Part II: Current Action on Feed Sustainability

This blog is reposted – it was first published on Forum for the Future’s website.

This is the second of a three-part blog series on the Path to a Better Animal Feed System. In the last blog, I outlined why action on animal feed sustainability is urgent and gave a sense of the future direction for monogastric and ruminant feedstocks.

Improving existing feed sustainability, reducing demand and scaling novel ingredients are all solutions that promise to make feed more sustainable. This blog focuses on the action being taken by organisations on feed sustainability, providing examples of opportunities and barriers to change.

1. Where does current action focus?

While there is increasing interest in sustainable animal feed, action is limited and public pressure remains low. Our work is finding only a handful of major companies have feed-specific commitments. Buying policies and innovation are often patchy, inconsistent and lack the bold ambition that’s called for in responding to global sustainability challenges.

Most action from retailers and food service is centred around deforestation commitments and soy certification. Notable commitments include the Cerrado Manifesto and the Consumer Goods Forum commitment on zero net deforestation by 2020. The Cerrado Manifesto, launched in 2018 has had strong momentum, being signed by over 70 global companies. It puts the onus on soy and meat producers and traders, to prevent runaway destruction of the Cerrado savanna. However, without participation from major commodities firms such as Cargill, ADM and Bunge, there’s concern about how successful this initiative will be.

Figure 1. Many company commitments related to deforestation are centred around palm oil and timber. Graphic from Achieving 2020: Forest 500 Report 2017

Soy is one of the most significant feed crops. Approximately one quarter of the animal feed market is soy-based, and 70-75 percent of global soybean production goes towards animal feed (Chatham House, 2016). Next to beef, soy is one of the leading drivers of deforestation. To encourage more responsible soy production, the Round Table for Responsible Soy is one forum seeking to develop and promote a sustainability standard for the production, processing, trading and use of soy.

Yet traction is limited. Certified ‘sustainable’ soy is increasing but still only 1-2 percent of the 270 million annual tons grown is certified sustainable. This compares to 21 percent of the global supply of palm oil.

Why is this? One factor is that there is limited public demand for sustainable soy, which remains a largely hidden ingredient in the supply chain. Another factor is financial. In 2018, one industry insider suggested that sustainable soy is less than 1 percent more expensive, however, the feed industry (who buy most of it) work on very thin margins and can’t absorb all the costs.

2. Other feed sustainability wins

While frustratingly slow, the focus on deforestation-free soy commitments is critical and requires strong collaboration and supportive policy. Alongside this, what other opportunities are there on sustainable animal feed?

For existing feedstocks, improving feed sustainability can include incorporating feed production into more regenerative agricultural systems, making better use of waste-streams and choosing ingredients that optimise the feed-to-food conversion efficiency.

In smaller-scale livestock systems, various examples exist where agroecological practices enable more sustainable feeding practice. We covered some examples in the first blog. Other examples include Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm, where pastured poultry are part of a rotation requiring less grain-inputs and Kipster Farm in the Netherlands, where chickens feed on residual flows from bakeries and agriculture.

In larger systems however, there are fewer examples to draw from. In the UK, Waitrose has several initiatives on animal feed including efforts to source European soy, a collaborative Sustainable Forage Protein project and the trialling of alternatives to soy, such as locally grown fava beans for chicken, pigs, ducks and salmon.

Another example is Arla, one of the largest dairy farming co-operatives in Europe. It has collectively reduced CO2 emissions per kilo of milk by 24 per cent in Northern Europe, and optimising feed was a key part of achieving this. They now have targets to work towards net zero CO2 emissions by 2050 and to significantly reduce methane emissions.

Soya fields in the Danube Region of Europe (Image courtesy of Waitrose)

It’s clear further action and incentives are needed. One of the biggest barriers often cited is financial: that sustainable or local feed production is more expensive. So organisations need to ask, what are the financial and policy incentives we can help create to help drive action and support a more even playing field?

3. Reducing Demand for Feed

Another strategy to address animal feed sustainability is reducing the demand for feed. In the previous blog, I discussed how the overall demand for feed might shift if human diets become more plant-based. Feed demand is also shifting as animal nutrition becomes more optimised or ‘precise’. This helps reduce pressure on land and resources, and could be an important opportunity to improve costs.

Seizing the opportunity to optimise nutrition and reduce feed demand is one of the strategies China plans to take, driven by a desire to reduce its reliance on imported soy. By using synthesised feed-grade amino acids, it’s possible to calibrate diets much more precisely, reducing the quantity of feedstock required to meet an animal’s nutritional needs.

Studies at UC Davis led by Ermias Kebreab are showing how amino acid supplements can significantly reduce the imports of soybean, sometimes by over 50 percent in pig and poultry diets. The environmental impact is also considerably improved, with greenhouse gas emissions reduced by 56 percent and 54 percent in pigs and broilers. This demonstrates the potential for feed supplements to help improve the environmental footprint of feed.

4. Novel Feeds

Finally, there may be new opportunities to address sustainability with novel feeds. In our Feed Behind our Food report, we covered a number of novel feeds, including insects, algae and single cell proteins. These novel feeds continued to build in momentum in 2018.

In particular, we saw increased momentum for insects as feed, where the sustainability opportunity is their high efficiency in converting food waste or industry by-products into a high quality feed ingredient, with little land-use.

Several insect companies are currently scaling-up beyond demonstration plants, such as Ynsect(France) and Protix (Netherlands). In 2018, the Dutch retailer Albert Heijn launched a soy-free egg made from insect-fed layers (live insects are permitted). Protix also launched a ‘friendly salmon’ brand, in which the fishmeal content of the feed is replaced with their fly-larvae based feed.

As insect production starts to scale, will they reach cost-parity against mainstream feedstocks and offer nutritional advantages? Are there market incentives that will support this scale? These are outstanding questions. At present, the end-markets for insect-based feed are primarily pet food and aquaculture, because these are higher value markets but also because of regulation barriers. In Europe, the use of insects for feed has only been allowed since 2017 but is only limited to aquaculture.

Promising animal feedstocks: Insect mealworm, microalgae and single-cell proteins

In aquaculture we are witnessing the commercialisation of algae in feedstocks. In Norway, some salmon producers have been replacing fish oil with fatty acids from natural marine algae. We are watching this closely in our project, and intend to conduct an evaluation of the sustainability implications.

While novel feeds are receiving increased coverage and investments, concerted and collaborative action are required to help support and accelerate their scaling. Particularly as there is limited demand from the public or value-added marketing opportunities currently.

We also need to understand how much of a step-change they can help deliver. Some companies we talk to are also feeling overwhelmed by the mindfield of novel feed companies coming to the market with different claims about the potential of their products.

5. The Power of Collaboration

What’s clear in our learning is that organisations acting alone cannot drive change across the system. Crucial to success is the power of collaboration. By working together, we stand a better chance.

Covered in Part 3 of this blog, I’ll explain how the Feed Compass collaboration aims to drive this concerted, collaborative action and help companies navigate the complexity. Looking holistically at the sustainability of these novel feedstocks, in relation to nutritional and financial outcomes.

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