Changing Livestock Feed Might Help Save the Planet

large cattle feedlot
Massive cattle feedlots, like this one in Nebraska, take a lot out of the environment, not to mention the cattle. Here large sprinklers have to be used to cool the cows. BanksPhotos/Getty Images

The next time you sit down to eat at the "International House of Burgers" (insert eye roll), you probably won't be thinking about what it took to get that meal on the table. Most of us only meet the meat we consume in the form of burgers, nuggets and bacon, so it can be pretty convenient to ignore what it took to transform all those cows, chickens and pigs into those products.

But even if you're adamant about turning a blind eye to the gory side of food production, it's worth knowing that agricultural feed cultivation takes a lot out of the environment. According to new research, though, switching up the food sources for the animals we eat could go a long way in preserving the planet.


The study, published June 20, 2018 in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, states that replacing just 2 percent of traditional livestock feed like soybeans with protein-packed microbes could cut agricultural greenhouse gas emissions, global cropland area and global nitrogen losses by more than 5 percent.

"Chicken, pigs and cattle munch away about half of the protein feed cultivated on global croplands," study author Benjamin Leon Bodirsky from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), said in a press release, arguing that the current feeding system will lead to ongoing deforestation, biodiversity loss, nutrient pollution and climate-impacting emissions. He and his colleagues are proposing a new technology that could help avoid these negative environmental impacts: Cultivating microbes with energy, nitrogen and carbon in industrial facilities to produce protein powders that are fed to animals. A similar method was developed during the cold war to help provide food for space travel.

"Cultivating feed protein in labs instead of using croplands might be able to mitigate some environmental and climatic impacts of feed production," Bodirsky said. "And our study expects that microbial protein will emerge even without policy support, as it is indeed economically profitable."

Bodirsky and his team drew their conclusions from computer simulations examining the potential payoff — both economic and environmental — of swapping in microbes like bacteria, yeast, fungi or algae, for current feed staples like soybeans and cereals. The researchers assessed five different methods to breed microbes and found that using natural gas or hydrogen could help eliminate pollution, though it does demand a ton of energy.

However, the authors are clear that fattening up livestock on microbes won't solve the agricultural sustainability conundrum. To lessen the environmental impact of the food supply chain, major changes in the agro-food system are needed. And we humans have to simply eat more vegetables and less meat.

"For our environment and the climate, as well as our own health, it might actually be another considerable option to reduce or even skip the livestock ingredient in the food supply chain," added author Alexander Popp from PIK. "After further advances in technology, microbial protein could also become a direct part of the human diet."

So, it looks like eating crickets really isn't such a crazy idea after all. Bon appetit!