5 eco-friendly alternative protein sources for animal feed

The secret is out: By 2025, 75% more food will be required to feed the world’s population.
Alternative protein

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.

  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?

by Lauren Harris | Jan 8, 2021