From almond milk to algae-based “shrimp”, alternative proteins are gaining favor among consumers who want to shrink their carbon footprint. Yet while most people aren’t ready to swap their steaks for seaweed, retailers and food service companies can improve their environmental performance by focusing on what animals eat.
Proteins are the building blocks of life and critical for survival, but they take a lot of resources to produce. There’s the land, water, and energy that the animals themselves require, plus the resources it takes to raise their food. About half of the world’s agricultural land is used to grow feed, and more than a fifth of all wild-caught fish is fed to farmed seafood. Unfortunately, this level of production is contributing globally to deforestation, climate change, water consumption, overfishing, and the decline in biodiversity.
To grow more feed crops under a business-as-usual scenario, we would need another 690 million acres of land, a mass larger than six Californias. Fortunately, a growing number of feed companies and those they supply recognize the threat and opportunity that the feed question represents. The feed industry, for example, is developing tools to assess the sustainability of feed crops, and several companies are implementing programs to reduce impacts related to deforestation, fertilizer use and climate change.
However, we need to implement a suite of solutions. Offering tools and a platform to collaborate, the Forum for the Future is bringing together animal, plant, and novel protein industries for the first time. In a new report, The Feed Behind Our Food, it urges retailers and food service companies to engage the companies in their supply chains, including feed producers, to accelerate progress on making feed more sustainable, and provides a step-by-step guide to take action.
Per the report, the threats of inaction are too great to ignore.
- About 20 percent of the Earth’s vegetative surface suffers from declining productivity, potentially destabilizing the feed crop supply.
- Prolonged droughts, more severe floods, migrating pests, and other ill effects of climate change will likely make crop supply and prices more volatile.
- Because there is less and less available land for agriculture, we cannot rely on agricultural expansion to make up for lower productivity.
- According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, nearly 90 percent of global fish stocks are either fully exploited or overfished, rendering them unable to sustainably yield more seafood.
Beyond mitigating damage, however, companies can seize opportunities as well.
- It is less expensive to shift production and sourcing practices slowly in anticipation of a crisis, than hastily in reaction to one. Companies with first-mover advantage can more methodically map out their strategy, conduct research, pilot new products and practices, diversify approaches and spread out risk, learning and adapting at each step along the way.
- Because consumers increasingly demand transparency, companies that move on livestock feed can tell their stories first and build trust with their customers.
- Companies that can source more sustainable feeds, including alternative feeds that are not as reliant on land, water, and depleted fisheries, will have more resilient supply chains in the face of climate change.
Consumer-facing retailers, food service providers, and feed companies together are in an influential position to drive the use of sustainable feeds among processors, traders, and producers. Just as they have been at the forefront of the deforestation-free movement, retailers and food service companies can also work with their supply chains to lead on feed.
So what should retailers and food service companies ask of their suppliers with respect to feed? The Feed in Our Food outlines criteria for sustainable feed production that:
- Preserves critical habitat, advances soil health, and promotes biodiversity;
- Minimizes greenhouse gas emissions;
- Uses crops and crop byproducts that are inedible by people, such as grasses and silages;
- Minimizes fresh water consumption and limits water pollution;
- Does not contribute to the depletion of fish stocks;
- Supports human rights and welfare, from workers to communities;
- Promotes animal health and nutrition; and
- Provides sufficient returns for feed producers and livestock farmers so they can sustain responsible practices.
Forum for the Future will develop an assessment tool for these criteria over the coming months as part of the Protein Challenge 2040 Feed Compass project. We encourage all supply chain stakeholders that touch livestock and feed to get involved. There’s no better time to start than now. As each day passes, the opportunities shrink, and the costs grow.