Q&A: Can we change course on the global livestock feed industry’s environmental impact?

EDIT Maize stover is a main cattle feed during the dry season in Tanzania ILRI-Brigitte L Maass

During the dry season in Tanzania, cows on this smallholder farm are fed maize stover–post-harvest leftover leaves, stalks and cobs. In developing countries, livestock are largely fed human inedible foodstuffs such as crop residues and other agri-byproducts. Photo ILRI/Brigitte L. Maass

GENEVA, Switzerland (4 Dec 2018)_ ILRI Livestock Feed Specialist, Alan Duncan, joined livestock feed experts from global feed and agriculture trade corporations, European and US feed innovators, civil society organizations and environmental think tanks at a meeting jointly organized by the World Economic Forum and Forum for the Future to think through ways in which the global livestock feed system could be made more sustainable.

Alan was invited to share his work and perspectives on livestock feed from the developing world in a forum of primarily developed world representatives (some operating within global reach).

Q: How is livestock feed featuring in the global conversation around livestock and consumption of meat?  

Livestock come in for a hard time these days. In Europe and North America eating meat is the new taboo because of the environmental, human health and animal welfare issues surrounding industrialized livestock production in the Global North.

Feed is at the heart of the environmental footprint of livestock – around one third of the world’s agricultural land is used for livestock feed production, while globally feed accounts for around 40 percent of greenhouse gas emissions from livestock production.

In the developed world, large scale livestock systems are very focused on intensive livestock production based on grains and soya which could otherwise be directly consumed by humans. In the developing world, livestock are fed largely on human inedible foodstuffs such as crop residues, pasture and agro-industrial byproducts. In this way, livestock in developing countries are already part of the so-called “circular economy”. And although livestock carry a heavy environmental burden, they also support the livelihoods of many of the world’s poor and provide a range of other important benefits.

Looking forward, as livestock production in developing countries intensifies there will be a growing need for high quality feed and especially protein-rich feed sources. We need to come up with alternative feed sources that do not compete with human nutrition or drive further deforestation or land use change.

Q: How far are we from being able to measure the sustainability of feed production?

Measuring the sustainability of livestock feed production is challenging. Even experts admitted that it was difficult to know where to start (although see this this recent paper from FAO’s Livestock Environment Assessment and Performance Partnership). There are many dimensions to sustainability and reducing these many dimensions to a simple sustainability index is tricky. However, there was a lot of interest in thinking this issue through and in developing a toolbox that could be used by decision makers to assess the sustainability of different feed options.

Q: Alternative livestock feed sources do exist, yet why are we seeing a slow uptake of these?

Although the feed sector is working hard to come up with better ways to feed and manage animals and reduce the proportion of human edible food fed to animals, the process is like a container ship at sea – it takes a while to shift direction even once the tiller has been moved.

New feed sources such as insect protein and algae are attracting a lot of interest now as alternatives to the more environmentally unfriendly feed sources such as soya and maize grains. However, new technologies face an uphill struggle to reach the mainstream. This is because the current livestock feed system in developed countries is not based on full-cost accounting.

Many of the costly externalities of the current feed system are not built into the price of existing feeds – for example, the environmental degradation caused by land use change in South America to allow production of cheap soya is not factored into feed costs. Policy shifts which build these externalities into the prices consumers pay for their food would go a long way towards improving the sustainability of feed sourcing for livestock production. It could also reduce cheap imports of milk and meat into LMICs thus making local production more competitive with benefits for local livelihoods.

In developing countries (or LMICs), there are big opportunities to begin the process of developing alternative feeds that transform wastes and by-products into nutritious feed.

Q: At the meeting you had a chance to talk about ILRI’s work in West Africa on transforming cassava peel into chicken feed. Can you tell us more about that?

I sat on a panel considering various livestock feed innovations and barriers to their uptake. I spoke about ILRI’s experience with converting waste cassava peel to high quality livestock feed in Nigeria, which is one of many alternative feeds we are exploring. This technology ticks many sustainability boxes; it builds the “circular economy” by transforming waste into useful livestock feed; it provides employment, especially for women; it reduces effluent and aerial pollution. This case was in contrast to the other cases which focused on high-cost alternative feeds such as insect protein and algae omega 3- fatty acids.

The cassava peel technology is low-tech and focuses on making better use of byproducts. It struck me that the real challenge in bringing this technology to scale is organizational, not technical: there are thousands of small-scale producers who need to come together to produce a reliable product and be connected with the livestock industry. This resonated with those in the room and maybe by working more closely with the business community we can find ways of overcoming this organizational challenge.

CassavaPeels

From left: Peeling cassava in Democratic Republic of Congo; cassava peel mash for chickens in West Africa.

Q: What are some of the outcomes from this meeting?

There was a lot of openness and interest from the expert group to think more carefully about how the livestock feed system differs in the Global North and the Global South and how the global system can be looked at more holistically.

The meeting was an encouraging signpost that the global livestock feed industry wants to get ahead of the curve on environmental issues and I’m sure this conversation has a long way to go. Moving forward, I hope that more work, outcomes and voices from LMICs could be included.

Alan Duncan is a livestock feed specialist with the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and a Visiting Professor at University of Edinburgh’s Global Academy for Agriculture and Food Security. His research focuses on barriers to uptake of improved feeding practices among smallholder farmers in Low and Middle Income Countries. He has worked extensively in Ethiopia but also in Kenya, Tanzania, DRC, Nigeria, Vietnam, Syria and India. He developed the widely-used FEAST approach for prioritization of livestock feed interventions in developing countries.

In case you’re interested: Watch this video to learn more about ILRI’s project on transforming cassava peel into an alternative feed for chickens in West Africa.