How feeding pigs with leftovers can save the rainforest

In 2001 a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in the United Kingdom was traced back to a farmer that illegally fed uncooked waste to his pigs. It left the country’s agricultural industry in tatters — over 10 million sheep and cattle were killed in an effort to contain the disease. Later that year EU legislators banned the use of human food waste (or swill) as pig feed, a decision that is now coming under a lot of fire from disgruntled livestock farmers and the scientific community.

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Following the ban, EU pig farmers had to turn to grain and soybean-based feedstock for their animals, a costly and land-consuming swift; a new study, looking into the effects this decision has had on the industry, estimates that lifting the ban would not only provide a use for the estimated 100 million tonnes of food wasted in the EU each year, but also save 1.8 million hectares of global agricultural land – an area roughly half the size of Germany. These areas include hundreds of thousands of acres of uniquely biodiverse land in developing countries, such as South America’s forests and savannah.

Hot leftovers, hotter debate

The main concern of legislators that decided upon the ban was preventing a similar outbreak from hitting what was at that time a struggling industry. But while the EU took this drastic decision other countries, most notably Japan, responded by (very successfully) regulating the heat-treatment system that turns food waste to animal feed. Japan is currently reusing over 35% of its food waste as feedstock, and its swill-fed “Eco-pork” makes a pretty profit in Europe as a premium product.

This is why researchers and farmers have come to describe the EU’s ban as a “knee-jerk reaction,” a panicked hit on the big red “NO” button that just doesn’t make sense anymore.

The authors looked at the current land use of EU’s pork industry, availability of food waste and quality and quantity of the meat from feed trials that compares pigswill to grain-based diets to estimate how much land could be saved if the ban was lifted. The models in the paper show that pigswill reintroduction would not only decrease the amount of land the EU pork industry requires by 21.5%.

Where there’s swill there’s a way

Lead researcher of the study, Erasmus zu Ermgassen from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology said in the paper:

“Following the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak, different countries looked at the same situation, the same evidence, and came to opposite conclusions for policy. In many countries in East Asia we have a working model for the safe use of food waste as pig feed. It is a highly regulated and closely monitored system that recycles food waste and produces low-cost pig feed with a low environmental impact.”

The meat industry is a big part of the global agricultural sector — some 75% of farmland worldwide is used to feed and rear our livestock. The European Union reports that around 34kg of pork are produced domestically per capita each year, a huge 21 and a half million tonnes of meat in total. And much of the industry’s environmental burden can be attributed to the farms that grow their feed — dedicated farming of cereal and soybean meal uses up in excess of 1.2 million hectares of land across South American countries.

But swill is readily available, doesn’t require any new farmland to be cleared and is much cheaper than soybean-based feed. Reintroducing swill feeding would reduce operating costs of EU pig farmers by 50%, the researchers report. So why are legislators reticent in changing current policy? Zu Ermgassen argues that those concerns are largely based on incorrect assumptions that feeding pigs our leftovers is unnatural.

“Pigs are omnivorous animals; in the wild they would eat anything they could forage for, from vegetable matter to other animal carcasses, and they have been fed food waste since they were domesticated by humans 10,000 years ago. Swill actually provides a more traditional diet for pigs than the grain-based feed currently used in modern EU systems,” he said.

“A recent survey found that 25% of smallholder farmers in the UK admit to illegally feeding uncooked food waste to their pigs, so the fact is that the current ban is not particularly safe from a disease-outbreak perspective. Feeding uncooked food waste is dangerous because pigs can catch diseases from raw meat, but a system supporting the regulated use of heat-treated swill does not have the same risks,” he added.

As demand for meat and dairy products is believed to increase by 60% till 2050, reducing the environmental footprint of our livestock farms will become increasingly critical. Zu Ermgassen points out that economic and environmental concern is driving a reassessment of EU animal feed bans that were put in place in the 2000s, as well as attempts to recycle food waste more effectively. The EU is currently looking into repealing bans on using waste pig and poultry products as fish feed and reintroducing insects as pig and poultry feed.

“The reintroduction of swill feeding in the EU would require backing from pig producers, the public, and policy makers, but it has substantial potential to improve the environmental and economic sustainability of EU pork production. It is time to reassess whether the EU’s blanket ban on the use of food waste as feed is the right thing for the pig industry,” he said.

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