Scientists are examining how bacteria, viruses and fungi can be used in targeted products for farmed animals, to improve the ratio of muscle to fat, make animals less stressed, stop them from getting infections, or make them grow larger with less food.
The microbes could enable plants and intensively farmed animals thrive on less food, antibiotics, and chemical inputs.
This would decrease pressure from farming on the environment.
Less waste caused by disease and spoilage is another aim, with the same end objective.
“It is about meeting the need for cheap protein in a way that’s environmentally responsible,’ said Tom Gilbert, professor of palaeogenomics at the University of Copenhagen, who leads a project called HoloFood, to strengthen the evidence surrounding microbes and how they interact with animals, and help companies develop more effective products.
“The more efficient the food conversion, the less polluting it is,” he said.
Europeans eat twice as much meat per person now compared to 50 years ago, and the pressure is on to provide people with quality food using fewer resources.
“There’s always going to be critics who say we shouldn’t eat meat.
The microbes live everywhere in people’s and animals’ guts.
They can also be found in probiotic and prebiotic products, already used in the food sector to optimise animal health and growth.
But there is little scientific understanding of how microbes and animals interact.
“The way probiotics and prebiotics are discovered is by trial and error,’ said Dr Antton Alberdi, assistant professor at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, scientific manager of the HoloFood project.
HoloFood scientists use DNA sequencing technologies, which have only recently become affordable, to analyse the effectiveness of microbes.
As well as making meat production more efficient, microbes could also help cut food waste by protecting plants and animals from disease and preventing food from going bad before it reaches people’s homes.
This can reduce the 88 million tonnes of food wasted annually in the EU, about 20% of the total food produced.
“We’re [also] looking at preservation strains that can be put onto the surface of fish to stop contamination, so the fish will have a longer shelf life and also be safer.”
Dr Cotter co-ordinates a project called Master which brings together academics and industry to help get a wide range of new microbe-based products to market, to boost plant, soil and animal health and reduce the need for insecticides, fertilisers and antibiotics. Microbes under study include those that may help produce health-boosting fermented foods, or even reduce greenhouse gas emissions from cattle and other ruminants.
“If we can kill those methane-producing microbes, either through the introduction of other microbes or specific types of food, then there’s a great deal of benefit that can be gained from that,” Dr Cotter said.