Reducing the environmental impact of animal production

Predictions from the World Resources Institute indicate that world demand for animal protein will swell to 445 million tons per year by 2050, or by 70% compared to today. The scale of change is enormous. Even with calls for a more balanced consumption of animal protein and replacement by vegetable alternatives, demand is still likely to grow. Enabling sustainable animal production is therefore of paramount importance. 

Dr. David Nickell, Vice President Sustainability at DSM Nutritional Products, Animal Nutrition & Health, outlines DSM’s winning approach to help tackle global demands for sustainably produced animal protein.

Increasing production while respecting planetary boundaries

Demand for animal protein continues to rise unabated as the world’s population grows, driven by many reasons, not least of which is increased accessibility and affordability of meat, milk, fish and eggs.  Experts from many institutions have modeled the likely scenarios of animal protein demand. The World Resources Institute predicts growth to 445 million tons per year by 2050 to match the demands of a population of 9.7 billion. In line with the figures published by FAO, this means growth of about 70% compared to today, yet the world’s population will grow by only 40% over the same period. Even though many populations need to raise their animal protein intake to attain a level of balanced, healthy nutrition, there are, on the other hand, populations where continued over-consumption of meat will be a major driver of growth. This growth in animal production places tremendous demands on the world’s natural resources and, as has been reported widely, will lead to increased GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions and greater environmental impacts, taking our food systems well beyond many of the planet’s boundaries. The sustainability of animal protein production is now front and center in the minds of many, and calls for change are widespread.

Making a change to more sustainable food systems is complex, takes time, and requires transformations in dietary habits on the part of consumers. For the industry itself, it calls for an innovative mindset and a willingness to adopt new technologies speedily and at scale. Increasing production of animal protein while remaining within planetary boundaries will require greater efficiency gains, which are typically achieved through intensification. This entails, among other things, changes to farm infrastructures, animal genetics and husbandry practices, but involves especially improved nutrition, the greater use of formulated compound feed, and subsequent handling of manure, especially in relation to nitrogen and phosphorus flows to the environment.

Land constraints and difficult choices

Herein lies a problem. Increasing production levels and nutritional density of animal feed will demand greater amounts of cereals, grains and other feed raw materials. This will require in turn more land.  According to FAO, the world’s land area amounts to about 13 billion hectares, of which agriculture occupies 4.9 billion hectares. Of this, only 1.4 billion hectares is currently under crop production. The remaining 3.5 billion hectares is given over to permanent pasture and meadow, much of which is unsuitable for crop production. In view of these land constraints, choices must be made. Either we must feed more human-edible grain to livestock from the land currently under cultivation (the feed versus food issue) or to avoid this, we must increase the productivity of the existing land through more productive cultivars and greater use of fertilizers (which raises concerns over excessive flows of nitrogen and phosphorus to the environment).

Alternatively, we could continue to increase the land mass available for crop production, which then raises concerns over further biodiversity loss. Each option presents major dilemmas and is unpalatable to many observers. Although there are options to increase the productivity of some of our current crop land, there is nevertheless growing concern with respect to application rates of chemical fertilizers, disrupted nutrient cycles, nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, and impaired soil fertility and productivity. There is simply not enough land, and assigning more of it to agriculture would further exacerbate many of the current issues. To produce more animal protein, we will need to do this more efficiently within the scope of current land use and the resource boundaries of the planet.    

While land use will need to continue to evolve sustainably to meet the demand for feed crops and human-edible grains, there are existing, innovative solutions for extracting more nutritional value from our existing feed resources along with the growing amounts of food and feed by-products that are fed to animals.

Extracting more value from finite resources

DSM and Novozymes formed an alliance 20 years ago to pioneer feed enzyme technology for this very purpose – extracting more value from our precious natural resources – so as to get more out of less. We focus on improving the nutritional value of existing feed raw materials and enable the increased use of alternative crops and substrates. The technology lessens our reliance on soy, corn and wheat, but also enables the economic use of a greater assortment of local feed raw materials – further lessening the conflict associated with feeding human-edible grain to animals. The benefits are tremendous. Improving feed digestibility and reducing feed conversion ratio (meaning that less feed is needed to produce a unit of meat) is seen as one of the major levers of sustainable animal production. In addition to lessening the strain on land use, this approach leads to reductions in indirect GHG emissions associated with animal production. Equally important is the fact that, due to the improved digestibility of feed, gains are made in nitrogen retention in the form of protein accretion, which means less nitrogen flow to the environment via manure. This further helps to reduce GHG emissions in the form of the nitrous oxide which is often derived from urea and ammonia. Additionally, reducing nitrogen in manure helps limit the amount of reactive nitrogen forms potentially entering the water system – a major concern in respect of water quality – due to manure application to the land.

Unlocking the full potential of animal diets

The devil is in the detail. Micronutrition holds the keys to improving the efficient use of animal feed – the single biggest input to animal production, often accounting for 60% of the costs. Macro-ingredients like soy, corn and wheat can vary a great deal in their nutritional density and value, and their digestibility is limited and somewhat complicated by anti-nutritional factors (ANFs) found within the material.  Corn is a major source of starch, important as an energy source to the animal, yet a significant proportion of this starch remains locked up due to the thick plant cell walls and is lost to the animal. Using specific feed enzymes to break open the complex fibrous structure of the corn grain releases valuable nutrients to the animal, enabling a significant improvement in feed utilization and a much more efficient use of resources. Other feed substrates such as protein can also be improved by using protease enzymes – a major breakthrough. The Alliance has led the charge in this respect, and was the first to develop a feed protease, known as Ronozyme® ProAct, enabling more efficient use of soy and other major feed crops as well as local, proteinaceous crops.  Although feed processing helps improve the digestibility of feedstuffs, there still remain obstacles to overcome, especially in relation to the multitude of ANFs found in many feed substrates.  Feed enzymes are an effective tool for destroying these ANFs and enable the feed manufacturer to have more flexibility in feed formulations through the greater use of varied feed ingredients.

Not only are feed enzymes critical tools for the efficient utilization of protein and carbohydrates in feed; they have also been pivotal in mineral nutrition and in particular in addressing phosphorus management in animal production. The world has finite known reserves of inorganic rock phosphorus – a precious resource that is fundamental to life and which threatens to run out soon unless new reserves are discovered. It is critical that such mineral reserves should be managed sustainably and that we keep within the appropriate boundaries in their use. With the demand for greater agricultural productivity, more rock phosphate is currently being used for phosphate fertilizers. Likewise, with growing demand for animal protein, more is being used in the growing volume of animal feed.

All animal diets contain a proportion of rock phosphate in the form of phosphate salts to ensure balanced mineral nutrition. However, with the advent of the phytase feed enzyme from DSM, animal production has been able to massively reduce its reliance on rock phosphate resources. Phytase has been developed to release the naturally bound-up phosphorus in plant material which is otherwise unavailable to animals. Plants store phosphorus in the form of phytate – a known anti-nutritional factor in animal diets. By including phytase in the diet, the phosphorus is released from the phytate and made available for the animal to absorb and use in growth and development. This means that instead of using large amounts of rock phosphate in diets, we can rely on the naturally occurring phosphorus in the vegetable feed raw materials. The implications are highly promising. We have successfully lessened our reliance on finite, natural mineral reserves and have enabled more precise phosphorus management, especially in respect of the release of phosphorus to the environment via manure.

Reducing environmental impact

The application of manure to the land is important for soil health and crop productivity – manure is a good source of phosphorus and nitrogen, which are needed for crop growth. However, manure is also a major source of phosphorus and nitrogen release to the environment. If too much phosphorus is applied to the land via manure spreading, it can remain in the soil for years, since uptake by plants can be a relatively slow process. This means that manure has to be sparingly applied, or that more land is required to dispose of the manure, in order to ensure that soil phosphorus levels do not become too high. Excessive levels of phosphorous compromise the soil’s ability to retain it for the purposes of supporting plant growth, and the surplus phosphorous is consequently leached to the water table. Where there is sufficient phosphorus in the soil, continuing to apply manure would further exacerbate the issue.  Similarly, if the nitrogen content of the manure is high, then where too much manure is applied per hectare this can lead to significant nitrate run-off and leaching to the aquatic environment. In some parts of the world, this has become a major cause of freshwater quality issues.  Loss of phosphorus to freshwater systems also leads to eutrophication and a greater frequency of algal blooms, some of which can be toxic. This is a major sustainability issue and has been highlighted by numerous authorities as a boundary that has been crossed in many geographies.  Protecting and improving our precious freshwater reserves is a focus area for many governments and has led to strict policies on rates of manure application to land, such as those in the EU that are governed by the EU Commission Nitrates Directive. Such application rates and the availability of land become a key limiting factor to biomass holding and consequent farm size. Using phytase in animal diets has enabled more precise phosphorus management, and in many cases less land is consequently needed for manure application.

This is also true in the case of protease enzymes such as DSM’s Ronozyme® ProAct.  For example, studies have shown that when using this protease in a broiler diet, the apparent digestibility of protein is significantly improved, thereby enabling the crude protein content of the diet to be reduced by up to 8% while maintaining growth performance.  Not only does this have a significant saving on crude protein resources and crop land use; it also leads to less ammonia production and a 35% reduction in the nitrogen content of manure.  The consequential impacts are substantial.  In the context of growing 1 million broilers on a typical wheat-based diet, a 3% reduction in ammonia is achieved, along with approximately 3 tons less nitrogen in the manure.  This means that to dispose of the manure, less land is required, which in this example equates to 11 hectares less (based on a maximum nitrogen application rate of 170kg N/ha).  Since less land is used for manure management, the farmer can effectively increase broiler production by about 5% without increasing land use for manure application, thereby remaining within the farm’s environmental boundaries. 

The growth of animal production brings with it concerns over the disposal of the subsequent manure produced and its impact on nutrient cycles.  Managing manure as per best practice directives is vitally important. It is increasingly clear, however, that feed enzymes such as phytase and protease have a significant impact on the subsequent chemical composition of manure due to their action on the animals’ diet. They thus become an important tool in manure management and land use.

Enzymes: essential tools for sustainable animal production

Enzymes are increasingly recognized as truly essential tools for sustainable animal production.  They have a significant direct impact on improving protein and carbohydrate digestibility, thereby extracting more nutrition out of existing feedstocks, helping reduce the industry’s reliance on unsustainable soy while enabling the greater use of local feed raw materials, and are critical for sustainable phosphorus management.  Moreover, the consequential impacts of dietary enzyme use on manure composition, and of more precise phosphorus and nitrogen management and land-use leading to reduced incidence of eutrophication of water resources, are also recognized as substantial components of sustainable animal production.

DSM, together with its alliance partner Novozymes, is continuing to innovate on multiple enzyme technologies for the purpose of getting more out of our limited natural resources, enabling greater gains in animal productivity within planetary boundaries and reducing the environmental footprint of our food systems while addressing the UN Sustainable Development Goals 2, 12 and 14.

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 we feed the world.

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

Published on

09 May 2019


  • Protease
  • Enzymes


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