The Nutrition Innovation Centre (NIC) is the realm of ForFarmers’ innovation experts. What role do sustainability and our sustainability strategy Going Circular, For the Future of Farming play in their work? We turned to Ad van Wesel, Director NIC, for these questions.
Whenever a new innovation project is about to start, how does that work?
“On an annual basis the NIC works on approximately 50 projects. We label each project, so that they always fit within a research theme. All projects are linked to research themes. Themes directly related to sustainability are environmental impact and animal health and welfare. Two out of five NIC projects carry one or both labels. So you could well say that Going Circular and the underlying objectives are an important part of our daily work.”
What kind of projects should we think of?
“If we look at the animal health and welfare theme, a project like ‘The effect of low-protein feed on animal behaviour’ is a good example. Strikingly, this project immediately uncovers the complexity and paradox we are dealing with: in order to reduce the environmental impact through feed, we are researching options to reduce the amount of crude proteins in feed. On one hand this results in a reduction of ammonia emissions – an important part of the nitrogen debate. But on the other hand we also know that with a lower protein level it is harder to achieve other goals we have set.”
What do you mean by that?
“It is not always the case, but sometimes animal welfare and environmental impact do not serve the same purpose. Looking at animal welfare for example, we strive for calm animal behaviour and no interventions such as docking of pigs’ tails. But lowering the protein level in feed, which is beneficial for the environment, can have a negative effect on animal behaviour. Animals can become restless and hurt each other. Science has not yet figured out why this behaviour seems worse at low protein levels. We want to find out, because then it might become clear how we can mitigate the downside of lower protein levels.”
Zooming in on animal health projects, what else can we think of?
“We run several projects aiming at better gut health, which also leads to less use of antibiotics. And projects in the field of longevity, such as better bones and healthy hooves, which ensure that the animals live longer. This is actually a nice example of how the two - environmental impact and animal welfare - go well together. When animals remain in production for a longer period of time, you need to raise fewer replacement animals, which is positive in terms of reducing emissions.”
The environmental impact of feed is currently a hot topic in the public debate. How does this concern your work at the NIC?
“Several studies are related to this, for example projects aimed at methane, nitrogen and phosphorus reduction. For example, how can we alter our feeds in order to reduce the on-farm emissions, without affecting the productivity of the animals? Also: we aim to process even more by-products from the food industry in our feeds, in order to achieve circularity, and we have fermentation studies. In addition we participate in projects that are about the use of alternative sources of protein, such as insects (SusinChain) or algae (MultiStr3am). There is a lot in motion that links innovation to sustainability.”
Day in day out the colleagues in the Nutrition Innovation Centre work in sector-specific teams and in the new cross-sector X-species team on nutritional innovations and safeguard the nutritional quality of our feed. Together with the animal specialists in the field, they strive for consistent top performance of the animals. And with our Operations colleagues they team up for physically top-quality feed and the development of physically distinctive products.