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Weekly Overview: More Sustainable Feeds - Back to the Future?

06 October 2014

GLOBAL - With soybean stocks in the US reported in the last week to be much lower than analysts expected and global demand still rising, it comes as no surprise that scientists are again exploring other protein sources for pig feeds. One of these is bacteria grown on methane - a reminder to some of us with long memories of the days when we were promised a plentiful supply of cheap protein by oil companies in the 1970s.

They say time flies when you are enjoying yourself! It feels like just a year or two but my career started in the animal feed industry almost exactly 35 years ago.

With my degree in agriculture, I joined as Technical Information Officer a feed premix company very few, if any, of you will remember – The Colborn Group – which was based in the UK and owned a handful of affiliates in other countries around the world.

Colborn's was, in fact, shortly to be acquired by Shell, the oil giant, making its first foray into animal nutrition – as was I.

Why was an oil giant interested in a feed company? The technology had been developed to produce a feed protein – which we then called single cell protein – from mineral oil and Shell was seeking both the expertise and contacts needed to market that Space-age material in diets for farm livestock.

At least one of its competitors had also developed a similar product and was also eyeing up the animal feed market around that time.

And then suddenly, the oil price rocketed up, single cell protein were all but forgotten about as feed ingredients and the industry identified more cost-effective proteins such as soybean meal on which many countries rely even today.

Shell – and I – have turned our attention in different directions over the last 35 years but people say "There's nothing new under the sun" and I was intrigued to read in the last week that Danish researchers are looking to bacteria as a sustainable soybean alternative for pigs.

Instead of mineral oils, the Danes using the greenhouse gas, methane, as the substrate for their new home-produced protein, turning it into pork instead of contributing to global warming.

Aarhus University is working with industry on the production of an innovative and environment-friendly protein feed for pigs to replace imported soybean meal, saying it is a possibility waiting just around the corner.

A professor at the University explained: "The global population is growing both in terms of numbers and wealth. That means a growing demand for meat. The growing demand also means an increasing demand for protein sources to feed the animals, which puts additional pressure on the environment and climate. Hence the need for new thinking."

The need to re-consider this technology and adapt it for the future is all the more pressing following the publication last week of the USDA 'Grain Stocks' report. Market analysts describe as "shockingly short" the year-end soybean stocks ahead of the new harvest, which will likely push prices up even further and add impetus to the search for alternative feed ingredients.

Jackie Linden

Jackie Linden

Top image via Shutterstock

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