A new report has proposed radical solutions to the problem of soy in animal feed. Michael Barker picks out the key points
The issue of how to reduce the problematic level of soy used in poultry feed has preoccupied experts for years, and as pressure to produce more sustainably intensifies, more solutions are being sought.
Proposing radical answers, a new report entitled ‘Soy No More – Breaking away from soy in UK pig and poultry farming’, was released this summer by The Landworkers’ Alliance (LWA), Pasture for Life, Sustain and Hodmedod. The study examines the issues around the environmental impact of industrial soy production, as well as looking at the options for reducing dependence on it via legumes and other alternatives.
The report seeks to demonstrate that the reliance on soy for pig and poultry feed is unsustainable and contributes to environmental destruction overseas, noting that current supply chain certification initiatives are proving unable to limit deforestation. Sustain believes that the focus of attention in the UK should be on the animal feed supply industry and how it addresses the problem.
Soy in chicken feed
For broilers, the report notes that the typical soy content of UK feed ranges from 15-26%, varying by production system, with organic and free-range birds often having a bigger soymeal requirement due to their longer lifespan. For eggs, this figure is 10-21%.
The poultry industry has been putting its mind to the problem of replacing soy for some time, with a wealth of research around the potential replacements having taken place. Some of the major protein replacements suggested in the various studies have included black soldier flies, peas, fava beans, and both rapeseed and sunflower meal, and the report particularly hones in on the implications of increasing UK legume production to overcome the dependence on soy.
Three future scenarios
The report outlines three hypothetical scenarios that calculate the impact on protein supply and cropland use from halting soy in UK animal feed supplies, taking into consideration variables including land use, nutrition and imports. The first scenario involves replacing soy in pig and poultry feed with home-grown legumes; the second proposes replacing soy with home-grown legumes, but without increasing UK cropland area; and the third replaces soy in pig and poultry feed with by-products and food waste only, without increasing UK cropland area, and ensuring adequate human protein intake through higher pulse production.
It is this third scenario that the collaboration of report authors believes is the future. “We need to move towards scenario 3 in order to produce more sustainable pig and poultry, where food-feed competition is avoided for food security reasons, and people’s diets are supplemented by increased legume consumption,” they argue.
Examining this scenario in more detail, the report claims it would be important not to halt imports of pulses difficult to grow in the UK, such as chickpeas and kidney beans, to ensure variety in a diet high in pulses. In the same vein, some soy imports for food alone might be desirable. According to the authors’ calculations, overall soy imports could be reduced to just 12% of current levels, and still supply soy for making foods like tofu and burgers. Reducing demand for soy as drastically as this may allow the UK to source soy responsibly, they claim.
To eliminate any food-feed competition, poultry would have to be raised on food surplus, which is to say food waste and by-products, fed to black soldier fly larvae. “Assuming that we prioritise the prevention of the overproduction of food at source, and the prevention of food waste in all stages of the supply chain, we calculate that around 9% of mixed food currently wasted in manufacturing, retail and catering might be available to turn into feed,” the report states.
Major dietary shift
The problem with this proposal, however, is that it involves huge reductions in meat consumption. Achieving the third scenario relies upon reducing UK pork consumption by 82%, based on halting all pork imports (34%) and a 73% reduction in UK pork production.
For poultry, consumption would be reduced by 86%. That seems unlikely to be palatable with consumers, particularly bearing in mind that in the context of such a reduction in pig and poultry meat, Brits would need to increase their consumption of pulses like peas, beans and lentils – which are not universally loved – by 81%.
What of the other scenarios? The second, which involves replacing soy in feed with UK-grown crops without increasing the current UK cropland areas, would still lead to 41% less pork and 44% less poultry eaten on average. But with no spare cropland to upscale high-protein crop production, there would be a substantial dietary hit.
Under scenario 1, replacing all of the imported soy in UK pig and poultry feed with UK-grown feed crops would require 60% more cropland to grow crops for pig feed, and 78% more for poultry. That makes it an unrealistic option in the context of increasing pressures on land-use, the UK’s overreliance on food imports from overseas, and the need to increase domestic food production, the report concludes.
“If we want to save the rainforest we need to think seriously about replacing soy in livestock feed,” says Jyoti Fernandez, campaigns and policy coordinator at LWA. “The vast majority of the UK’s soy imports goes towards feed for large-scale and intensive pig and poultry operations, but what we want to see is a transition away from industrial high-input animal farming and towards smaller and more diverse pig and poultry farms.
“For this to be feasible, we’ll need to start eating less chicken and pork than we currently consume, and we’ll need to start eating more plant-based proteins like peas and beans. But this important dietary change will allow for healthier soils and more resilient farms in the UK – as well as contributing significantly to combatting climate change.”
There would seem to be no easy answers, but then that’s the point: the report believes radical action in terms of a seismic dietary shift is needed to protect the environment. The poultry industry is committed to playing its part in sustainable production too, but the conclusions are not ones likely to receive enthusiastic support among meat producers.
Defining project of our time’ sets ambitious soy-reduction aims
A new £5.9m project has been launched this summer to help farmers reduce agricultural emissions by 1.5Mt CO₂e a year.
‘Nitrogen Efficient Plants for Climate Smart Arable Cropping Systems’ (NCS) is a four-year research project involving 200 UK farms and 17 industry partners. Funded by Defra’s Farming Innovation Programme, and delivered by Innovate UK, the project features a consortium of UK companies, research institutes and farmer networks, and is aiming to bring about a reduction of 1.5Mt CO₂e per annum, or 54% of the maximum potential for UK agriculture.
The twin aims of the project are firstly to increase pulse cropping in arable rotations to 20% across the UK, up from 5% currently, and also to develop and test new feed rations. This will help farmers with the project’s second aim, namely to substitute up to 50% of imported soya meal used in feed with more climate-friendly home-grown pulses and legumes. These ambitions will be steered by science, but proven by farmers, through a series of paid-for on-farm trials.
“Everyone knows that pulses and legumes have considerable benefits for UK farming systems,” says Roger Vickers, chief executive of pulse growers’ group PGRO, which leads the NCS consortium. “But these have never been truly and accurately measured. So their value has been sorely underplayed and their potential to address the climate crisis has gone unrecognised. Together we can change that. We now have the science, the tools and the know-how among UK farmers, not only to tap into that potential, but to develop it further. Bringing that talent together is what lies at the heart of NCS – it’s never been done before, and there’s never been a project on this scale with this much ambition.”
The first stage of the project will give 200 UK farmers direct support to establish their business’ carbon baseline, using the Farm Carbon Toolkit. The GHG emissions from these farms will then be tracked throughout the project and will form a fundamental part of the dataset.
The leading innovators among them will then be paid to work with scientists to co-design crop and feeding trials to carry out on their farms. These ‘Pulse Pioneers’ will explore ways and means for soils to thrive, crop yields to build and livestock productivity to flourish, through better use and marketing of home-grown pulses and legumes.
The on-farm progress will be based on cutting-edge technologies and farming systems, incorporating some of the latest research and innovations from leading UK institutes and tech companies. These will be underpinned by a rigorous use of data, including the UK’s first-ever full lifecycle analysis of cropping rotations and livestock systems.
The project is also launching the PulsePEP (Performance Enhancing Platform), led by ADAS. This will be a hub for the farmer-led community striving to achieve the best from pulse crops and reduce carbon emissions, as well as a place for discussion on best-practice pulse cropping.
The project team is urging farmers interested in being involved – or those who just have a passion for pulses – to sign up and get involved. “This will be the defining project of our time,” says Vickers. “It’s not just the chance for UK agriculture to make a seismic shift towards net zero, but it’ll also deliver a prosperous and resilient way of farming for communities worldwide. “We want farmers to join us and be part of this exciting journey of discovery. You will shape it. Your knowledge and experience will enrich the science we’re bringing together. You will inspire others and accelerate the pace of change. And together we’ll achieve a farming future that is richly rewarding and immensely gratifying.”
Among the project’s partners are poultry feed manufacturer ABN. “The project directly complements ABN’s long-term strategy, as we strive to reduce the carbon footprint of our supply chain, while supporting the future of the British pig and poultry livestock industries,” explains Brian Kenyon, ABN senior nutrition manager. “A key part of that approach involves placing greater emphasis on research into the increased use of UK-grown pulses as an alternative protein source in our feed.”
Kenyon says ABN’s research is taking a two-step approach: not only identifying what can be achieved by processing and feeding peas and beans, but also by identifying what else can be done to enhance this.
From ABN’s perspective, its immediate aims are to increase use of UK-produced pulses, based on its ongoing research and including the NCS project. “Looking at our current standard poultry diets, pulses currently only make up 2.5% of the diet based on our processed product,” Kenyon adds. “The aim is to increase this to 10%, which will have the dual benefit of not only increasing the home-grown content, but also contributing to reducing the soya reliance by half.”
Replacing soya in the UK’s vertical farms
Vertical farming tech business Vertical Future revealed in June that it is leading an Innovate UK-funded Vertical Indoor Protein from Leaf (VIP Leaf) research project that aims to develop a new source of alternative plant protein.
The two-year project will develop methods to use vertical farming facilities to grow amaranth, a plant known for its many health benefits and numerous antioxidants, which is also undervalued in the current UK food market. The amaranth crops will be used to develop a new source of plant protein that will decrease the UK’s reliance on imports of plant proteins such as soy and pea, boosting not just the UK economy and environmental impact but also the health of the average UK consumer.
Amaranth has been proven to be a lower-cost alternative to the more commonly used pea protein, according to Vertical Future. Amaranth is typically eaten in southern Africa, southeast Asia and South America, and the company believes that with indoor farming technology, it could be grown in the UK year-round.
The VIP Leaf project aims to address growing demand by bringing together experts working in vertical farming technology and crop biology to develop a high-yielding, high-protein, quality crop. The project is being led by Vertical Future along with the University of York, Crop Health and Protection Limited (CHAP), an Innovate UK-funded Agri-tech centre, Syan Farms and Eat Curious, a plant-based food development company.