The Quest to Finding a More Sustainable Animal Feed - Modern Farmer

The Quest to Finding a More Sustainable Animal Feed

As animal nutrition company Nutreco found, the first step to achieving ambitious goals is full transparency.

About two-thirds of all crops grown in the US goes to feeding animals.
Photography by Liukov, Shutterstock.

Across the United States, roughly a quarter of all food produced is directly consumed. That includes fruit, vegetables, wheat, corn, soybeans, nuts, barley and more. A smaller portion goes to biofuels and ethanol. And the rest—about two-thirds of all crops—goes to animal feed

Much of that feed is made of up byproducts that humans can’t or won’t eat, but that still makes livestock, and feeding livestock, the biggest use of land across the country. Nearly 41 percent of the nearly 2.4 billion acres of land in the US is devoted to housing livestock, grazing or growing food for animal feed. Cropland takes up about a fifth of all land, and even then, much of the crops are still diverted to animal feed.

This creates some problems. For one, that’s a lot of land that might be used for other crops or housing or any number of projects not revolving around livestock. Second, livestock emissions account for about 11 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the country, as well as about 64 percent of ammonia emissions in their waste, leading to the acidification of our shared environment. Lastly, unless growers are particularly devoted to regenerative agriculture when it comes to growing feed, much of that land is monocropped, leading to less pest resistance, more soil erosion and other issues that come with less diversity of species. 

But with the majority of Americans regularly consuming meat, and with the amount consumed continuing to rise, these problems aren’t going to go away. There are plenty of advocates for reducing the amount of meat in your diet, and many Americans are already doing that. But on its own, that’s simply not enough. 

There are, however, some companies taking a different path—or at least trying to do so. By 2030, animal nutrition and feed company Nutreco aims to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent. Sooner than that, by 2025, Nutreco wants to source all marine ingredients from responsible supply certified fisheries. It’s also committed to ensuring that its supply of plant ingredients is deforestation-free. Nutreco’s RoadMap 2025 report charts the company’s goals for the next few years and beyond. 

These goals are ambitious but not wildly unrealistic. They seem in line with what many corporations aspire to achieve in the next decade. What isn’t standard, however, is that Nutreco acknowledged the ways it has failed to reach its past targets. 

Based in the Netherlands, Nutreco operates in 37 countries around the world. Its goals are to make more sustainable animal feed, in part because animal feed is such a huge part of agriculture. “Feed is probably the largest source of emissions for food production,” says Jose Villalon, Nutreco’s corporate sustainability officer. Those emissions come from protein sources including fish, poultry, pork and dairy, as well as staple crops such as corn and soybeans. Making a change in the world of animal feed could, therefore, have a big effect on the environmental goals for a region. 

That’s why Villalon says Nutreco published its roadmap and put distinct numbers on its goals. Keeping in mind the old adage ‘you can’t manage what you don’t measure,’ Villalon says the company wanted to move beyond soft targets and get specific about what it aimed to do and how it planned to get there. Its three pillars focus on animal health and antibiotic usage, emissions reductions and diversity and inclusivity within the company. For the second pillar, which looks at greenhouse gas emissions, Nutreco has plans to work on internal processes and emissions. The third phase of that pillar looks at other suppliers with which it works, which is harder to control but just as important. “We’re still working on the systems to put in place to ask our suppliers to report out annually their emissions to us, so that we can then report and work with them to reduce,” Villalon explains. “It’s going to be a couple of years before we feel like we have the right measurements and the right reporting platform for our supply chain.”

When Nutreco planned the roadmap, Villalon thought about similar documents from other companies—and he wanted to make a change. “I really am tired of reading everybody else’s sustainability reports, where it all looks so rosy pink and successful,” says Villalon. “The reality is that we deal with a lot of things that are big and can’t be solved by one company in one year’s time. Deforestation, child labor, slavery, labor, emissions reductions. And so it became really frustrating.” So, Villalon set up a chapter in the company’s sustainability report sharing the hiccups and failures of the company. “It turned out to be the most popular chapter in our annual reports. That was an eye opener for us, that we just need to be transparent.”

And it’s not just internal reviews or transparency that the company welcomes. It isn’t shying away from external critiques—which is exactly what the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) did. In an analysis of the Nutreco roadmap, Katherine Devine, director of business case development for WWF’s Markets Institute, broke down where she saw the business taking positive steps,m and where it should push even further. Of Nutreco’s 2020 goals, she wrote that some of them were “largely impossible to measure and not bold enough to meet its proportional climate impact.” Conversely, of the 2025 targets, Devine says she is optimistic that the company has “shifted from siloed sustainability goals toward embedding them in business strategy and operations.” 

Devine goes through each point of the Nutreco roadmap, analyzing it from a business and sustainability perspective. “If we can illustrate that there’s a positive business impact, whether that’s reduced risk or increased profitability, [companies] are more likely to adapt changes at scale more quickly,” she says.

“Soy in particular is really susceptible to deforestation risk. And if you have deforestation in your supply chain…soy can increase your emissions up to tenfold, sometimes more,” says Devine. She clarifies that not every soy production shares the same level of risk, however, which is why it’s important for companies to share where they are sourcing their ingredients from, so there are measurable standards. 

That’s why Devine hopes other companies will follow Nutreco’s lead, regardless of size or product. “If we don’t work with players across the spectrum of the food industry, regardless of their track record, we’re not going to meet our goals to slow the pace of climate change,” says Devine. “There are a lot of companies that are moving forward, doing their own thing. And somebody else could have done that same thing and realized it didn’t work five years ago. We can be more proactive about sharing successes and failures…As this more objective third party, [we have] the ability to pull companies together that might not otherwise be willing to work together and share those learnings.”

On Nutreco’s side, Villalon hopes that outside scrutiny from organizations such as the WWF will keep them on track. “They are calling us out,” says Villalon. “And I think that’s fair. And that’s exactly what other corporations should be held to… One of the things that keeps me up at night is all of these corporations or governments that are setting these targets that are super ambitious, and I’m worried that we’re not going to make it and they’re just making these targets sound good, sound bold. But if we’re not serious about achieving them, we’re just kicking that can down the road. And, unfortunately, kicking the can down the road on climate change is not an option.”  

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Reynaldo Vecchia
1 year ago

In addition to changing animal nutrition, perhaps we should also modify human food manufacturing. Many human food products already contain various levels of microcellulose fiber (i.e., sawdust) which seems to be harmless but indigestable. Slowly increasing the proportion of sawdust in manufactured food, especially junk food, would have the salutary effect of reducing the caloric value of food and thus result in weight loss. Over time humans might even evolve to be able to extract food value from sawdust, hastened by selective genetic engineering perhaps using a termite gene or two. Since eating “enhanced food products” would result in the… Read more »