Study suggests it’s time to start feeding pigs food waste

New research suggests that feeding food waste to pigs (currently banned under EU law) could save 1.8 million hectares of global agricultural land and provide a use for the 100 million tonnes of food wasted in the EU each year.

A new study funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council shows that if the EU lifted the pigswill ban imposed following 2001’s foot-and-mouth disease epidemic, and harnessed technologies developed in East Asian countries for heat-treating our food waste to safely turn it into pig feed, about 1.8 million hectares of land could be saved from being stripped for grain and soybean-based pig feed production – including more than 250,000ha of Brazilian forest and savannah.

Erasmus zu Ermgassen, from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology, who led the study described the EU ban as a “knee-jerk reaction” that no longer makes sense when East Asian countries have demonstrated that food waste can be safely recycled.

The models in the latest study show that pigswill reintroduction would not only decrease the amount of land the EU pork industry requires by 21.5%, but also cut in half the feed costs faced by European pig farmers.

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

Livestock production occupies approximately 75% of agricultural land worldwide – with most of this used to produce animal feed. For EU pork, much of the environmental burden stems from the farming of soyabean meal, which takes up in excess of 1.2 million hectares of land across South America.

Most objection to swill feeding in the EU stems from concerns about safety, and the sentiment that feeding human food waste to pigs is unnatural. But Mr zu Ermgassen argued that those concerns are largely based on incorrect assumptions.

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

Illegal feeding
“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.”

With the demand for meat and dairy products forecast to increase 60% by 2050, reducing the environmental footprint of current systems of meat production will become increasingly critical.

Mr zu Ermgassen pointed 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 introducing 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,” he said. “It’s 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.”

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