Getting feed from around the world causes transport emissions; soya is a particular cause for concern Ireland is renowned for rolling green pastures and sought-after food products.
But annual imports of 3.47m tonnes (mt) of animal feed are also part of the picture. Ireland is especially dependent on feed imports because of our high proportion of livestock production compared to tillage area.
About two thirds of the animal feeds marketed here are imported, compared to 37% in the UK, 27% in France, and 26% in Germany.
The main commodities imported are maize and maize byproducts, soyabean meal and soya hulls, and rapeseed meal. Up to 90% of the soyabean and maize products are imported from Argentina, Brazil, and the USA.
Our pig, poultry, and dairy sectors are particularly dependent on imports of GM soybean and GM maize by-products. Almost 1.7mt of soya and maize genetically modified (GM) products were imported into Ireland for animal feeds in 2017, constituting approximately 50% of total feed imports.
Significant quantities of non-GM maize and oilseed rape meal are also imported, from continental Europe, including Ukraine.
About 5m EU farmers raise animals, requiring 450mt of animal feed annually.
Recognising the EU’s over-dependency on imported proteins for animal feed, the EU Commission will publish a plan by the end of this year, with proposals to reduce over-reliance on imports.
Apart from dependence on getting feed from around the world, and the pollution and emissions associated with its transportation, soya is a particular cause for concern.
The worldwide growth of the soybean crop has caused large scale loss of biodiversity and wildlife habitat in already vulnerable places such as the Amazon rainforest.
The World Wildlife Fund recently focused on “hidden impacts that animal feed has on our planet”, and concluded that a reduction in meat consumption could alleviate these impacts. That is a shock for farmers, and others whose livelihoods are rooted in agriculture. But what role can they play?
Soybean production isn’t possible in Ireland, but growing other protein crops on our home soil can reduce demand for imported feed.
Ireland’s EU-funded Protein Aid Scheme, introduced in 2015, subsidises farmers for growing beans, peas, and lupins. Last year, the payment rate was set at €215 per hectare, and 1,200 people applied.
“The area of pulses, primarily beans and peas, grown in Ireland is 12,500 hectares. This is up from 3,500 hectares in 2012,” says head of crops science at Teagasc John Spink. “In terms of bean production, they would be grown on existing tillage land in a rotation with cereal crops.”
“From an environmental standpoint, they provide an important flowering crop of value to bees. They also fix nitrogen from the atmosphere and transfer it to the soil.”
However, as noted by animal and grassland researcher at Teagasc Laurence Shalloo, growing these crops domestically can only get us so far.
“In terms of potential production, we could only produce a fraction of the protein requirements of our livestock industries. If we absolutely maximised bean production on our existing tillage area, we could produce 360,000 tonnes per annum.”
Increasing the number of grazing days for livestock could be a way of further bringing down the reliance on imports, says Shalloo.
“Grazed grass obviously has sufficient protein to meet the requirements of dairy and beef animals and sheep. Maximising the grazing days in livestock production systems will reduce supplemented protein requirements.”
Co Cork dairy farmer Peter Hynes operates a grass-based system. But the 90 tonnes of animal feed he uses annually contains soya, something he’s trying to change.
“One of the big issues we are all well aware of is that the price of soya can fluctuate greatly, and can drive up the price of dairy rations overnight, so we definitely need to steer away from it,” he says.
The fact that most imported soya is genetically-modified (GM) is another incentive to seek out alternatives, according to Hynes, who says there is growing consumer demand for GM-free products in some of Ireland’s biggest dairy markets, such as Germany.
When it comes to reducing soya imports, he says this is likely to be a greater source for concern to Irish farmers than deforestation abroad.
“I do think we need to look at the carbon footprint of our milk, and that includes what we put into the feed, the haulage process and everything else,” he adds. “We can’t discount where our feed comes from. The carbon footprint of soya is huge, and it’s only going to get bigger.”
Professor emeritus of European agricultural policy at Trinity College Alan Matthews does not regard our reliance on imported soya as a large worry, and has no personal worries about the safety of GM soybeans. However, he does recognise the reality of “asynchronous approval” problems.
“A high share of soybeans are GM. In the EU, there’s no legal problem with that, except that each particular GM needs to be approved, before it can be brought in. This is quite a complicated and time-consuming process.”
Matthews says that this can be problematic if a supplier country introduces a new GM variety of soybean that has yet to be approved in Europe.
“They may try to ensure that shipments to Europe are separate, but it’s inevitably going to get contaminated somewhere along the line. You end up in a situation where you have a shipment from somewhere with this new GM variety, it’s detected at entry and then refused,” he says.
“That’s a concern for the European livestock sector, that they could find themselves inadvertently unable to import feed.”
Matthews believes that growing more protein crops in Ireland may have other consequences, saying we will either have to substitute other forms of production or clear more land to facilitate it.
“Are you therefore protecting the environment, by increasing the area granted to protein crops in Ireland, if the objective is to reduce land usage overall?”
However, he also recognises that deforestation and biodiversity loss occur elsewhere. In order to conquer this, he says we should “use our market power as an importer” to insist on the countries we get the feedstuffs from protecting their vulnerable habitats and raising their standards.
Secretary of the Irish Pig Health Society Shane McAuliffe, from McAuliffe Pig Farms in Co Kerry, has worked with nutritionists from Cargill to reduce the amount of soya protein in his pigs’ diets by 20%, subsequently reducing his pigs’ ammonia emissions by 15%. He also incorporates seaweed into the diets, which he says is reducing his costs and need for antibiotics, while maintaining the health and growth-rate of his animals.
As technology advances, he’s positive we can “significantly reduce” our reliance on imported feed. “Science and technology are moving forward rapidly and more sources of feed are available. It’s up to the government to provide incentives and make policy to use more sustainable practices,” adds McAuliffe, who says he sees promise in new feed sources such as algae and insect protein.