01 Mar 2019 Story Cities and lifestyles

Could fast-growing lemna replace soy in animal feed?

Photo by Sean Peters, DryGro

When international scientists unveiled a “planetary health diet” in January and said consumers in developed countries needed to drastically reduce their consumption of red meat to avert an environmental catastrophe, some reacted with anger, focusing on the outrageous idea that bacon might disappear from the breakfast table.

But for Sean Peters, Chief Executive Officer of British startup DryGro, the questions surrounding our animal-protein dependency are critical and there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

Reducing meat consumption is problematic because the demand for meat is forecast to increase most in emerging economies where future population growth is expected to be highest. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has forecast an increase of 76 per cent in global meat consumption by 2050.

Meanwhile, the world is running out of land to grow the soybeans used in animal feed. Without a viable, sustainable solution, Peters believes we are storing up problems for the future.

“If we look at the demand projections through 2025, we expect an additional 85 million tonnes of soy to be produced, and that will take up around 23 million hectares of additional arable land … That’s the size of the United Kingdom’s entire land mass,” Peters said, noting that the baseline assumption is that yields per hectare will rise, and this does not account for climate change disruption.

“What happens if we start to see temperatures rise … If we have a low production year? What if we end up in a situation where there’s a decrease in soy production versus demand that will have massive knock-on effects for our larger food systems?”

Agriculture, particularly livestock rearing, has long been an environmental bad boy. The costs are well-known: if cows were a nation, they would be the world’s third largest greenhouse gas emitter while rainforests in South America are frequently chopped down to make room for grazing cattle and for soybean plantations.

Richard Munang, Africa regional climate change specialist with UN Environment, says innovation is critical to create more sustainable farming practices.

"We must do more with less and ensure that all agricultural development safeguards the resources we depend on for our survival. The production of soy for animal feed is an area of concern because we have already seen how the creation of soy plantations can lead to deforestation and the displacement of small farmers in producer countries. Any disruption to the supply of soy for animal feed would have a serious knock-on effect in African countries, where many farmers rely on imported animal feed. It is therefore critical to establish indigenous alternatives that do not destroy the environment,” Munang said.

DryGro has developed a water-efficient technology to grow the aquatic plant lemna, or duckweed, as an alternative to soy. Research has shown that lemna is a good soy replacement, but until now production methods were unreliable and quality was inconsistent. DryGro is testing its system on a demonstration farm in Kenya.

“One of the cool things about lemna is that it is the fruit fly of crops. It grows so incredibly quickly … We’ve designed very large artificially constructed and sealed growing units. This allows us to reuse and recycle the water and produce lemna at a very low water use per tonne,” Peters said.

“Our hope is to eventually use this as a production base for a crop that could supplement soy production globally.”

DryGro has two 200-metre growing units in Naivasha, which allow the company to grow lemna on arid land, using a method that is 99 times more water-efficient than soy. It hopes to expand to 18 farms in the future and is working to raise US$2.6 million in capital.

The company chose Kenya to show that their technology could work in a dry environment. Kenya also imports soy and would benefit if soy was produced close to farmers, reducing transportation costs and also the risk that feed could be tampered with on its way to farms.

It is this kind of out-of-the-box thinking and innovation that will take centre-stage at the fourth UN Environment Assembly in Kenya in March. The motto for the meeting is to think beyond prevailing patterns and live within sustainable limits, something UN Environment is pushing in the agricultural sector in Africa.

“We are acutely aware of the need to include nature-driven agriculture in a new vision of sustainable development,” said Munang. “UN Environment and the African Union helped establish the Ecosystems-Based Adaptation for Food Security Assembly to help foster policies that combat food insecurity, climate change, ecosystems degradation and poverty by taking a holistic, pan-African approach to managing our rich natural resources.”

DryGro is not the only company looking for alternative animal feed products but Peters says most research has, until now, been focused on the fish meal sector.

“That’s the canary in the mine shaft for feed scarcity. Fish meal has a higher protein content than soy. It has Omega 3 fatty acids … If you want to do any kind of aquaculture, you need to have those Omega 3s. Because of overfishing globally, the aquaculture industry has been struggling over the past 30 years to produce enough fish meal … So most innovation in this space has been around trying to find feed crops and protein ingredients that also have Omega 3s,” he said.

There has been relatively little competition in trying to find soy replacement crops, he says, because the unit economics are challenging.

Peters is aware that critics might say our meat-eating culture is the real problem but, given the fact that meat-eating is increasing in emerging economies, dietary changes are not going to be enough. That’s why the feed industry must become more sustainable.

“Do I think that, even in the most optimistic scenario, we’re going to be able to get through the next century without drastically rethinking our food systems? I don’t,” he said. “We need to have step-change technology innovation so that the path of least resistance is not environmental damage.”

 

Ahead of the United Nations Environment Assembly next March, UN Environment is urging people to Think Beyond and Live Within. Join the debate on social media using #SolveDifferent to share your stories and see what others are doing to ensure a sustainable future for our planet.