The protein problem

Population growth and more meat-intensive diets require an increase in global protein production. NERC’s Jodie Clarke tucks into the issue.

Jodie Clarke

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) agricultural outlook for 2015-2030 total world meat production will continue to increase in this period by 1.5% per year while milk production is estimated to increase at 1.3% annually.

More meat and milk has escalated the demand for animal feed – a trend which has had some devastating environmental effects in recent years.

The desire for more sustainable intensification in agriculture means that farmers are looking to use animal feed with a high feed conversion rate (how much feed is needed to produce a 1kg increase in weight), so that livestock maintain high levels of nutrition whilst eating smaller amounts of food.

Large US cattle farmSean Gloster on Flickr
The world has seen vast increases in meat production in recent years.

Top of the crops

Due to its high (~40%), protein content, soybean is the current main source of protein in the agricultural feed sector. EU countries are responsible for 20% of total world consumption, equivalent to 15M ha of arable land. Due to geographic and climatic constraints the soybean is not well adapted to northern latitudes, and so the EU relies heavily on imports. As a result, the price of the commodity has spiralled, necessitating the consideration of alternative vegetative protein sources for animal production.

Other contenders are peas and faba beans, which have a much wider climatic and soil adaptability than soy. They are more sustainable as they can be rain-fed and are suited to rotational cropping. Yet, both crops have only a moderate protein content (22-28%) and a limited resistance to fungal rust diseases and drought.

Faba beans could make an alternative to soybeans.

The protein yield of alfalfa and white lupin is much higher, and they too are considered sustainable. Alfalfa already has an established industry in the US and many parts of Europe due to its adaptability to a range of climates. One drawback is that both are largely unsuitable for monogastric animals, such as pigs (PDF).

Yields of these crops are still significantly lower than maize and wheat, so farmers have limited interest in growing them. A volatile global market often means farmers are squeezed when supermarkets try to keep costs down for consumers. Climate change, coupled with the increasing scarcity of water and land will also restrict future production.

Grubs up!

For these reasons government agencies and businesses have begun to investigate unconventional sources of protein that maximise the efficiency of inputs such as energy and minimise the trade-offs between the production of animal feed, biofuels and crops for human consumption.

Insects form part of the diets of an estimated 2Bn people; the most popular picks being beetles and caterpillars. In the Western world many view entomophagy (the consumption of insects as food) with disgust; an attitude that has resulted in the neglect of insects for consumption in agricultural research.

Man eating an insect in a restaurantEmma Cooper on Flickr
Your planet needs YOU to eat insects!

The FAO (2013) paper on ‘Edible insects’ showed that bugs can have a number of environmental and livelihood benefits. They emit fewer greenhouse gases and less ammonia than cattle or pigs and have high feed conversion efficiency.  To produce 1kg of beef 10kg of feed is needed, whereas 1kg of crickets requires just 1.7kg. Insect rearing and harvesting can take place on a much smaller scale than traditional agriculture, meaning that even the poorest sections of society can take it up (FAO, 2013).

While it could be some time before rice n’ bees catch-on for the masses, more adventurous foodies might be tempted by energy bars and snacks such as ‘Chirps’ made from ground crickets.

In the meantime, the most viable market for insects appears to be in animal feed. The world’s largest commercial fly farm will open in Cape Town next year, and will produce 210 tonnes of feed per day for poultry and fish farmers. A further 38 farms are planned and the firm, AgriProtein, have attracted interest from over 40 other countries. There is still, however, research needed on biosecurity issues, including risks associated with escapees and using organic waste products to feed insects.

Kelp can help

Another option discussed in a previous GFS blog is growing food at sea. A roadmap report written for the NERC-TSB Algal Bioenergy Special Interest Group found that macro-algae is already being used to feed cows, horses, pigs, salmon and shrimp; partly due to the reduced need for synthetic additives and antibiotics.

Insight, issue four: The UK aquaculture industry

GFS Insight aims to offer a balanced and interdisciplinary representation of the current state of knowledge in a particular area relating to food security. This issue considers current aquaculture practice, both globally and in the UK, and routes by which scientific research is improving aquaculture productivity and sustainability.

(You can view PDF documents by downloading a PDF reader. We recommend using Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox web browsers.)

Download - Insight, issue four: The UK aquaculture industry

It is an established industry, but the high price of algal biomass is stifling its potential. In order to broaden the use of algal protein and respond to the increasing need, production capacity must increase. Investment into research, test sites and facilities is therefore essential to inform how the industry can be scaled-up in both a safe and sustainable manner.

In the face of a climbing demand for protein we must reduce our reliance on the most unsustainable sources in order to avoid continued destruction of fragile ecosystems. The use of insects and algae for animal feed and human consumption has great potential; however both industries are in relatively early stages of development.

Regulations governing insects and algae as food and feed sources are still largely absent or lacking in clarity. While this acts as a limiting factor for venture capital at present, it also represents an opportunity to ensure that new practices meet the environmental and safety standards that will make insects and sea products good economic investments and viable businesses.

Financial support in the early fledgling days is essential; only then can they take their place in the agricultural system to help maintain global food security into the future.

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About Jodie Clarke

Jodie is an Innovation Programme Officer at the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), a partner of the Global Food Security programme, and works on a number of priority topics including sustainable agriculture and aquaculture. Previously she completed an MSc in Environment and Development at the University of Edinburgh where her research focused on local food movements and the difficulties and opportunities in reducing ‘food miles’.

6 thoughts on “The protein problem

  1. Jodie, an interesting post, but for me the picture of the feed-lot says it all. I don’t understand how that can be called farming.

    I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. We don’t need to eat as much meat as we do, and as some businesses like to persuade us that we do. I’m a rarity as a vegetarian farmer. That’s not to say that I disagree with raising animals, but I would do it entirely off grass/clover.

    Cutting back human meat consumption, together with reducing waste of what we do produce, and cutting the waste on our plates and our tummies would all have a tremendous impact on the need to produce more on farms. Reducing the amount of arable cropping required would enable large tracts of land to be returned to grassland or woodland, both of which would be positive for both agriculture and the environment.

    Getting the human consumption side right, with regard meat, would have a massive impact on the health of the humans and the almost unmanageable cost of dealing with ill-health,a vast amount of which is the consequence of dietary excess and imbalance.

    If we get all this right, that would be true sustainable consumption, which is what we should be aiming for, not “sustainable intensification” in agriculture. We’ve intensified quite enough, and need to cut down on the natural resources agriculture is using. They won’t last forever, and would be better weaning ourselves off the “drug” sooner, by choice, rather than later through obligation.

    The insect idea might seem attractive to some scientists and innovative businesses, but I suggest it will only ever be a sideshow to the overall much bigger problems needing addressing.

  2. I agree with Oliver. There is so much evidence of demand side measures as a seriously important avenue and yet people still repeat the mantra that we need to produce more globally. Yes on a regional/local level – site specific – We do need to enhance production (in ways which are sustainable) in many regions where the yield gap can be addressed and/ or livestock systems can be boosted in a mixed system (not industrial). But it is vital that whenever academics and others talk about food security the include demand side issues (addressing loss and waste, meat, junk food promotion) right up front. @vickihird

  3. Hi Vicki and Oliver, many thanks for your comments on my post. I agree with you both that we should be addressing the demand side of the food system as well. This means reducing the amount of meat we eat and the amount we waste by changing consumer attitudes and preferences which can be culturally derived. The burgeoning middle class in major economies such as Brazil and China are eating more meat and dairy because it is now affordable, and this trend will be difficult to control. Supermarkets and other food outlets play a key role in how they market meat products and ‘junk food’, for example by offering multi-buy promotions. Local producers could and should receive more support by retailers.
    In my blog I should have emphasised that insects and algae are alternative sources of protein for human consumption as well as animal feed, and it will be interesting to see if and how these markets develop. As Oliver says, reducing the amount of arable cropping required would enable large tracts of land to be returned to grassland or woodland. I think these new approaches in insect and algae production would achieve this if they can successfully attract investment.
    If we can make the production side of the food system more efficient and sustainable while promoting balanced diets and reducing demand for meat, dairy and processed foods, it will be a double win.

  4. Fodder trees and shrubs have many environmental benefits like soil-and-water-conservation, biological nitrogen and carbon fixation, substitutes for cutting forests, and biodiversity corridors / networks not likely to be defended by territorial animals. The amounts of labour, cost and seeds for their establishment have often been evaluated as the main challenge as well as challenges of keeping the low and productive between crops. I /we developed appropriate sustainable solutions and is interested in promoting them more in collaboration with organisations. See the link or Google me and e.g. pdf

  5. I am not an unbending advocate for animal protein farming. However, I am aware of several combinations that could solve some of our problems. chicken is by far more efficient convetor of feed into protein, however chicken droppings have similar protein content as Soy; 40%. The symbiosis is best.
    There are other resources such as goats, very adaptable, efficient and can survive in very dry areas not suitable for crop production. have very high fertility; over 120%, with good management, can have triplets, twins etc.

    Talking about dry areas, Africa has very efficient Zebu breeds, the Boran, Mashona, and Nguni and Tuli (in Zimbabwe). These are animals that are adapted to dry zones and can reproduce efficiently under rangeland management. No need of pen feeding but can do with supplements. Considering optimum resource utilisation, they are best.
    All I am saying is a lot in the animal protein still needs to be done.

  6. Torsten and Albert, it’s great to know that others are thinking around alternative, sustainable solutions to meeting protein demands. Research on opportunities for protein production in arid regions is of particular importance in the face of rising global temperatures. Diversifying agricultural practices will build resilience against changing climatic conditions and extreme weather events that cause volatility in food production.

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