Making animal protein more sustainable requires accurate footprint measurement

The drive toward more sustainable animal protein production will require systemic change to our food systems and farming practices.  Making this change responsibly and with transparency requires accurate, credible environmental footprint measurement.

Dr. David Nickell, Vice President Sustainability & Business Solutions at DSM Nutritional Products, Animal Nutrition & Health, outlines DSM’s approach to helping animal protein companies understand  and improve their environmental footprint.

You can’t improve what you can’t measure

The animal protein industry is under increasing pressure to become more sustainable.  Whether we like it or not, parts of the industry are currently viewed by many as significant contributors to climate change and habitat loss – to name but two of the major environmental impact categories.  The publication of high-level, average figures for the industry’s contribution to anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions has tarred all players with the same brush. To the average consumer, animal production is responsible for 14.5% of GHG emissions. For many, that is sufficient reason to make a fundamental shift away from meat, milk, fish and egg intake – or at least, to limit consumption of these foods. 

The reality of the situation is somewhat different, however. The production of animal protein is highly nuanced in terms of species, feed, production system and the environment, while the ability to improve the environmental footprint varies considerably from farm to farm.  Within the EU, animal production is reported as being responsible for about 10% of the EU’s GHG emissions, and within this figure there are variances as to the contribution to national emissions and the ability of each country to make reductions over time.

Furthermore, in many cases the GHG footprint comparisons made between animal proteins and other foods are based on a functional unit of 1 kg of produce, irrespective of the composition of the food, its digestibility, and its nutritional value.  While monitoring and reducing GHG emissions in animal production is important if we are to meet our collective commitments to the Paris Agreement, there are many other environmental variables that are of considerable significance. These include nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, soil quality, the use of water resources, land use, and impacts on biodiversity.

Understanding the full ecosystem impact of animal production down to the level of the local farm is vitally important if we are to make tangible improvements.  Relying on the simplicity of global average industry data sets and a limited number of environmental variables while underplaying the nuances in animal production and the nutritional value of produce is not only misleading; it is actually counterproductive, making it harder to drive improvements.

As calls for good environmental stewardship increase, it is in the interests of any progressive animal protein producer to ensure that their operations are assessed accordingly. This means measuring the full range of environmental footprints of animal production at farm level, using actual and specific farm data in a credible, auditable way. 

Unlocking the value of sustainability can be achieved by measuring the footprint of the animal protein production at farm level using full Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), identifying areas for improvement, and making the necessary interventions.  The use of advanced LCA tools, modelling and benchmarking are a powerful business diagnostic: too high a footprint is mostly associated with inefficiencies in the farming system, factors that often remain hidden or unrecognized unless this diagnostic is undertaken. Identifying these inefficiencies allows smart interventions to be modelled prior to implementation, increasing certainty that the interventions will be effective in reducing the footprint while at the same time capturing financial value for the farmer.

Understanding the farm environmental footprint and being able to manage it appropriately opens up further value for the animal protein value chain.  Investors are increasingly focused on the risk and return of animal production and on the farming enterprise’s freedom to operate based on a range of factors: impending changes in environmental legislation, qualification for agricultural subsidies, and the shift in consumer sentiment toward animal proteins, expressed in terms of altered demand.  Some financial institutions are starting to reflect this in lending rates and terms.

You can’t trade what you can’t measure

With the opening up of carbon markets, there is a tangible and measurable opportunity for the animal protein industry to benefit by reducing its GHG footprint via multiple, proven, science-based means.  This is not restricted to carbon and GHG reduction schemes alone; it might also present opportunities related to nitrogen and phosphorus.  The nitrogen crisis in the Netherlands is testament to this, as exemplified by the recently announced nitrogen trading initiative between the Port of Rotterdam and the local farming community.  Fundamental to all these trading initiatives is the ability to measure accurately: you can’t trade what you can’t measure.

Bringing credible environmental footprint information to front of pack, thereby allowing consumers to make informed food choices, constitutes another opportunity for the animal protein industry and helps address the societal need for reduced emissions by generating consumer pull.  It is estimated that about 10–30% of any given household’s GHG footprint is associated with food, yet there is no way a consumer can make a conscious choice of food article based on actual footprint – one kilo of beef is in effect the same as any other kilo of beef in the mind of the consumer. Based on popular belief, beef should be avoided on principle if one is environmentally conscious, irrespective of how it was produced. 

Many farmers and animal protein companies are already investing in sustainable solutions to significantly lower the environmental footprint of their produce, clearly differentiating their output from the industry average.  This creates an opportunity to offer consumers increased choice by clearly presenting the footprint information on the packaging of milk, meat, fish and eggs. Again, however, accurate and credible measurement is a prerequisite.  Transparency regarding footprint would not only identify differences within the food category; it would also, in the course of time, enable credible comparisons with meat and milk alternatives.  

Such transparency has the potential to influence the shift in demand for animal protein, which up to now has partly been driven by the consumer’s understandable desire to help address the environmental issues associated with animal production – although this desire has often been underpinned by high-level, average and often proxy, misleading data, rather than actual data associated with the product itself.

In the course of time, it can be expected that the food industry will begin to consistently report the environmental footprints of products – this information being a prerequisite, just like the nutritional information currently provided on food packaging.

It’s all about data

Undoubtedly the use of accurate farm data is critical to improve the sustainability of food systems and simultaneously report the footprint of animal protein and unlock the associated value for farmers.  Accurate, data-driven decision-making is key to investing in more sustainable practices. This relies heavily on two steps. The first involves farm data collection to enter into LCA and farm footprint modelling. The second involves the practical interpretation of the foot-printing outcomes into the farm ecosystem.

LCA Assessment is a method for describing the whole life cycle of a product. All phases of the product's life cycle are analyzed. In the case of animal protein, this encompasses the raw materials used in the feed – how and where they were grown and processed and the associated impact on the environment – through to details of the farming system, the energy use, the animal productivity, the volume and chemistry of manure and its subsequent use, by-products and waste streams and their processing, as well as harvesting, packaging and transport of the animal protein to the retail part of the value chain: essentially, from cradle to grave. 

A well run LCA qualifies, quantifies and pinpoints the environmental impacts along the chain and allows precise interventions to be made to improve the farming process, reduce its environmental footprint, and make efficiency gains that can generate savings and boost value creation. The more accurate and specific the data input and the advancement of the LCA modelling, the greater the accuracy of the LCA outcomes and the greater the likelihood of success in achieving sustainability and business goals.

DSM and Blonk Consultants are long-established, leading companies in sustainable business practices. Together, we have developed an advanced foot-printing tool and service that makes it possible to improve the level of accuracy and decision-making in the direction of more sustainable animal protein production.  We have worked closely together for many years and in the course of this collaboration have recognized the need for much greater LCA accuracy and transparency. We recognized that using average, high-level data and in some cases proxy data, along with varying interpretation of LCA calculation rules and protocols, would not be enough to enable the animal protein industry to tackle its environmental footprint in a meaningful way - while addressing the need on the part of individual, progressive animal protein producers to benefit from their investments and leadership in more sustainable practices.

The foot-printing tool utilizes the most advanced, leading raw material data bases such as Agri-footprint and GFLI and the most up-to-date LCA calculation protocols that fit the myriad of farming systems worldwide in a transparent, compliant and understandable way. Our system is highly technically advanced and therefore allows us to be very adaptable to our customers’ needs. We are able to map the complete set of 19 environmental variables at farm level, which means that the system provides relevant insights to all farmers depending on the specific environmental issues they need to address. The power and adaptability of the system allows us to run multiple LCA scenarios to qualify and quantify the best technologies to implement for footprint improvements that are commercially beneficial prior to actuating the changes on farm.

Introducing an advanced sustainability service

Together, DSM and Blonk Consultants are developing an advanced sustainability service that baselines the farm’s actual footprint, compares it to the relevant peer group, benchmarks or targets, identifies areas for improvement, and pulls in teams of experts to bring the appropriate technology to make improvements, whether through animal nutrition or other means.  We combine two decades’ experience of agricultural foot-printing with years of nutritional expertise and farming know-how to turn complex environmental foot-printing information into understandable, actionable insights that lead to measurable improvements towards more sustainable farming without losing sight of the commercial imperative.  It is through our collaboration that we enable the animal protein value chain to become more sustainable and profitable. 

As part of this drive for greater science-based sustainability based on accurate, transparent data, DSM was the first corporate member of the Global Feed LCA Institute (GFLI), working with other leading companies to support the mission of the GFLI to be the leading global LCA database for feed raw materials – a highly significant aspect of animal production sustainability.  We believe that working with leading partners and stakeholders across the value chain will enable the animal protein industry to make substantial improvements to its environmental footprint. Our efforts will contribute to the achievement of national and regional climate goals and other environmental targets, while opening up new opportunities for the animal protein value chain to capture greater value.

Together with our partner Blonk Consultants, we are continuing to innovate in the area of LCA and farm foot-printing, enabling greater insights into how to achieve animal protein production within planetary boundaries. Our aim is to help reduce the environmental footprint of our food systems while addressing UN Sustainable Development Goals 2, 3, 12, 13 and 14.  We believe the animal protein industry can transform itself from within to become more sustainable while continuing to supply highly nutritious animal protein as part of a balanced, more sustainable diet to a growing global population.

If not us, who?  If not now, when?  We make it possible.

Science-based animal nutrition solutions

DSM exists to create brighter lives for all. This starts with our customers, without whom we would not have a business. We offer them the world’s most comprehensive, science-based animal nutrition solutions, intelligently scaled to solve the sustainability and commercial challenges we all face in transforming the way the world is fed.

The world needs new pathways in sustainable animal protein, and DSM is at the forefront of that quest.

Published on

08 March 2021


  • Sustainability

About the Author

David Nickell - VP of Sustainability and Business Solutions, Animal Nutrition and Health at dsm-firmenich

David Nickell is Vice President of Sustainability & Business Solutions at dsm-firmenich. He plays a leading role in the development of strategies and new technologies to enable the sustainable development of animal and plant protein production to meet the demands of a growing population. He has a PhD in marine biology from the University of Stirling.


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