Soy: assessing the future for animal feed

By Carina Perkins

- Last updated on GMT

Soy: assessing the future for animal feed
When discussing meat's environmental impact, there is a tendency to focus on greenhouse gas emissions. But the production of soy for feed is also of major concern. Carina Perkins looks at the issues

Last month, a Defra report on England's progress towards a sustainable livestock sector was met with venomous attacks from environmentalists. Friends of the Earth (FOE) accused ministers of showing "little leadership"​ on environmental issues, while World Wildlife Fund (WWF) UK said that the government was "woefully inadequate"​ on sustainable food. At the centre of these allegations was a claim that the government has failed to address one of the biggest environmental issues facing UK livestock production the reliance on imported soy.

South America's soy industry has been blamed for directly and indirectly devastating some of the world's most important ecologies. Campaigners claim that soy expansion into the Cerrado biome in Brazil a unique habitat of grassland, scrub, woodland and rivers which is home to 5% of the planet's biodiversity has already destroyed more than 70% of the region's original vegetation, with a further 9.6m hectares expected to be lost by 2020. They also warn that soy plantations are helping drive deforestation of the Amazon rainforest.

"Brazilian farmers who raise cattle at a very low density on the cerrado are being offered a lot of money by soy farmers who want that land,"​ explains Duncan Williamson, senior policy advisor (food) at WWF UK. "The cattle farmers then move further north into the Amazon rainforest, so there are two ecosystems being destroyed at the same time."

Environmental groups warn that the destruction of these areas is having a huge impact on biodiversity, as well as causing soil erosion and groundwater pollution. Deforestation also releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, reducing the earth's ability to store greenhouse gases and greatly increasing the risk of climate change. Environment aside, the soy industry has been blamed for a range of social problems, with activists accusing planters of land-grabbing, displacement of indigenous people and causing health problems through excessive pesticide use, among other claims.

Soy sustainability

Efforts have been made to improve the sustainability of the soy production chain in South America. In 2004, WWF established the Round Table on Responsible Soy (RTRS) with a group of retailers, producers, bankers and NGOs. The RTRS has developed a globally applicable criteria for responsible soy, which guarantees that product has been grown responsibly, taking employees rights, land rights, respect for traditional land use, protection of biodiversity, soil fertility, pesticide use and impact on infrastructure into account. The first batch of RTRS soy came onto the market this year. "WWF is not against growing soy per se,"​ explains Williamson. "What we are saying is, let's look at where it is coming from and make sure it is produced responsibly and sourced from certified farms, so there is a clear transparent supply chain and we know it is not impacting on the natural world."

Both Bpex and Defra have been involved in the RTRS discussions to date, and believe that sustainable sourcing is a key way to improve sustainability of the livestock sector. "We are very supportive of any initiatives which try to ensure that the soy we are sourcing is ethically sourced and has come from land which is already existing cropping land rather than land which is deforested,"​ says Nigel Penlington, environment programme manager at Bpex.

However, the RTRS has come under fire from other environmental groups, including FOE and the Soil Association, who argue that it fails to address the major social and environmental impacts of soy cultivation. One of the main criticisms of the scheme is that it includes genetically modified (GM) soy. WWF argues that the RTRS cannot be effective in helping to prevent the environmental impacts of soy production unless it applies to both GM soy and GM-free soy, but opponents to GM argue that it can never be described as 'responsible' because it increases pesticide use and therefore worsens environmental degradation.

GM problems

Richard Werran, CEO of Cert ID Europe, says GM soy has led to a number of ecological problems in South America, not least the creation of weed killer-resistant 'super' weeds. He explains that GM crops are selected to be resistant to weed killers, so that farmers can easily control weeds during the entire growing season. However, a process called gene flow allows this DNA to be transferred from one crop to another and from the crop to the weed. This has resulted in the creation of weeds which are resistant to weed killers, such as 'Buva', a virulent weed that grows in Brazil and Argentina.

"Buva is resistant to glyphosate, the same as GM soy, which makes it hard to deal with. This means other chemistry may be used to kill the weeds, namely 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (aka '2,4-D') and Paraquat,"​ he says. "Both are particularly nasty, highly toxic chemicals. 2,4-D was developed in the 1940s and is a known carcinogen; it is associated with Agent Orange, used as a defoliant in the Vietnam war. Paraquat is highly toxic to humans and mammals and was banned in the EU in 2007. It has been recently linked to the development of Parkinson's Disease."

With the major biotech companies now growing paraquat-resistant GM soy, Werran believes that, eventually, Paraquat-resistant weeds will appear. "In the end we will run out of chemicals we can use,"​ he says. "GM is not just a question of growing GM-soy. You are buying into a chemical-based agronomy which subscribes you to stepping on a chemical treadmill."

With this in mind, Cert ID Europe has developed a non-GM soy accreditation scheme, ProTerra, which is based on the Basel Criteria, a sustainable soy criteria developed by WWF Switzerland, Co-op Switzerland and Proforest.

Since its creation in 2005, ProTerra has certified 4.8mt of non-GM soya beans, 80% of which is soya meal coming out of Brazil. Cert ID has recently helped set up an independent ProTerra Foundation, which will act as a guardian of the ProTerra standard and enable expansion of the scheme. "Any certifying body which wants to provide certification against ProTerra can approach the foundation and become licencees, which will allow ProTerra to go mainstream in a much broader and more effective way,"​ says Werran.

ProTerra defines sustainability along similar lines to the RTRS, focusing on protection biodiversity, protection of traditional land use and protection of worker welfare. However, unlike the RTRS, it excludes all GM crops. This exclusion means it has been accepted by some of the environmental groups which rejected the RTRS. For example, Lord Peter Melchett, policy director of the Soil Association, was a key speaker at a recent ProTerra Foundation conference in London.

Werran believes that by buying traceable non-GM soy, British farmers could differentiate themselves and demonstrate to supermarkets and consumers that they are doing the 'right thing'. "It is a very powerful way for them to be at the forefront of this bow-wave of sustainability initiatives and really align themselves clearly with what major retailers in Europe and, in particular, in the UK require,"​ he says.

He adds that there is plenty of GM soy on the market, but it will require market commitment and government support to ensure that reliable supplies reach the UK. "Most of the non-GM material is now mainlining into central European countries where non-GM feed is a given, and UK producers are scratching around trying to buy non-GM products at spot prices and paying over the odds for it,"​ he says. "If retailers made clearer and stronger commitments to non-GM animal feed, the supply chain would be able to buy more competitively and consistently."

Home-grown

Although the ProTerra standard has been more widely accepted than the RTRS, some environmental groups including FOE insist that the only way the livestock industry can address the environmental impact of imported soy is to stop buying it altogether and switch to home-grown proteins such as peas and beans.

In its 2010 report, Pastures New, FOE estimated that if 8% of UK agricultural land could be made available for home-grown feed, it would be possible to replace 50% of the UK's current soy consumption some 500,000t with a mix of home-grown crops, including winter beans, oilseed rape, sunflower, linseed and Lucerne silage. Oxburrow points out that switching to home-grown proteins would have benefits for farmers beyond the environment.

"Soy used to be really cheap, but now we are seeing price rises and volatility in the soy market it is actually quite expensive to source imported feed,"​ she says. "For the long-term security and resilience of the UK farming industry, it makes sense to try to diversify our supply base of animal feeds and see how much we can do with home-grown proteins."

The UK pig industry has already conducted ground-breaking research on home-grown proteins, which has attracted praise from both FOE and WWF. The Green Pig project, which was co-funded by Bpex and Defra, examined the impact of legume-based diets on pig production. During trials at Midland Pig Producers (MPP), pigs were fed three different diet formulations and their body weight gain, feed conversion ratios and back fat depth at slaughter were recorded. The trial found that pigs on pea and faba bean diets performed well when compared with those on soya bean meal diets, suggesting that nutrition requirements can be met using legumes. "The Green Pig Project has demonstrated that it is practical to feed quite high levels of home-grown protein, as long as you understand the nutritional constraints,"​ says Penlington.

However, the research also established that the relatively high cost of legumes and the consistency of supply are big constraining factors to their uptake. "The variety of peas and beans we have for animal feed don't yield reliably, which is why farmers don't grow them,"​ explains Penlington. "Millers and feed compounders cannot guarantee they will have enough supply to last them one year to the next, so they tend to shy away from them."

In its response to Defra's Livestock Sustainability report, FOE recognises the market barriers to uptake of home-grown proteins and criticises the government for failing to use CAP reform to encourage the growth of alternative feeds. It says it wants the government to introduce a tough three-crop rotation measure, to include leguminous crop, and a redistribution of subsidies to smaller farms. However, these proposals have been met with concern by the industry. "FOE believes that the CAP should be changed and farmers should be given a subsidy for growing them. Our concern is that subsidies distort the market we would question whether that is good for the long term,"​ says Penlington.

Instead of looking to subsidies, he believes emphasis should be put on the development of peas and beans that can grow reliably in UK weather. He adds that improving production efficiency, such as Bpex's Two Tonne Sow programme, will also reduce the UK livetock sector's intake of soy. "If we get more pigmeat for the feed we put in, then we are utilising what we have got better. We need to take that right through to how we utilise the carcase the more we can export or sell on the home market the better,"​ he says.

Way forward

So where does this leave the UK livestock industry? Jo Biggs, assistant communications manager at Eblex, points out that the UK beef and lamb sector is actually less reliant on soy than other international producers because of its grass-fed production systems. "Around 80% of the energy in beef cattle diets and 90% of the energy for sheep diets comes from grass, so we need only a very low level of alternative foodstuffs to supplement a ruminant's diet,"​ she explains. "Beef and sheep farming in this country operates using a rain-fed pasture system, which makes the best use of the natural resources we have available."

However, with more than one million tonnes of soy meal imported every year to feed pigs, poultry and dairy cows, it is clear that the issues surrounding soy production must be addressed.

There is certainly no silver bullet when it comes to improving the sustainability of animal feed. Home-grown proteins could offer opportunities to reduce reliance on an increasingly volatile and expensive import, but market conditions mean they are not a viable alternative for now. Sourcing sustainable soy is one way of ensuring the feed we do import is grown responsibly, but is unlikely to satisfy the demands of all environmentalists.

On the positive side, it seems that environmental groups are finally recognising the progress the industry has already made on environmental issues. As far as campaigners are concerned, it is now down to the government to create the market forces needed for change. "Reforming European farming policy is essential for the environment and global food security,"​ says Oxburrow. "We cannot allow our food system to cost the earth the government must do better."

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