This is how much land can be saved by feeding food waste to pigs

Feeding food waste to pigs was banned across Europe in 2002 after it was identified as the culprit of the devastating outbreak of foot and mouth disease in England the year before. Now, a recent paper in the journal Food Policy makes a compelling environmental case for lifting the EU ban, with a first-of its kind analysis of how much land could be spared from farming if pigs were fed treated, recycled food waste.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology found that including food waste in pig diets could reduce the amount of land that is farmed to produce soybeans and grain for EU pork by 21.5 percent, or by roughly 4.4 million acres. Of note, some 662,242 of these acres are in Brazil, where highly-biodiverse tropical forests and savannahs are increasingly being cleared to grow soybeans.

To calculate the potential land-sparing power of swill, lead author Erasmus zu Ermgassen and his co-authors calculated the amount of land currently used for EU pork production, reviewed 18 trials evaluating how well pigs grow on conventional vs. food waste diets, and analyzed the availability of food waste in Europe. They assumed that the EU could convert about 40% of its food waste to animal feed, on par with what’s reused in Japan and South Korea, where swill feeding is legal and highly regulated.

Taking a closer look at swill feeding in Japan and South Korea, the researchers note that disease outbreaks in these countries in 2010 and 2011 were not associated with swill. That’s due in large part to how the food waste is heat treated at centralized, registered facilities. In addition, the case studies from the two countries found that even though it takes pigs raised on a partial swill diet longer to reach slaughter weight, raising pigs on swill (rebranded as Ecofeed in Japan) is still 40 to 60 percent cheaper than doing so purely on conventional feed.

“One of the most surprising aspects of the study was the economics,” says Ermgassen. “Feeding food waste to pigs is really profitable.”

In the United States, 22 states ban feeding so-called swill to pigs, according to the USDA. Even where it is legal, however, Ermgassen says it is not very common.

With the demand for meat—and feed prices—on the rise, Ermgassen says that lifting the ban is an “environmental and economic win-win”. If this isn’t enough to convince even the most pig-headed opponents, perhaps his future area of research will. Next, Ermgassen will be analyzing the greenhouse gas savings from keeping all that food waste out of landfills. – Catherine Elton | 15 January 2016

Source: Erasmus K.H.J. zu Ermgassen, Ben Phalan, Rhys E. Green and Andrew Balmford. 2016. Reducing the land use of EU pork production: where there’s swill, there’s a way. Food Policy, 58 doi:10.1016/j.foodpol.2015.11.001

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