The feed industry is a behemoth with worldwide sales in excess of a trillion dollars. Indeed, to feed the 7.3 billion people on earth today, first we must feed billions of farm animals for their meat, milk and eggs. These animals are mainly cattle, sheep, pigs and poultry. To this number are added the billions of farmed fish, the animals in zoos and pet stores as well as the billions of pets. Analysis shows that this industry is growing faster than the human population. But this reality conceals a rising problem every year: the supply of essential proteins for livestock.
It is important to remember that animal food is mainly of plant origin. Grains and fodder are the fuel for livestock, the source of most nutrients. However, for monogastric animals such as chickens, salmon and pigs, an intake of essential proteins is needed, to sustain their growth and maintain their health.
Soybean, oil cakes and animal meal are the main sources of essential proteins for livestock. This segment represents 10% of the total animal feed market, a market worth over a hundred billion dollars annually. Animal proteins are particularly rich in essential amino acids, necessary for healthy growth. In breeding, their use is a must. This demand will double over the next 15 years, due to demographic changes that come with an increased standard of living.
All animals, including humans, ruminants, poultry, fish and insects, need a certain essential amino acids. Constituents of proteins, they are an important building block of the body. These essential amino acids are obtained either by eating a varied vegetable diet or through the consumption of animal meat, which contain the proteins rich in them.
Before 2001, the need for essential proteins was largely filled by the rendering industry: recovered meat was industrially transformed into animal meal.
In 2001, however, bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or “mad cow” disease, made its appearance in farms. It was spread by contaminated animal meal, made by the rendering industry, which contained defective proteins (prions) of sick animals. Thus millions of animals, infected or potentially so, were slaughtered. Since then, animal meal from the rendering industry was banned and thus fish meal became a major source of animal protein.
Around 40 million tons of fish are caught annually, representing 37% of industrial fishing, are used for the production of fish meal (fish processed into flour and oil), mainly used to feed salmon, chicken and pigs, which are at the end of the industrial food chain. Initially, this type of fishing was transient and of low intensity. However, this activity has increased over time, becoming unsustainable at this point.
At the very beginning, fish farming promised to be a panacea, following the measured depletion of fish in the oceans; we could compensate for the loss of wild fish by raising farmed ones. However, with the exception of tilapia, carp and some other omnivorous species, the most popular farmed fish are carnivores, such as salmon, tuna and trout. Moreover, the Omega-3 fatty-acids make them very beneficial to health and are particularly sought. They need animal protein and lipids of uncompromising quality to promote healthy growth and maintain nutritional benefit.
It turns out that industrial fishing depletes the oceans and improperly undermines biodiversity. The most popular pelagic species, such as sardines, anchovies, herring, and capelin, naturally meet the food needs of marine wildlife, including those of man. Even abyssal species are now endangered due to the increasing number of modern trawlers and catch-tracking technologies. In short, we already overfishing the oceans to feed humans, but we are depleting them even more to provide food for fish and other livestock. In 2014, it was 37% of fish catches are turned into fishmeal and fish oil and this figure is increasing. That supply is growing against nature and no other renewable alternative is offered currently.
Another major drawback: fishmeal can contain residues of carcinogenic contaminants. Whether or not resulting from human activities, minerals and chemicals such as lead, arsenic, cadmium, mercury, hormones, PCP, oil, plastics and other chemicals are found in large quantities in oceans and inevitably contaminate fish flesh. The inspection agencies of Western countries also recommend particular foods to pregnant women and children, to restrict consumption of certain fatty fish once or twice a month. Therefore, the daily intake of these fish meals per livestock accumulates these carcinogenic pollutants in the flesh and fat of animals that feed us then.
Finally, the progressive scarcity and cost of transportation push up the price of meat, eggs and milk. This is the perverse effect of using a declining resource to feed a growing industry. It is imperative that a new source of safe and sustainable essential proteins to be identified.
Agriculture is the major use of land by humans. Pastures and crops alone represent more than 37% of the Earth’s surface. More than two thirds of the world’s water consumption is due to agriculture. Crops and livestock in particular have a profound effect on the wider environment, causing water pollution by nitrates, phosphates and pesticides. They are also the major anthropogenic sources of greenhouse gases – methane and nitrous oxide. The scope of and methods used by agriculture, forestry and fishing are the main causes of biodiversity loss worldwide. External costs of these three sectors are considerable.
Agriculture also undermines its own future through land degradation, salinization, over-consumption of water, and the reduction of genetic diversity of crops and livestock. The long-term consequences of these processes are difficult to quantify. It is also a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. It releases large amounts of carbon dioxide during combustion of biomass, especially in areas of deforestation and grassland fires.
Agriculture is also responsible for almost half of methane emissions. Although methane spends less time in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, it’s 21 times more potent and is therefore an important player in global warming. Its annual emissions currently total approximately 540 million tons and are increasing by 5% per year. Livestock alone causes a quarter of methane emissions, through intestinal digestion and waste decomposition. With the increase in livestock numbers and the increasing industrialization of its production, manure production is estimated to increase 60% by 2030. Methane emissions from livestock are likely to increase in the same proportion.
The food security of people in general, and particularly in poor countries, could suffer from climate change. By 2030, there will still be hundreds of millions of malnourished people. They will be particularly vulnerable to disruption of their incomes or their food supply due to crop failure or due to droughts or floods.
More sustainable production methods would mitigate the negative impacts of agriculture on the environment. In some cases, even agriculture can solve these problems through better use of biomass, carbon storage in the soil, promoting the infiltration of water, maintaining the rural landscape and biodiversity. In fact, recycling of certain agricultural biomasses in nutrients and fertilizers would be a step towards food security and a way to fight climate change.
In summary, food security and biodiversity are threatened. Yet there is a natural and lasting solution to the deep structural imbalance in the food chain of man: A new paradigm is needed.