conversation with your suppliers … then build a strategy, set goals, put together an action plan and identify collaboration partners.”

Historically, it has been hard to make a case for animal feed as a priority sustainability issue – it’s not as obviously counter-productive as generating food waste, nor as tangible and emotive as plastic packaging. But companies that choose to ignore feed do so at their own risk. If campaigners succeed in their mission it won’t be long before customers are demanding answers to those difficult questions about the feed behind their food.

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