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Digital solutions in animal production

07 June 20226 min reading

Digital solutions can help farmers meet the challenges of producing sustainable, healthy animal protein 

Farmers, especially small and medium enterprises (SMEs), are under increasing pressure from governments, regulators and consumers to ensure they produce animal protein in the most sustainable way possible, while maintaining high standards of animal welfare and their own profits.

With the world population predicted to reach 9 billion by 2050, we clearly need to develop systems to meet the increasing demand for animal protein in ways that can be sustained long term. Currently, around 9 percent of carbon dioxide, 35-40 percent of methane, 65 percent of nitrous oxide and 64 percent of ammonia are generated by animal production on a global basis. It also has a huge impact on water use.


Those figures have the potential to increase further as population and demand for food protein increase. The corresponding rise in demand for animal feed means the farmers and the wider feed industry have a critical role to play if we are to control our impact on the planet.

There are various examples of industry guidance/regulations to assist with this, including the Livestock Environmental Assessment and Performance Partnership (LEAP) guidelines for assessing the environmental performance of animal feed supply chains; the FEFAC Sustainability Charter Progress Report 2021 which outlines five key ambitions; and the EU Code of Conduct on Responsible Food Business and Marketing Practices which sets out a common aspirational path towards sustainable food systems.

WHAT WE CAN MEASURE, WE CAN MANAGE

Alongside this guidance, the industry and NGOs have been busy developing new technology platforms aimed at making sustainable food production a realistic goal. Measurement is crucial to successfully achieving this aim all along the value chain.

Evonik has more than fifty years’ experience of assessing the nutritional value of animal feed and in excess of twenty years of developing tools and methodologies designed to measure its own and its customers’ sustainability impacts.


For example, over the past 50 years Evonik has been researching the amino acid content of raw feed materials and the use of supplements. Although the initial reason for managing the protein content of feed was to reduce costs, the increasing need to lower the global footprint of food animal production means that the focus is now on the benefits in terms of environmental impact.

The company carried out its first life cycle assessment (LCA) in 2003 (MetAMINO®) and in 2015 presented its fourth LCA study under ISO 14044 (2006), which looked at the effect of methionine, lysine, threonine, tryptophan and valine in poultry and swine production to highlight the effect of low protein diets. This early work may have had limited impact at the time, but it means that the company is now very well placed to understand the changing needs of an increasingly environmentally aware industry. In 2021, Evonik joined the Global Feed LCA Institute (GFLI), an independent feed industry initiative that aims to develop a publicly available LCA database to support and improve the environmental performance of the feed industry.

SOLUTIONS FOR THE WHOLE VALUE CHAIN

The complexity and cost of LCA studies makes it impossible for feed companies to conduct assessments on every new product, batch of feed or new concept that they are presented with, especially with limited experience and resources. Instead, Evonik believes the answer is for producers to have access to a comprehensive database of results obtained from studies that conform to international standard (ISO) guidelines.

With this database and digital tools to manage and interpret the data, it is possible to assess the ecological footprint of individual poultry and swine diets based on data derived from different raw materials and production systems around the world. Producers can focus on the ecological profiles of compound feeds and identify diets with the lowest environmental burden.

Using feed with low crude protein levels and balanced amino acid profiles can strongly influence the environmental impact of animal products such as pigs, broilers and eggs. The reduced protein levels lead to diminished nitrogen content of excretions, which in turn leads to lower air and water nitrogen pollution. Reduced N2O and thus lower global warming potential (GWP) of manure treatment has only a small impact on the overall GWP of pigs, broilers and eggs compared to the GWP of feed production. The main benefit is the decreased air and water nitrogen pollution.

Digital solutions enable increased sustainability of livestock operations such as pig, poultry and egg production without compromising animal welfare. Combined with changes in diet formulation, they enable producers to reduce their ecological impact by lowering the crude protein in feed and provides significant mitigation options for climate change and nitrogen-based emissions, which contribute to acidification potential (AP), eutrophication potential (EP) and respiratory inorganics.

Low crude protein diets according to the advanced feed formulations of Evonik Animal Nutrition services and consultancy enable increased usage of regionally produced feed materials by replacing imported oil seeds. It also supports deforestation-free supply chains.

MONITOR AND IMPROVE

To monitor and improve daily feed formulations and allow for greater automation in feed milling and farm applications, ready-to-use tools are very helpful to analyze the ecological footprint of each individual diet and feeding cycle.

They can focus on calculating the impact of feed ingredient production and transportation as well as crude protein reduction in pig and poultry diets and consider how the animal performance contributes to the ecological score linked to the amount of compound feed consumed, respectively, life weight produced.

Digital tools may also allow producers to simulate different phases of production for pigs and broilers, which are typically different in feed composition and nutritional value, and thus, also in their ecological impact. On some tools, calculated results on the global warming potential can be displayed with and without biogenic carbon and results could also include the water footprint of diets and cycles.

CONCLUSION

Evonik recognizes that meeting the demand for sustainable, healthy animal protein for a growing global population cannot be achieved by one company or one part of the value chain in isolation. It calls for the adoption of new animal feed products based on reliable data from relevant stakeholders working together.

The good news is that there is considerable potential for progress in terms of sustainability for livestock feeds and companies such as Evonik are working hard to develop and expand databases and digital solutions that make that objective possible.

Thanks to developing digital solutions, feed manufacturers can quantify and optimize the environmental impact of their products and reassure their governments, regulators and their customers of the sustainability credentials and performance of their feeds.


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