The hunt for soya substitutes

Use of sustainable soya in animal feed is rising, but farmers are hoping that alternatives emerge sooner rather than later. David Burrows reports.

“Use of soya is maybe five or 10 times more than palm oil but the attention companies give it is five or 10 times less,” WWF-UK’s head of food commodities Emma Keller told Pig World in September last year. “Brands and retailers still say they don’t have the public attention [on soya] but they should be careful what they wish for.”

At the time, with the fires raging across Brazil, scrutiny over soya – which has been linked to the loss of vital ecosystems in South America – started to bubble up again. Four months on and the commodity was headline news again: “Britain’s chicken boom is destroying South America’s forests,” screamed The Sun, one of a number of papers to cover Greenpeace’s “Winging it” report. The NGO accused high-street brands of a “total failure” to monitor where their feed comes from. Of the 23 brands assessed across foodservice and grocery none could guarantee the soya used to produce their meat was deforestation-free. The likes of McDonald’s, KFC, Burger King, Nando’s and Subway refused to disclose their meat sales or soya use altogether.

It also found that consumers were switching from red meat to poultry to “do the right thing” for the environment, but “supermarkets and fast-food restaurants are keeping them in the dark when it comes to the precious forests being destroyed to feed most of the chicken they sell”.

However, compared to even 12 months ago we have a much clearer picture of UK soya consumption. This is because companies are finally beginning to scrutinise their own soya supply chains. For example, October analysis of data supplied by seven retailers – Aldi South, Asda, Co-op, Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, and Waitrose & Partners – and involving more than 200 producers, packers and manufacturers showed the UK’s soymeal “footprint” was 1.37m tonnes in 2018. Poultry was the biggest user, followed by pork, then eggs and milk. Of the 1.37m tonnes only 16% was deforestation-free and 10% was unqualified deforestation-free (for example, through retailer claims). That left 74% uncertified. However, there is a shift in demand, the authors of the report from 3Keel, a consultancy, noted: “These efforts now need to be scaled.”

A month later, the UK Roundtable on Sustainable Soya published data from its members, which include most major supermarkets, as well as meat processors like 2 Sisters and Tulip. Foodservice companies have also begun to sign up: in September 2019 Footprint discovered none were involved in the government-activated initiative, but Compass, Nando’s and Whitbread are all now listed as signatories. As of October 2019, 27% of soya consumed in the UK was covered by a deforestation- and conversion-free soya standard, the roundtable’s 2019 progress report claimed. This is up from 15% the previous year. It is likely to be too little too late to meet the “zero deforestation by 2020” commitments many of the major food brands made a decade ago, but it’s a decent shift in the space of 12 months.

Still, there is a need to go further and faster. Only 60% of the roundtable’s members have managed to set out how they will support deforestation- and conversion-free soya in a time-bound plan. All were supposed to have done this by April 2019. WWF-UK also scored the retailers in October – whether they had a plan or not. Iceland and Morrisons were the laggards, with Co-op, Aldi, Asda, Lidl, Marks & Spencer and Sainsbury’s in mid-table and Tesco and Waitrose on top. Tesco was singled out for special praise, given its “explicit commitment” to aspirations to source from entire landscapes that are verified as zero-deforestation soya sourcing areas. Overall, there is work to do but the retail sector has sent out a “strong signal” for sustainably sourced soya, WWF-UK said. Scrutiny of the foodservice sector would be welcome given the presence of companies, like Nando’s, Greggs, KFC, Subway and Pret, that sell a lot of products with embedded soya.

But what do producers think of these aspirations? While they have no intention of harming the environment, they are still concerned about who will pay the (current) premiums for certified sustainable soya. Speaking at last month’s “Pigs and Poultry – Optimising Production” event in Scotland, run by Moredun Research Institute (MRI) – Máire Burnett, technical director at the British Poultry Council (BPC), said the sector must find ways to reduce its reliance on imported soya. “We are a long way off finding an alternative [protein source],” she warned. Representatives of the pig sector raised similar concerns about the lack of viable replacements for soya, use of which in pig diets has fallen to around 8% but which remains the most important protein in the diet. Soya also represents a fair chunk of the carbon emissions from rearing pigs.

Small-scale trials of peas and faba beans – reported by ­Footprint in 2012 – have shown promise, but are proving a hard sell. Insects, meanwhile, are receiving a fair bit of attention as another potential protein substitute in the diets. There is plenty to like about the idea, according to Mark Driscoll, founder of Tasting the Future, a sustainable food systems consultancy. “Research indicates considerable reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, land-use, waste and associated water use by switching soya and fishmeal to insect-based feed alternatives,” he explained. “Insects can also be reared on feed that is unsuitable for livestock, such as agricultural and food waste, which otherwise would be wasted or have little economic value, contributing to a more closed-loop circular food economy.”

However, there are various obstacles to overcome – both commercial and regulatory. European regulations currently prohibit feeding of processed insects to poultry (and pigs) due to the “feed ban” that evolved from the BSE crisis. But the rules have recently been loosened for aquaculture, and poultry and pig producers could soon be allowed to feed insect-derived protein too. A decision is expected sometime this year. Insects could replace part of the soya in chicken or pig diets, but not all of it. And even if the regulations are lifted, large-scale roll out is not imminent. “We are a long way off commercial viability,” BPC’s Burnett said. “[Due to the regulations] we can’t even do small trials yet [but] we are hoping to see some changes this year.”

The cost and performance of insect-based feeds will also need to be favourable against soya, which is likely to require considerable scaling up of the industry and further research into the best substrates to rear the bugs on. Another barrier that can’t be overlooked is whether feeding insects to pigs and poultry is acceptable to food businesses and their customers. “We need some [consumer] research on that,” Burnett said. After all, the birds would naturally feed on insects but they currently get a vegan diet, so work lies ahead in communicating the benefits of insect feed.

Still, many will be excited by the prospect – not least because of the intense scrutiny on soya.

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