The Earth’s population is growing, not only in size but also in appetite. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, demand for meat and dairy will increase 73 percent and 58 percent, respectively, by 2050. Aquaculture will continue to supplant wild-caught seafood as the prime source of aquatic protein. These trends will exacerbate stresses on land, water, energy, oceans, biodiversity, and the climate to produce feed for livestock, be they feathered, finned or furry.
Unfortunately, there are few resources to spare. Agriculture already occupies about 40% of terra firma, more than cities, parks, deserts, and mountains combined. This leaves less than 25% of land for any and all future human uses, including agriculture. Competition for water seems even more intense in a growing number of places, such as California’s San Joaquin Valley and Vietnam’s Mekong River Basin.
The meat, poultry, dairy, and aquaculture industries need to focus strategically on realistic growth models with these limitations of resources in mind. Since total feed production and processing account for a significant portion of the livestock sector’s footprint, including about 45% of its greenhouse gas emissions , producing that feed more efficiently and finding alternatives can help alleviate pressure on land, water and other natural resources.
The opportunities for alternative feeds are great, but finding practical, affordable and scalable solutions is challenging. We need to look at this puzzle from a systems approach, understanding the potential trade-offs and unintended consequences of alternative feeds. For example, replacing fish oil with soybean oil may alleviate pressure on a sardine fishery off the coast of Latin America, but it may put pressure on forests being replaced with soy fields a thousand miles inland.
In some areas, we do not need feed alternatives but rather we need to use livestock herds to graze conventional, marginal and sensitive grasslands to conserve these landscapes and their wildlife, such as the Northern Great Plains and the Swiss Alps.
Another factor to keep in mind is the feed efficiency and health of animals. Using genetics, supplements, probiotics and other tools may be able to promote animal welfare and increase productivity. Of course, each new technology must be carefully tested to protect human, animal, and environmental health.
Improving today’s feed and finding affordable, renewable, and environmentally sustainable alternatives is critical for the future of food. It’s not just up to feed companies and their customers, but it’s up to all of us—companies, governments, financial institutions, NGOs, farmers—to find solutions and scale them up. This is as much a shared responsibility as it is a shared opportunity.
Forum for the Future is now running a global, industry-wide survey focused on understanding the challenges and solutions in scaling up feed innovation, and mapping the key innovations taking place around the world today.
Please take 10 minutes to complete the survey here. Survey closes 6 July 2016.
We will share the results with you in July. We will also be running opinion pieces and discussion boards on hot topics in sustainable feed innovation, so do join the conversation.
Sandra Vijn is a director with WWF’s Sustainable Food program.
Image Credit: Sujan Sundareswaran / Unsplash
 FAO Tackling Climate Change through Livestock, 2013