The project, Nitrogen Efficient Plants for Climate Smart Arable Cropping Systems (NCS), is a four-year £5.9m (US$7.61m) initiative involving 200 UK farms and 17 industry partners, funded by the UK's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affair (Defra) and delivered by Innovate UK.
The idea is to support farmers in reducing agricultural emissions by increasing pulse cropping in arable rotations while also enabling the substitution of 50% of imported soybean meal used in feed with home-grown pulses and legumes.
Pig and poultry feed manufacturer, ABN, is part of the consortium of UK companies, research institutes and farmer networks involved in the project, which is led by the UK's Processors and Growers Research Organization (PGRO).
“The project directly complements ABN’s long-term strategy, as we strive to reduce the carbon footprint of our supply chain, while supporting the future of the British pig and poultry livestock industries,” said Brian Kenyon, ABN senior nutrition manager.
“A key part of that approach involves placing greater emphasis on research into the increased use of UK-grown pulses as an alternative protein source in our feed."
The goals of the project will be steered by science, but proven by farmers, through a series of paid-for on-farm trials.
Chief executive of the PGRO, Roger Vickers, weighed in on the project: “Everyone knows that pulses and legumes have considerable benefits for UK farming systems. But these have never been truly and accurately measured. So, their value has been sorely underplayed and their potential to address the climate crisis has gone unrecognised.
"Together we can change that. We now have the science, the tools, and the know-how among UK farmers, not only to tap into that potential, but to develop it further. Bringing that talent together is what lies at the heart of NCS – it’s never been done before, and there’s never been a project on this scale with this much ambition.”
Tracking farm emissions
The first stage of the project will give 200 UK farmers direct support to establish their business’ carbon baseline, using the Farm Carbon Toolkit. The greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from these farms will then be tracked throughout the project and will form a fundamental part of the dataset.
The leading innovators among them will then be paid to work with scientists to co-design crop and feeding trials to carry out on their farms.
The farm trials will incorporate some of the latest research and innovations from UK institutes and tech companies. "These will be underpinned by a rigorous use of data, including the UK’s first ever full lifecycle analysis of cropping rotations and livestock systems."
Challenges with alternative protein sources
While the UK pig sector is constantly exploring alternative protein sources, it is nowhere near being in a position yet to move away from imported soy entirely, according to UK National Pig Association (NPA) chief executive, Lizzie Wilson.
She told BBC Radio 4's Farming Today program that it is impossible to just remove soy completely from a pig's diet because it is still the most efficient source of protein available and "is easier to digest for the pig, so it creates much less nitrogen out of the back end.”
She stressed that the industry is increasingly importing its soy from sustainable, deforestation-free sources, reporting that 70% of soy imported into the UK is accredited as coming from sources carrying no deforestation risk and she said that, of that remaining 30%, around 27% is from land with low risk of any deforestation.
Alternative protein sources "were not going to be this ‘magical, cheap silver bullet’ people sometimes think they are because of the logistics and cost associated with them and the lack of efficiency compared with soy."
“If you look at the alternatives, there is no easy and straightforward option. If it was that simple, we would have been doing it by now. Locally-sourced cereals and legumes are far less protein dense, insect protein is still a number of years off and food waste comes with a significant disease risk,” she added.
Last month saw the Landworkers’ Alliance join up with Sustain, Pasture for Life and UK grain and pulse pioneers, Hodmedod, to launch a report calling for the UK pig and poultry sectors to break away from a reliance on soy in feed rations, in order to prevent deforesation. It sought to show how exploring alternatives to soy-based pig and poultry feeds, including home-grown peas and beans, co-products, by-products and food waste, there could be a significant reduction in soy demand.
One of their potential future scenarios explores what might be possible if current UK cropland area was prioritised for growing pulses for human consumption, and pig and poultry were fed on byproducts and food waste inedible for humans such as heat treated food waste, insect feed, pasture, and co-products from pulse production.
However, to ensure people living in the UK have an adequate protein intake – from both plants and animal products - the authors calculated that for such a scenario pig and poultry production would have to decrease by over 80%.