More sustainable meat production with foods rich in protein and amino acids


With a growing world population and increasing wealth in many regions, the appetite for meat is increasing. The ripple effect can be felt around the world: as the conversion of food calories to meat calories is inherently inefficient, animal husbandry requires large areas of farmland for food production. Supplementing low protein feeds with amino acids helps to make meat production more efficient and to protect natural resources.

Time is running out: according to the latest UN forecasts, the world’s population will grow from 7.7 billion in 2019 to 9.7 billion by 2050, mainly due to high fertility rates in sub-Saharan Africa and some Asian countries . That would mean the world will have to feed two billion more mouths in just over a generation.

Figure 1: Although at a slower pace, population growth is expected to continue this century.

There is no indication yet that this trend will be reversed anytime soon: while the rate of population growth has started to slow, our globe will be home to 10.9 billion people in 2100 according to the same UN projection. Even taking into account the high degree of uncertainty, significant population growth seems likely during this century.

Rising global demand for meat

For our health and the health of unborn billions, high-quality protein – such as provided by meat, poultry and fish, eggs and milk, and certain plants – is nutritionally fundamental. Providing enough affordable protein without unduly harming the planet, however, is a difficult challenge. Reducing meat consumption in favor of a more balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes could be part of the solution: protein-based is not in sight.

Instead, meat production is increasing: according to the OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook 2020-2029, global meat production is expected to increase by 12% during this decade, mainly thanks to emerging countries and to low income such as Brazil, China, India, Mexico, Pakistan and Turkey. The appetite for meat is increasing due to a combination of population growth, rising per capita income and gradual urbanization. Global annual animal production could reach 455 million tonnes by 2050, compared to 258 million tonnes in 2005/2007 and 336 million tonnes in 2018.

Resource intensive farming

However, producing more meat comes at a cost not only to consumers, but also to society and the environment in general. The waste becomes evident when looking at the amount of food needed to produce a kilogram of meat. Chickens – the most consumed animal species by weight before pork in 2020 – need 1.7 kilograms of feed to gain one kilogram of body mass. Pigs need 3.0 kilograms of feed, cattle even 10.7 kilograms.

Figure 2: Compared to beef and pork, chicken can be produced with less resources.
Figure 2: Compared to beef and pork, chicken can be produced with less resources.

Compared to pork and beef, poultry in general generates higher yields on shorter production cycles with fewer resources. This, and the lack of religious prohibitions on the consumption of poultry, has contributed to its popularity across continents and cultures. During this decade, poultry is expected to be the fastest growing meat, accounting for about half of the expected increase in total meat production.

Deforestation of the rainforest for soybean cultivation

One of the main feeds for poultry farming (as well as for pigs and cattle) is high protein soybeans. On average, it takes about one kilogram of soybeans and other foods to produce one kilogram of poultry. According to preliminary figures from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), 337 million metric tonnes of soybeans were produced globally in the 2019/20 crop year. By far the largest producer is Brazil, with 126 million metric tonnes produced on 37 million hectares – and this vast area is growing, in part thanks to the clearing of tropical rainforests.

Many people associate soy with products such as tofu and tempeh, which are often eaten by vegetarians and vegans as meat substitutes; but most of the world’s soybean production – about 70 to 75 percent by weight – is used for animal feed, while about 18 percent is made into oil mainly used as biodiesel. Along with cattle grazing, planting soybeans for animal feed production is one of the main drivers of large-scale destruction of tropical rainforests. The conversion of forests to arable agricultural land harms the environment and species diversity. The energy-intensive transport of soybeans from growing areas across land and sea to cattle ranchers around the world places an additional burden on the environment.

Reduce crude protein and add amino acids

Just like humans, animals need a balanced diet containing carbohydrates, fats and proteins. Proteins are made up of around 20 amino acids, half of which cannot be synthesized in the body. Unlike foods of animal origin, plants such as wheat, corn, soybeans and peas – all staple foods in animal husbandry – are low in one or more essential amino acids and are therefore not considered “Complete”. A proven solution to making meat production more efficient and avoiding avoidable damage to the environment is to rely on local crops with less crude protein, and to increase their nutritional value by adding amino acids to it. food.

It is only with an adequate proportion of the ten so-called essential amino acids that animals can use the feed optimally. The image of the “barrel” designed by the German chemist Justus von Liebig (1803-1873) illustrates this well. In the Liebig barrel, spans of different lengths represent amino acids; the shorter the stave, the more amino acid in the food is deficient. The shorter stave limits the filling capacity of the barrel, which represents the nutritional potential of the feed.

Figure 3: Liebig's barrel illustrates the utility of targeted amino acid supplementation.
Figure 3: Liebig’s barrel illustrates the utility of targeted amino acid supplementation.

In plant-based poultry feed, the most deficient amino acid is usually methionine. To prevent protein deficiencies and ensure healthy growth, meat producers can simply feed “more of the same” by adding plant protein sources such as soy. This approach improves the capacity of the keg by lengthening all the staves – a non-selective and inefficient approach, as the extra soybeans also contain the already abundant amino acids. In addition, a diet too rich in protein is harmful both for the animal and for the environment.

A proven approach that is much more sustainable and effective is targeted amino acid supplementation. If the amino acid methionine is added, for example via MetAMINO® from Evonik (DL-methionine). The shorter span is lengthened to match the length of lysine, the second limiting amino acid. This dramatically improves the capacity of the barrel – or the feed conversion rate and nutritional capacity of the animal – without the ill effects of soy feed. The approach helps reduce the amount of plant-based food ingredients, improves the efficiency of feed conversion, results in a healthier and more balanced diet, and prevents excessive nitrogen excretion which has a negative impact on the environment. Supplementation with specific nutrients has long been the norm in animal husbandry – in fact, the increase in chicken weight to become the most consumed animal in recent decades is closely linked to the discovery and subsequent supplementation of vitamin D from the 1920s, which allowed chickens to be housed indoors all year round.

In chicken production, one kilogram of MetAMINO® mixed with two kilograms of Biolys® (L-Lysine) can provide the same nutritional value as 54 kilograms of fishmeal and 34 kilograms of soybeans. This means that adding these amino acids results in higher yields with much less feed, lowering the food bill and benefiting the environment in a number of ways.

In 2015, the global production capacity of Evonik’s MetAMINO® – the essential amino acid methionine – was 580,000 metric tonnes. An area of ​​cultivated land roughly the size of Malawi would have been required to harvest enough grain-based foods to replace this amount. In fact, 11.6 million hectares of cultivated land have been freed thanks to MetAMINO® supplementation.

Overall, the use of soybean meal for poultry could be reduced by at least 15 percent through targeted amino acid supplementation, and pork producers could forgo soymeal almost entirely. This would translate into the production of 17 million tonnes of soybean meal less per year, or the equivalent of six million hectares – or 1.5 times the area of ​​Switzerland – of arable land used for the cultivation of soy. For the next 20 years, the level of soybean production could remain stable despite the growing demand for meat from a growing world population.

Conclusion

By reducing the protein content of animal feed and adding specific amino acids, meat producers ensure balanced and healthy animal nutrition, reduce costs and protect the environment in many ways. Targeted amino acid supplementation is a sustainable way to provide a growing world population with protein of animal origin while preventing deforestation, preserving biodiversity and reducing monocultures, fertilizer use and consumption of water. With amino acid supplementation, not a single extra square meter of rainforest is expected to disappear over the next few decades, even with increasing meat consumption.


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