Why you need to know what the animals in your supply chain are being fed

Earlier this month, sitting in a packed room full of food and feed industry executives from around the world, we spoke together with leading retailers on why animal feed is one of the critical sustainability issue of our times.

Why you need to know what the animals in your supply chain are being fed

Three years ago, when we first convened the Protein Challenge 2040 to start exploring the future of protein, I didn’t expect that I would get passionate by what animals are being fed – and encouraging businesses and NGOs alike to be the same. But I’m not overstating the case. As environmental issues and the future of protein begin to top the agenda for global government and business leaders, there is a growing widespread recognition that current trajectories of meat, dairy and farmed fish consumption is unsupportable in the long term. This is only projected to increase, particularly in emerging economies, as the world’s population grows to 9 billion people by 2040. And animal feed is emerging as a vital yet unseen input to the food industry that has significant implications for environmental health and food security.

Over half of global agricultural land is used for feeding animals, and many of the crops we presently grow for animals are highly nutritive foods like soy and maize that are edible for humans. Cultivation of feed crops is closely associated with extensive deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. Animal feed is also a critical part of protein production’s environmental impact: 45% of global greenhouse gas emissions from livestock production are related to feed production and processing.

So the question here is not just about the future of our food system, but also about how we use our critical natural resources like land and water. Around the world, there are signs of an emerging regenerative approach to agriculture and food production – giving more back to environment and society than is taken out. This regenerative approach to farming will be critical in the mission to feed the world’s population within environmental limits, and transforming the animal feed supply chain to minimise environmental consequences and free up vital resources will play a huge part in this. 

Our new report, ‘Feed Behind Our Food’, is a call for food retailers and food service businesses to recognise the vital role they have, as trusted intermediaries with consumers, of accelerating progress on sustainable animal feed by collaborating more with their supply chain.

The business case is clear. Public attitudes are changing towards food and consumers increasingly demand end-to-end transparency in their food, and scrutiny will increasingly fall on animal feed. But it is also a golden opportunity for food businesses to reduce dependency on imported feedstocks and uncertain commodity prices, as well as to create shorter supply chains that build resilience and strengthen relationships with suppliers.

There has already been some progress on this agenda. Many retailers have made strong commitments to work on traceability and certified sources of sustainable soy. Some individual companies have gone further, such as Waitrose, which is working towards sourcing more feed raw materials from the UK and Europe.

Excitingly, we’re also seeing an emerging range of alternative feed ingredients that might help to take the pressure off our precious natural resources. These range from insect-based protein (which forms a natural part of poultry and fish diets), to oils from marine algae, feed additives like amino acids, and protein sourced from methane-digesting bacteria. While these innovations might not yet be at scale, food-related businesses could play an important role in helping to scale promising solutions more quickly, by working with suppliers to provide a supportive environment to trial these ingredients.

Effective action will require a shared understanding and agreement across the supply chain, from retailer to producer to feed company, on the characteristics of future-fit animal feed. In the ‘Feed Behind Our Food’ report, we’ve made the first attempt to articulate a shared set of criteria for what sustainable animal feed looks like. This set of criteria addresses the full spectrum of impacts associated with animal feed, from greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity to high labour standards. We want the whole supply chain, from retail to feed company, to reach a common vision of how to compare different feed ingredients, and give their backing to the most future-fit.

It is undoubtedly vital to shift public habits to consume much more protein from plants and alternatives. But it is also crucial to shift animal based diets in order to reduce the sustainability impacts of valuable animal proteins. And just as we are beginning to adjust the balance of proteins in our diets, we’re also starting to recognise that our livestock and fish need more diverse diets that have a lower environmental impact. There is no silver bullet to this complex challenge, and solutions specific to different local contexts are needed. But if we want meat, dairy and fish to be a sustainable part of our future food system, retailers and food businesses need to start addressing animal feed by taking a lead and working with animal protein and feed producers.

Simon Billing is Forum for the Future’s lead on the Protein Challenge 2040 coalition

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