World Wildlife Fund Sustainability Works

person holds up a scoop of feed in front of an aquaculture pond

Traceable, Sustainable, Accountable: Maneuvering through the maze of animal feed ingredients

  • Date: 06 March 2024
  • Author: Danny Miller, Lead Specialist, Aquaculture, WWF

You are what you eat – or, more precisely, you are what you’re eating has eaten. Corn, for example, is so present in the diet and processing of the cows, chickens, and other animals eaten by Americans that the author Michael Pollan, in “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” quotes one researcher who calls us “corn chips with legs.”

For companies that produce animal proteins – the beef, fish, and fowl that make up so much of our dinner menus – knowing what is in animal feed is a key to knowing whether their animals are getting the right nutrients.

But there’s a surprising little secret in that world: most livestock and aquaculture producers don’t know the sources, much less the practices, associated with the production of ingredients in the feed that they give their animals.

This isn’t for lack of interest. Many feed companies hold close the information about where and how the ingredients were produced that are in their formulations. The real problem is that the ingredients are provided by traders, aggregators, and others that are two-to-five steps away, and each additional step comes with diminishing levels of information. But in a world where retailers, brands and consumers are increasingly interested and even required to know the impacts of producing what they consume, this is no longer an option.

Companies can’t trace the greenhouse gas emissions embedded in their products. They don’t know if they contributed to deforestation, or to illegal, unreported, or unregulated fishing. Companies are increasingly held responsible for those effects, either reputationally or via regulation.

In a new report titled “Feed of the Future: Transparent and Traceable,” World Wildlife Fund looks at the implications of this lack of information for food producers and consumers. In addition, WWF has been collaborating with Grieg Seafood and the Global Salmon Initiative to create an environmental, social, and governance (ESG) screen for feed ingredients to help companies assess feed-related risks in their supply chain.

This is important because regulations are beginning to catch up to ESG risks within the agricultural sector. The US Securities and Exchange Commission, for example, recently proposed to enhance disclosures regarding ESG practices. The European Union taxonomy for sustainable activities will also lead to increased pressure for disclosure.

The ESG screen devised through this process will allow Grieg Seafood, members of the Global Salmon Initiative, and others to get ahead of these requirements. If more companies seek to understand the risks embedded in their feed, progress towards mitigating them can be made more quickly and effectively.

There are plans to expand use of the ESG screen beyond aquaculture as well – in large part because aquaculture itself isn’t big enough to influence many of the major feed companies in the way that other animal-protein producers can. To this end, outreach has been occurring with dairy, swine, and poultry producers. Retailers, also, have expressed interest in exploring how they can use such a screen across all of the animal proteins they source.

Some one billion tons of animal feed are produced and fed to animals annually, representing a $400 billion global market. Much of it, in essence, ends up in the stomachs of consumers. Tools such as the ESG screen can enable companies to identify risks in their own supply chains, helping to bring transparency to animal feed and to contribute to the fight against climate change.