UZWIL, SWITZERLAND — By 2050, the world population is projected to reach 10 billion people. The growth requires food production to increase by approximately 70%. Demand for protein is set to increase accordingly. We need to first understand that all sources of protein, animal and plant based, as well as single-cell protein (SCP) play an equally important role. Secondly, we need to take a close look at the entire food system from farm to fork and involve all stakeholders along value chains. It is in our power to sustainably overcome the protein gap.

Since the early 1900s, livestock has grown to the extent that today global animal livestock accounts for more biomass than humans and wild animals put together. The poultry population alone is four times larger than the global human population. This illustrates the enormous demand for protein but also the challenges we are facing.

Since the early 1900s, livestock has grown to the extent that today global animal livestock accounts for more biomass than humans and wild animals put together.

With the growing world population in mind and an additional 250 million tonnes of protein required annually by 2050, it becomes clear that we need to optimize existing methods and develop new and sustainable solutions to bridge the widening protein gap. 

Greenhouse gas emissions caused by the production of raw materials, farming, and logistics along complex supply chains; water pollution; and growing resource and land use, all put a heavy burden on our planet. The use of antibiotics in animal farming potentially endangers peoples’ health and animal welfare is a growing concern. Under stressed conditions the main aim is to increase output. Yet, the cost of animal protein in a healthy diet exceeds what many people, especially in poorer regions, can afford.

Changing attitudes drive a rethink

However, perceptions regarding food production are changing. Consumers today expect high quality food and are becoming increasingly aware of the environmental impact. More and more people in the developed world prefer a vegetarian over a meat-based diet or are becoming flexitarians. David Nickell, vice president of sustainability and business solutions at DSM, Animal Nutrition & Health, said 30% of consumers are willing to pay more for sustainable foods. Environmentally labeled dairy products achieve significant price premiums. 

Changing sentiment is met by changing attitudes among the players in the entire food economy. For example, 67% of farmers in the UK think it is important to consider greenhouse gas emissions when making farm business decisions.

Policy makers are tightening legislation and regulations, and stricter corporate reporting provides better transparency of the inner workings of the industry and individual companies. Finally, the financial sector increasingly expects higher ethical and sustainability standards and shuns Environmental and Social Governance (ESG) risks. Consequently, investment strategies are shifting toward companies that heed the call for more responsible practices. The members of FAIRR, a global investor network, manage combined assets of $66 trillion to control ESG risks within the animal protein sector.

What needs to be done?

One key requirement for the food and feed industry is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. According to a recent study, the global food system contributes about 35% of all man-made greenhouse gas emissions. Meat, poultry and dairy production including the crops and pastures required to feed livestock has a share of 57% of that.

Livestock farming accounts for up to 80% of all agricultural land but only provides less than 20% of the world’s supply of calories. More efficient production methods are needed to alleviate the pressure on valuable land and water resources.

Antibiotics are not only used for the prevention and treatment of diseases but in many regions such as Asia, which is also the largest agricultural producer, they are used to promote growth in farmed animals. If regulations do not change and farmers are not offered incentives to apply sustainable methods that also improve animal welfare, global consumption is estimated to rise by 11.5% by 2030. This raises concerns regarding antimicrobial resistance in humans. 

Solid data is required

To fully understand the challenges and best measures, it is necessary to gain deep insights of the interrelated factors of food production, input, and true cost, both monetary and in terms of cost to the environment.

“The impact of byproducts, logistics, and seasonal effects are often not considered properly, thus leading to a disadvantage for the animal protein industry in respect of its carbon footprint,” Nickell said. “It is very simple: you do not improve what you do not properly measure.”

In depth and holistic lifecycle analysis (LCA) along the entire food value chain provides the specific case-by-case data required to come to the right conclusions, understand the key success factors and measure progress.

We need to embrace the complexity of modern value chains and players from farmers and producers, food processors, financial institutions, regulators, and end consumers. All stakeholders are part of the solution — we need to understand their motivations, their needs, and what, concretely, their role is in tackling the challenges ahead.

Digital tools are becoming increasingly important in managing complexity. Blockchain today is a matured technology that helps to provide the transparency along the food value chain and ensures that raw materials as well as final products adhere to the highest standards.

Squeezing CO2 out of meat production

Assessing nutrient density versus CO2 emissions shows how valuable a food product is in relation to its CO2 footprint. While beef has a low Nutrient Density to Climate Change Index (NDCI), chicken meat fares much better. There is room for improvement in several areas. Looking at the carbon footprint at individual stages of the meat production process, it becomes clear that raw materials, logistics, and animal emissions/excretion are the three main contributors.

Better technologies can optimize existing feed production. PelletingPro, a new pelleting technology introduced by Bühler saves up to 20% of energy consumption in the process. The technology benefits operators while at the same time reducing use of resources and lowering greenhouse gas emissions. It is this kind of optimization that both helps to improve the environmental footprint along the value chain and allows feed millers to cut operational costs and to protect their margins.

The development of nutritional feed that increases livestock performance already has made great progress over the past 20 years. The use of enzymes and synthetic amino acids is an important factor.

“We can also reduce animal excretion by around 40% and reduce feed cost at the same time by adding a high dose of phytase, a natural chemical element,” said Ester Vinyeta, swine innovation platform lead, IFF Danisco Animal Nutrition & Health. “This significantly increases the nutritional value while reducing the carbon footprint of meat production.” 

Harnessing the power of alternative proteins

In addition to these solutions, alternatives such as plant-based proteins are another opportunity in tackling the protein challenge. Far from being a new development, the first meat substitutes emerged in the mid-1980s in the shape of products derived from rice, vegetables and cheese. 

Tofu-based products followed and today there is a broad spectrum of products available made from a variety of different sources ranging from pure plant protein, insect protein, fermented proteins, microalgae and animal cell cultures. They all have specific characteristics, potentials, but also limitations. While purely plant-based products derived from soy, pulses, and oilseeds enjoy a positive image among consumers, their application is limited because of the large amount of land required.

Protein from animal cell cultures provides the taste and textures consumers crave the world over while avoiding animal mass farming. These factors should make it an instant success. However, that is not the case yet. 

“Regulations, higher investment cost, more complex development processes, and slow consumer acceptance hamper growth in this segment,” said G. Alexander Belderok, senior partner at Roland Berger. “Good, informative marketing and storytelling can make a big difference.” 

Opportunities for animal protein

While there is cause for concern, the animal protein sector needs to recognize the opportunities. Better farming practices, more efficient production processes, new and improved technologies, and ingredients, as well as the valorization of byproducts and side streams from the food industry all contribute to more sustainable animal protein production.

Locally available raw materials, such as alfalfa and cassava, might be a cost-efficient alternative to imports. Leaner logistics reduce greenhouse gas emissions and support local communities and economies. Advanced process technologies and flexible process design provide the means to realize the potential of local commodities – e.g., for the processing of high fiber raw materials.

Companies supplying new types of feed ingredients, such as insect protein, that reduce land use for soy production represent new business opportunities with monetary benefits while sustainably safeguarding the food supply in the future. Early adopters benefit from competitive advantage by adopting new technologies that in turn enable the development of new products that fit into the changing market landscape. Forward-looking investors are already grasping the opportunities by putting their bets on next generation alternatives — be it more sustainable meat and dairy products, or alternative proteins.

Bridging the gap together

It is essential to shift our outlook toward the opportunities. Of course, technological progress alone will not solve all our problems. No single industry or technology can provide all the answers and no company can walk it alone. It is the combination of measures, a mix of attitudinal and structural considerations, financial and regulatory incentives, responsible and foresighted governance, as well as collaborative approaches, that drives positive change. 

Bühler fosters an environment of free exchange and valuable partnerships. With sustainability anchored in the business strategy and a holistic approach addressing all types of proteins, Bühler is already on a good path.

Stefan Hoh is head of Market Segment Feed & Premix, Bühler. He may be reached at [email protected].