When we first convened the Protein Challenge 2040 more than three years ago to start exploring the future of protein, I had no idea that I would get passionate about what animals are being fed - and encouraging the food industry to be the same.

It shouldn’t have surprised me. Environmental issues and the future of protein are topping the agenda for global government and business leaders. Consumption of meat, dairy and farmed fish is projected to increase, particularly in emerging economies, as the world’s population grows to nearly 10 billion by 2050. Animal feed is emerging as a vital yet unseen input with significant implications for environmental health and food security.

Simon Billing opinion quote

Over half of our agricultural land is used for feeding animals, and many of the crops we presently grow for animals are highly nutritive foods like soy and maize that are edible for humans. Animal feed is also a critical part of protein production’s environmental impact: 45% of global greenhouse gas emissions from livestock production are related to feed production and processing.

Our new report, Feed Behind Our Food, is a call for food retailers to recognise their vital role in accelerating progress on sustainable animal feed by collaborating more with supply chains. There is also a golden opportunity for retailers to reduce dependency on imported feedstocks and uncertain commodity prices, as well as create shorter supply chains for resilient and supplier relationships.

Many retailers have made strong commitments to work on traceability and certified sources of sustainable soy. Waitrose is working towards sourcing more raw feed from the UK and Europe.

We’re also seeing a new vanguard of alternative feed ingredients, which might help to take the pressure off our precious natural resources. These range from insect-based protein to oils from marine algae, feed additives like amino acids, and protein sourced from methane-eating bacteria. Retailers could work with suppliers to provide a supportive environment to trial these ingredients.

Effective action will require a shared understanding and agreement across the supply chain on the characteristics of future fit animal feed. In our report, we’ve made the first attempt to articulate a shared set of criteria for what sustainable animal feed looks like. This moves away from single issues to address the full spectrum of impacts associated with animal feed, from greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity to high labour standards. We want the whole supply chain to reach a common vision of how to compare different feed ingredients and give their backing to the most future fit.

Just as humans need a better balance of proteins in our diets, our livestock and fish need more diverse diets that have a lower environmental impact. If we want meat, dairy and fish to be a secure part of the future grocery offer, we need to start addressing animal feed by taking a lead and working with animal protein and feed producers.

Simon Billing is Forum for the Future lead on the Protein Challenge 2040 coalition