5 eco-friendly alternative protein sources for animal feed

5 eco-friendly alternative protein sources for animal feed

alternative proteins image

The secret is out: By 2025, 75% more food will be required to feed the world’s population. This rising demand will challenge farmers to produce 974 more calories per person per day, all while arable land is expected to decrease. How can farmers produce more and more protein-rich, nutritious foods without putting additional strain on an increasingly fragile food system? What role does the diet of their livestock play in protecting our planet for generations to come?

These questions are driving farmers to take a closer look at the relationship between the environment, the ingredients in their feed and the very future of food security. And thankfully, the agriculture industry is responding with innovations in sustainable feed solutions that can optimize animal health and productivity while taking the pressure off of our Earth’s finite natural resources.

Rethinking the future of animal feed

While soy has long been a popular mainstay in protein, meat and milk alternatives for people, the world’s largest proportion of soybeans is actually used for animal feed. In particular, it’s used to feed animals raised for human consumption and is the most common protein source for all compounded feeds for poultry, dairy cattle and pigs worldwide. But the cultivation of soybeans for soybean meal is not always environmentally friendly — or healthy. Between concerns surrounding pesticides, deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity, the need for alternative protein sources and feed ingredients has become increasingly clear.

In an agricultural economy that’s highly focused on the environment, we must look beyond traditional animal proteins used in livestock feed to more sustainable alternatives.

Novel ingredients, optimal nutrition

From insect farms to single-cell proteins, the future of feed additives is evolving fast. And with the alternative protein market for animal feed set to surpass $4 billion by 2026, the demand for sustainable animal nutrition is stronger than ever.

Let’s take a look at the unique — and sometimes surprising — ingredients that are allowing farmers to increase their output and performance while protecting the world around us.

  1. Insects

In addition to the fact that insects can contain up to 82% protein and have diverse amino acids, they are among the most efficient sources of proteins in terms of output per area of land. The health benefits of insects in animal diets go beyond protein, also showing promise with respect to fatty acid content and antimicrobial peptides. Many believe that turning to insects for animal feed also makes sense biologically because eating insects comes naturally to many species, especially chicken and fish. With high nutritional content and greater feed conversion efficiency, incorporating edible insects as alternative protein sources is an environmentally friendly choice for the future of sustainable animal nutrition.

But perhaps the greatest benefit of looking to insects as food is their low carbon footprint. According to Inseckt Farm, a startup based in Uyo, Nigeria, yellow mealworms, grasshoppers and crickets are reported to emit 100 times less greenhouse gases than cattle and pigs.

  1. Earthworm

The red earthworm is wriggling its way into the aquaculture feed industry thanks to its quality protein levels, essential amino acids and lipids that are similar to those found in fishmeal. Studies have also shown that red earthworms may promote fish growth performance, increase reproduction, enhance feed digestibility, reduce stress and improve survival, among other key benefits.

While more research is needed to bring commercial production of red earthworm meal to fruition, the potential to efficiently and sustainably replace a number of conventional animal and plant protein sources — while supporting fish growth — is exciting.,/p>

  1. Seaweed and microalgae

Could seaweed be the secret ingredient to fighting climate change? Asparagopsis taxiformis and Asparagopsis armata, two species of a crimson submarine grass, are washing up on shorelines around the world and have the power to neutralize methane emissions generated by livestock production. Studies have shown that adding even a small amount of this seaweed to a cow’s daily feed can reduce the amount of methane produced by 98%. With some 1.5 billion cows on the planet, the potential of seaweed to reduce methane emissions from cattle and dairy cows alone is enormous.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations notes that seaweed as a source of bioactive compounds for promoting animal health and production, and for decreasing enteric methane, can also be used to enhance the sustainability of livestock production systems.

Research is also underway to determine the potential of microalgae as an alternative feed ingredient for poultry that can improve the health of broilers and reduce climate impacts.

  1. Pea protein

When it comes to providing high amounts of protein, peas are popping up as an increasingly viable alternative to soy meal with the global pea starch market expected to reach $544.7 million by 2026. Studies have suggested the inclusion of peas or pea proteins as a functional ingredient in baby pig feed may be associated with superior villi development and vitality. This may result in not only improved intestinal health, but also overall increases in nutrient uptake that can lead to reduced sickness and mortality rates, as well as rapid weight gain in baby pigs.

  1. Single-cell protein

Single-cell protein (SCP) or microbial proteins are edible unicellular microorganisms such as yeast, bacteria, fungi and algae that grow on different carbon sources. While SCPs are nothing new, advancements in technology and research are unlocking new potential for novel proteins to revolutionize the animal feed industry, especially in aquaculture. According to the Global Aquaculture Alliance, SCP-based protein meals offer a sustainable, renewable feed ingredient that makes up for the deficiencies of plant-based meals and reduce the need for fishmeal in aquafeeds.

The power of sustainable animal protein alternatives

As consumption of meat and animal products continues to rise, one thing is clear: farmers and producers must develop cost-effective feed management strategies that are healthier for their animals and the environment. This means turning to safe, sustainable proteins as a critical step toward reimagining our global food system. It won’t be overnight, but even the smallest changes can add up. From what we feed our animals to the way feed ingredients are sourced, the power to feed a growing world population — while utilizing fewer natural resources — is in our hands.

Will you join us in working together for a Planet of Plenty by making sustainable animal nutrition a priority?

Small scale, big impact: Agroecology and climate change

Small scale, big impact: Agroecology and climate change

seedlings sprouting from soil

Can small-scale farmers make a difference when it comes to climate change?

At first glance, it’s hard to imagine when you consider the scale of the challenge. Global warming has led to higher temperatures, rising sea levels, more extreme weather and more forest fires than ever before. Efforts to mitigate the effects of climate are being made on an international scale with multinational agreements like the Paris Accord. It will take a massive effort to combat the effects of greenhouse gases on our planet. Agriculture is a sector that has the potential to make a major impact on climate change — but what can small-scale farmers do?

It’s not a question with a single answer. But the principles of agroecology could hold the key to helping small-scale farmers adapt to and even thrive within our changing climate — and ultimately make a difference in the future of the planet.

What is agroecology?

In short, agroecology is a holistic approach to sustainable agriculture that takes into account more than just growing food. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, agroecology “seeks to optimize the interactions between plants, animals, humans and the environment while taking into consideration the social aspects that need to be addressed for a sustainable and fair food system.”

Some people call it a science. Others call it a movement, or a farming system. However you classify it, agroecology focuses on using natural resources without damaging them, while also creating a sustainable food system that feeds communities and builds strong local economies, ultimately doing the most good for the most people.

From the United States to Ethiopia, organizations around the world are advocating for agroecology and supporting the small-scale farmers who are paving the way to a more sustainable future.

Fighting climate change, one farm at a time

There’s no one set of agroecological principles that apply globally — every location, community and microclimate is different, and will require different solutions. But many of the practices and principles directly fight climate change, both individually and (especially) as a farming system. Here’s a few:

  • Reducing or eliminating pesticides. Instead of using chemical-filled pesticides that contribute to climate change, agroecological farming systems rely on biological methods, like plants that repel pests. It doesn’t always have to be a full-scale rejection of pesticides — even reducing the use of chemical pest-management methods can help fight climate change. With small-scale and family farms making up around 75% of the world’s agricultural land, reducing or eliminating the use of pesticides can quickly add up to a major impact.
  • Creating healthier soils. Agroecological farming also focuses on improving soil health. This category includes practices like increasing the amount of organic matter in the soil, planting cover crops that help replenish nutrients in the soil, integrating livestock with crop production and, vitally, sharing knowledge among local farmers to help build better practices for the future. Soil contains more than double the carbon that is in the atmosphere — and soil with more carbon is better for plants, for the planet and for farmers. Healthier soil holds more water and maintains more nutrients, making crops less at risk of loss due to the extreme weather that’s become a signature effect of climate change.
  • Diversifying crops. Rather than putting all their eggs in one basket and relying on one crop, agroecological farmers plant a variety of crops suited for their location and microclimate. Not only does this help mitigate the risk of a single crop being lost to disease, pests or weather — it also fights soil degradation and increases the amount of diverse foods available to local communities. Crops can be rotated, allowing the soil to replenish itself and reducing the need for chemical fertilizers. The long-term results: healthier soils, more resilient farmers and less food insecurity, even in the face of a changing climate.
  • Reusing waste. From manure to crop residue, there is always some waste in the agricultural production process. But agroecology recognizes that there’s potential in these products. Rather than burning crop residue like corn stalks — a practice that produces even more greenhouse gas emissions — that organic matter can be worked back into the fields to enrich the soil or used as animal feed. Waste from livestock can be used as an energy source in place of fossil fuels, further reducing global greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture.
  • Sharing knowledge. Agroecology recognizes the importance of the social aspects of agriculture. By sharing best practices and spreading information about what works best for certain crops, challenges or climates, agroecology encourages small-scale farmers to create a pool of knowledge to help everyone learn and improve their own operations. Shared knowledge helps turn individual action into collective impact, amplifying the power of each farmer to help fight climate change.

The win/win of agroecology

Agroecology isn’t just good for the planet — it’s good for farmers, too. According to a report by Springer Nature, farmers are experiencing record low crop yields due to extreme weather and an increase in pests and diseases that destroy their crops. Agroecological practices focus on solving the challenges farmers are facing today: diversifying crops to help mitigate the risk of crop loss, reducing pests through organic methods and improving soil health to maximize water retention.

Agroecological methods can also help small-scale farmers save money — another vital short-term win that helps incentivize these methods. Practices like recycling crop and livestock waste, reducing the amount of water needed to grow healthy crops and growing cover crops that can feed livestock all help reduce costs for small-scale farmers who are working to make the most of every penny.

Ultimately, agroecology is a system that helps create long-term change through near-term improvements like these. By implementing agroecological practices to help make crops more resilient and soils more healthy, small-scale farmers can start to see better, more profitable harvests in the climate we have today — while also making an impact on the climate of the future. Add up the impact from the more than 570 million small-scale and family farms across the globe, and the potential is almost limitless. That’s how agroecology can fight a challenge as massive as climate change: one planting season, one harvest and one small-scale farm at a time

Could agroecological farming really feed the world?

Could agroecological farming really feed the world?

Our current food system is falling short.

From how we grow our food to how we distribute and consume it, conventional farming practices alone aren’t just failing to meet the nutritional needs of a growing and already undernourished global population — they’re also actively harming the planet. So how can we increase food security while protecting the Earth for future generations?

With a population projected to reach 9.8 billion people by 2050, we need a better system. Thankfully, such a system exists — one that replenishes the soil, feeds more people, helps farmers and benefits the planet. It’s called agroecological farming, and it’s the solution to not only the challenges that come with conventional agricultural systems but also to some of the most massive problems facing our planet today.

Where conventional agriculture meets environmental concerns

Today’s industrial-scale agriculture started off with the best intentions. The Green Revolution of the 1960s, a global response to the looming hunger crisis, kicked off decades of agricultural growth. Farmers around the world converted their fields to newly developed varieties of genetically modified grain that produced more yields per acre. These new crops and methods helped feed a rapidly growing population in places like Asia, where rice and wheat yields doubled, grain prices fell and residents consumed more calories, even as the population increased by 60%.

But now, decades later, the true cost of that increased productivity has become much more apparent. The conventional farming techniques required to produce so much of the same crop, year after year, led to widespread soil degradation. The chemical fertilizers required to continue growing crops in degraded soil leached nitrogen and phosphorus into water supplies. Agriculture is responsible for nearly a quarter of the planet’s greenhouse gas emissions, which come from vehicles used in clearing land, farming and transporting crops, as well as deforestation and methane emissions from livestock.

And then there are the issues inherent in replacing diverse crops with monocrops. Not only does this lead to a loss of biodiversity, but it also means that a crop produced in one location will need to be shipped around the world to reach its consumers — and that the region or country growing that crop will need to ship in other food sources to adequately feed its own people.

A more sustainable solution

In response to the challenges of conventional farming, farmers, scientists and researchers around the world are advocating for a more sustainable alternative: agroecology. Also known as agroecological farming or sustainable agriculture, it’s not so much a set system as it is a series of practices that add up to systemic change, from farm to table and beyond.

What is agroecological farming?

According to agriculture blog Organic Without Boundaries, “Agroecology has the explicit goal of strengthening the sustainability of all parts of the food system, from the seed and the soil to the table, including ecological knowledge, economic viability and social justice.” It’s more than a farming system; it’s a social movement that combines agricultural research and the science of ecology, allowing farmers to gain a deeper understanding of the world and our place within it. It goes beyond the idea of growing and producing food to consider the entire ecosystem of agriculture — an approach that’s required if we are to solve the systemic concerns associated with conventional agriculture.

So, what does this entail? Agroecology is simultaneously about removing certain elements of conventional farming systems and adding sustainable agriculture practices in their place. While every agroecological farm is different, some practices come up again and again. Agroecological farming involves using fewer fossil fuels and chemical fertilizers — or eliminating their use altogether. It means moving away from monocropping in favor of crop diversification and crop rotation to help restore nutrients and sequester carbon in the soil. It’s about using natural fertilizers, harvested rainwater and biological pest control measures like “push-pull” practices: surrounding target crops with plants that repel pests, as well as other plants that attract them, effectively keeping the pests away from crops.

These aren’t all new ideas; many have been practiced for thousands of years by small-scale farmers and indigenous peoples across the globe. Agroecological farming practices have stood the test of time because they work sustainably with the environment, increasing food production for their communities without harming the soil, the water or the air. Today’s farmers are recognizing these benefits, with thousands switching to more sustainable agriculture practices — and reaping the rewards.

More sustainability, more productivity

Agroecological farming is beneficial because it is:

  • Better for the environment, with fewer chemical fertilizers, greenhouse gas emissions and soil degradation.
  • Better for farmers, who are less reliant on a single crop that might be wiped out by weather, pests or disease.
  • Less costly, since farmers spend less on chemical fertilizers and pesticides. In turn, they can reinvest those funds in additional crops or spend them within their own communities.

Of course, none of these benefits would matter if switching to agroecology meant producing less food. But instead, the opposite is true: Research proves that agroecological farming not only means promoting sustainable food systems, but it leads to increased food production as well.

“Agroecological projects have shown an average crop yield increase of 80% in 57 developing countries, with an average increase of 116% for all African projects,” said Olivier De Schutter, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the right to food, citing a 2008 U.N. study. “Recent projects conducted in 20 African countries demonstrated a doubling of crop yields over a period of three to 10 years.” That same study showed crop yield increases as high as 128% in East Africa, further proving the astounding potential of sustainable agriculture.

However, it doesn’t just come down to increased yields. By replacing monoculture farming in places like Africa, where hunger is a major threat, agroecological farmers can use their increased, diversified harvests to help feed their communities far better than a monoculture could. In an agroecological system, food is grown, harvested and consumed in one local ecosystem — there’s no need to pack it on planes, boats and trucks in a global distribution system that also contributes to global warming.

This is how agroecological farming can feed the world’s growing population, one community at a time. It’s a system in which more diverse farms, scattered throughout the globe, can grow the foods best suited to their areas, rather than the crops that can produce the most grain for the global market. Those farms offer a solution to global hunger that can simultaneously help fight issues like global climate change. It’s a food production system that doesn’t just work — it’s the only one that will allow our planet to continue to survive, grow and thrive.

What if farmers were paid to fight climate change?

What if farmers were paid to fight climate change?

Irreversible global warming is almost inevitable.

The key word there is “almost.”

Scientists agree that we need to stay below a two-degree global temperature increase from pre-industrial levels to avoid “catastrophic climate effects,” as the Natural Resources Defense Council has said. To that end, 195 nations around the globe signed the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement, through which participating countries agreed to mitigate their impact on global warming and reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.

The problem? It’s not going to be enough.

The issue with greenhouse gas mitigation

“If all of the nations in the world comply with the commitments they made in the Paris Accord, we’re still going to massively miss the emissions limit,” said Aldyen Donnelly at the 2020 Alltech ONE Virtual Experience. “We will be still discharging 15 billion tons of CO2 equivalent per year — more than the most we can afford to be discharging if we want to cap warming at two degrees by 2100.”

But Donnelly, co-founder and director of carbon economics at Nori, a carbon removal marketplace, cautioned listeners not to lose hope. There’s another, better climate change solution: not reducing the amount of greenhouse gas emissions we’re putting into the air but, instead, removing carbon from the atmosphere. And it starts not with nations, governments or corporations, but with farmers.

The double benefit of regenerative farming

Nori’s climate change solution involves removing carbon from the atmosphere and sequestering it in the soil by using regenerative agricultural methods. In this model, farmers shift away from our current, intensive methods of producing food, fiber and livestock — without sacrificing acreage.

“This isn’t about converting cropland back to grasslands and forests,” said Donnelly. “We know how to produce food and fiber while implementing practices that are rebuilding the soil organic carbon stocks. Scientists generally believe that the adoption of regenerative and conservation practices can recover soil organic carbon stocks worldwide to the level they were at 300 years ago, before we introduced intensive management practices.”

These practices aren’t new. Methods like planting cover crops, reducing or eliminating soil tillage, crop rotation and silvopasture — the integration of trees and pasture for grazing livestock — have been utilized for decades, centuries and even millennia by farmers across the globe. By encouraging farmers to adopt these practices, Nori’s climate change solution requires no new technology — just a change in mindset.

The potential benefits of following these carbon sequestration practices in agriculture on a large scale are enormous. According to Donnelly and Nori, regenerative and conservation agricultural methods have the potential to remove up to 25 billion tons of carbon from the atmosphere — more than enough to cover the 15-billion-ton gap left by greenhouse gas mitigation. And above and beyond the carbon sequestration, these practices lead to healthier, more productive soils over time — a major benefit for a growing population with growing nutritional needs.

“There is no other potential strategy that gives you two benefits at the same time,” said Donnelly. “So why would we spend any money on mitigation strategies that don’t give us those co-benefits before we’ve exploited all of our opportunity to invest in our food and fiber producers’ potential to deliver both these benefits?”

Incentivizing better practices

So how do we get farmers to make the switch?

It involves investing. Platforms like Nori allow individuals and businesses to pay farmers who are engaging in these climate-friendly practices and are doing their part to reduce the greenhouse effect. While it may not be practical to eliminate all carbon emissions in our lives —  which are caused by things like flights, car travel and the electricity in our homes — we can offset the effects of those greenhouse gases by investing in farms that are sequestering carbon and making clean energy a priority.

Nori’s marketplace has already garnered great interest and achieved great success.

“Since last October, we have issued 20,000 carbon sequestration credits, which, in the Nori marketplace, are called Nori carbon removal tons, or NRTs,” said Donnelly. “To date, all of the NRTs we’ve listed for sale on our website have sold out, and they tend to sell out quickly. The average price buyers have paid has been $16.50 per ton. And they’ve been sequestering, on average, nine tenths of a ton per acre, per year.”

While those numbers may seem small, they can add up quickly. And this direct market for carbon offsets doesn’t just incentivize farmers to make the switch to regenerative agriculture practices, one acre at a time. It also allows individual consumers to take charge of their carbon footprint, empowering them to push back in the face of the seemingly impossible challenge of climate change. Where multinational corporations or countries can work slowly, an individual market that pays farmers to implement climate change solutions can help build a grassroots movement toward more sustainable agricultural practices and a healthier planet for all.

How California is redefining sustainable dairy farming

How California is redefining sustainable dairy farming

There’s a reason California is known as the “land of milk and honey.” With miles upon miles of fertile ground and plentiful resources, the Golden State is an agricultural dream. It’s where opportunity for farmers flows as abundantly as the 40 billion pounds of milk produced there annually, and where dairy farm families work hard every day to advance the state’s $20 billion dairy industry.

But as the fifth-largest economy in the world, California is also home to roughly 1% of all global greenhouse gases. And while California’s largest-in-the-nation dairy sector only accounts for 4% of the state’s total emissions, there’s no denying that their belching bovines still play a role in climate change and global warming. Sustainable agriculture is something they do not take lightly, and in 2016, the state became the first dairy region in the world to set a goal to reduce methane emissions from dairy manure by 40%.

Let’s take a look at how dairy farmers statewide are taking a stand to reduce their carbon hoofprint for the future of their land, their livestock and the world around us.

A moo-vement to fight climate change

It’s no secret that California is a state with very ambitious policies. And at the center of it all are the dairy farm families who are pioneering lasting changes through planet-friendly farming practices. Supporting their efforts is Dairy Cares, a statewide coalition that ensures the long-term sustainability of California’s farming families through environmental stewardship, responsible animal care and adherence to the core values of honesty, ethics, diligence and community.

“Our family farms continue to do more with less, producing more nutritious dairy foods while reducing their environmental footprint,” said Michael Boccadoro, executive director of Dairy Cares, during the Alltech ONE Virtual Experience.

So, how exactly are they doing it?

Leading the way in dairy methane reduction

First, they’ve made methane reduction a top priority. As one of the most powerful greenhouse gases, methane is roughly 25 times more potent at trapping heat than carbon dioxide. The bright side? Methane is a relatively short-lived pollutant in the atmosphere, which means reducing the amount of it can pack a powerful punch in mitigating climate change.

That’s just one reason California’s dairy farm families are working closely with state regulators to achieve the desired methane reduction of 40% by 2030 — and the livestock industry is taking note.

Collaborating for the future

Consistent with Senate Bill 1383, the industry is working to aggressively reduce dairy methane emissions through improved manure management practices, financial incentives and other agricultural research.

According to Boccadoro, the strategy is straightforward and comprises three main parts. Here’s a quick look at how to reduce methane emissions from cattle:

  1. Utilize climate-smart dairy methane digesters. By breaking down solid waste in the absence of oxygen and turning it into natural gas, dairy digesters are providing the largest greenhouse gas reduction of all investments in California’s climate action portfolio.​ Using digesters has allowed California to not only shrink dairy’s carbon footprint, but to help the state transition to clean energy. Through the development of these methane digesters alone, California dairy farms will soon be reducing a total of 1.9 million metric tons of greenhouse gases (CO2e) per year.
  2. Explore alternative manure management solutions. The California Department of Food and Agriculture’s (CDFA) Alternative Manure Management Program (AMMP) provides financial assistance for California dairy farm families aiming to prevent the production of methane through drier handling and storage of manure nutrients. Dairy Cares notes that the AMMP is one of the most cost-effective programs, providing 1 ton of GHG reduction (CO2e) for every $43 invested by the state.
  3. Conduct ongoing research. Cutting-edge research is also underway to benchmark and understand how California can continue to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, measure reductions in dairy methane emissions, and identify the most effective technologies and strategies. This research is a vital component of California’s efforts, allowing farmers to better understand the relationship between weather, climate and dairy methane emissions.

The proof is in the progress

Through the state’s tremendous investment in methane reduction projects and the voluntary efforts of dairy farm families, great progress is being made.

“None of what we are achieving is happening by accident. The state has stepped up and provided over $500 million to date in grant funding alone,” said Boccadoro. “That is being matched by an equal amount of equity funding by many of our dairy families, along with substantial outside private financing.”

The methane reduction benefits of these projects made possible by funding are very real. For example:

  • A 50% reduction in greenhouse gases per liter of milk produced.
  • Projects resulting in some 22 million metric tons of reduction in the first 10 years alone.
  • Significant reductions in nitrous oxide, volatile organic compounds, ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, as well efforts to protect water and air quality.
  • The CDFA expects that when all of the currently funded projects are operational —sometime around 2024 — manure methane emissions will have been reduced by 25%, achieving roughly 60% of the state’s goal of 40% by 2030.

Methane reduction is only the beginning

California’s commitment to reduce methane production is only one part of the bigger sustainability picture. Together, dairy farm families are also using less energy through energy efficiency upgrades, producing solar renewable energy for use on their farms, recycling and reusing water, and exploring conservation tillage practices like cover crops to improve soil health and carbon sequestration.

As California’s farm families look to the future of sustainable dairy farming solutions, they’re continuing to find new ways to preserve their land, care for their dairy cows and protect their legacy for generations to come. Not just because it’s their pride and their heritage, but because they know the critical role they play in addressing sustainable nutrition, food security and providing dairy foods that are responsibly made.

This progress is only possible through collaboration and a shared commitment to driving lasting change throughout California’s vibrant agricultural communities. With ongoing support from the industry, regulatory agencies, researchers and community stakeholders, California’s family dairy farms will continue to set a new standard in environmentally friendly food production. But it can’t stop in California. As we all work together for a Planet of Plenty, we must make protecting our environment a top priority at all levels, from industrial agriculture to local family farms.