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Changing animal feed could supply food for one billion people

Millions of people around the globe are currently facing malnutrition or even famine, while the production of feed for livestock and fish is tying up limited natural resources which could be used to produce food for people. A new study led by Aalto University in Finland has shown how certain adjustments to animal feed could maintain production while also making more food available for people. According to the experts, implementing a series of relatively simple changes could increase the global food supply substantially, providing calories for 13 percent more people without requiring increases in natural resource uses or major dietary changes.

Currently, about a third of cereal crop production is used as animal feed, while a quarter of captured fish are not used to feed people. To find ways of solving these pressing problems, the researchers investigated the potential of using crop residues and food by-products in livestock and aquaculture production, thus freeing-up a significant amount of material that could feed people.

“This was the first time anyone has collected the food and feed flows in this detail globally, from both terrestrial and aquatic systems, and combined them together. That let us understand how much of the food by-products and residues is already in use, which was the first step to determining the untapped potential,” said study senior author Matti Kummu, an associate professor of Global Water and Food Issues at Aalto.

By analyzing the flow of food and feed – together with their by-products and residues – through the global food production system, the researchers identified ways of changing these flows to produce better outcomes for people. For instance, livestock and farmed fish could be fed with food system by-products, such as citrus pulp or sugar beet, rather than with materials that are also fit for human use. 

With these changes, between 10 and 26 percent of total cereal production and 17 million tons of fish could be redirected from animal feed to human use, which would lead to gains in food supply of 6-13 percent in terms of caloric content and 9-15 percent in terms of protein content.  “That may not sound like a lot, but that’s food for up to about one billion people,” said study lead author Vilma Sandström, a postdoctoral fellow in Food Systems Sustainability and Transformation at Aalto.

However, implementing such changes would require significant adjustments in supply chains. “For example, we’d need to reorganize the food system so that the industries and producers with by-products can find the livestock and aquaculture producers who would need them. And some of the by-products would need processing prior to using them as feed,” Dr. Sandström explained.

“I don’t think there’s any serious problem with doing this. What we’re suggesting is already being done on a certain scale and in some areas, so it’s not something that would have to be developed from scratch. We just need to adjust the current system and increase the scale of those practices,” concluded Professor Kummu.

The study is published in the journal Nature Food.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer  

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