Expert opinion

Leftovers, ASF and sustainability

With the ongoing spread of African Swine Fever in China, the use of swill has been identified as a culprit. No matter how important it is to pay more attention to food and feed safety, it is also wise to remind ourselves of how to produce sustainably as well, writes Pig Progress editor Vincent ter Beek.

Kitchen waste, according to the Chinese authorities, has been one of the major causes for the spread of African Swine Fever through China. For that reason, the authorities have banned its use for feeding to pigs.

Foot-and-Mouth Disease created a big problem to the UK in 2001. Photo: David Burch
Foot-and-Mouth Disease created a big problem to the UK in 2001. Photo: David Burch

In doing so, the Chinese are rapidly learning a lesson that the British learnt the hard way 2 decades ago. In 2001, the country spent £8 billion (€ 9 billion) to get rid of the aftermath of the Foot-and-Mouth Disease (FMD) outbreaks which cost the lives of millions of sheep and cattle. “The epidemic was probably caused” – I’m quoting Wikipedia here – “by pigs which had been fed infected rubbish that had not been properly heat-sterilised.”

The danger of feeding swill to animals

The severity of that lesson can be seen on a daily basis at social media. Especially in areas where African Swine Fever has not emerged, i.e. most countries in Western Europe, but also northern America, veterinarians, nutritionists and other agricultural experts leave no opportunity unused to warn for the danger of feeding swill to animals. After all, depending on the type of substrate it is on, ASF virus can live from several months up to several years even.

Read more on African Swine Fever in the Pig Progress Health Tool

Make no mistake – I do perfectly understand the ‘why’ behind each of their words as the fate of an entire industry is at stake. Yet there’s something else that needs attention.

Vision for the future of agriculture

For that, follow me to my country the Netherlands. This September, the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality launched a ‘vision’ for the future (all in Dutch, I’m afraid). No policy document yet, but a package of ideas where the country will likely have to go. Key to this vision is the concept of a circular economy, with words like ‘local’ and ‘re-use’ being common. The thought is that the Netherlands should become a leader in circular economy, and should have an agriculture that can do without synthetic fertilisers, which will not erode the soil and will take care of both biodiversity as well as animal welfare. It has been received with a mixture of opinions – from praise to heavy criticism.

On the closing of the circular production chains, the Netherlands agricultural minister Carola Schouten said: “[This should happen] within a farm, a region, the Netherlands or even within international trade. The motto should be: arrange things locally if it can be done locally, arrange things regionally or internationally if you have to. Leftovers from the agricultural sector and the food chains have to be re-used or re-processed to new products.”

The circular economy and animal husbandry

What that all means for animal husbandry? It means that feed should come increasingly from own soil or at least from areas close by. By-products from other sectors will come back as animal feed. The emission of greenhouse gases, dust particles, odour and ammonia will have to come down further; animal welfare and animal health will get a stronger priority. The exact roll-out of the circular economy will determine how many animals exactly can be kept.

A good and well-known example of re-use of by-products: whey from cheese production is supplied to weaner pigs. Photo: Hans Prinsen
A good and well-known example of re-use of by-products: whey from cheese production is supplied to weaner pigs. Photo: Hans Prinsen

Especially the phrase ‘leftovers from the agricultural sector and the food chains’ is intriguing. Far from this being a call to immediately start re-using swill as feed, it is an attempt by the Dutch authorities to start thinking more and better how (industrial) left-overs can be used more cleverly. And bear in mind that this call happened in an advanced industry where there is already a great deal of re-use of by-products.

Important message for swine producers

I think the vision holds an important message for agricultural experts and swine producers all over the planet. In an attempt to provide more food for all people, intensive livestock production has been encouraged everywhere over the last few decades. As countries and consumers grew richer, not only food security issues but also food safety and even food quality issues have become important.

Distillers’ Dried Grains with Solubles (DDGS) are a good example of re-use of by-products from the biofuel production chain. Photo: Vincent ter Beek
Distillers’ Dried Grains with Solubles (DDGS) are a good example of re-use of by-products from the biofuel production chain. Photo: Vincent ter Beek

For professional livestock farms all over the world, this means that the majority of animal nutrition is being produced in feed mills, using ingredients often specifically grown or produced for consumption by livestock. A controlled process, in which each step is controlled and each introduction of bad substances is excluded as much as possible – from mycotoxins to bacteria or viruses.

Worlds need to come together

In the message of the Netherlands ministry, I hear that that world needs to come together with that of other industries, including that of waste management. If we want to be thinking of a more sustainable way of producing, we can simply not ignore the variety of leftovers, by-products and even waste that is becoming available every year.

In South Korea and Japan 40% of food waste is recycled under tightly conditions. Read more in this study from the University of Cambridge, UK

Making the re-use process reliable, flawless and in line with the high demands of modern-day swine farmers, feed mills, retail stores, critical consumers as well as political institutions in my view, may seem like a huge challenge – yet it is one we need to address. When possible, it needs to happen to produce more sustainably in the future.

A new taboo on ingredients?

What I am worried about, however, is that this thought process is slowed down substantially, as a result of African Swine Fever. Now everybody is being so concerned about using swill as feed, I’m quite afraid that the broader, contextual thinking about re-use of ingredients in general is also receiving that label of ‘taboo’.

I can imagine being extremely careful about ingredients is the right thing for the swine business on the short term. But please, let’s just not forget thinking about the longer term as well.

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