Trying to Solve the Fishy Problem Behind Livestock Feed

As farmers try to meet consumer demand for sustainable meat and dairy, there’s a need to find new food sources for animals.
(Photo: Full Sun Company/Facebook)
Nov 28, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

The curious, expectant goats standing at the door of a barn at Ayers Brook Goat Dairy in Randolph, Vermont, might be Full Sun Company’s cutest customers. The floppy-eared herd munches on feed mixed with oilseed meal that is a by-product of Full Sun’s production of cold-pressed, non-GMO canola and sunflower oil. Reports on the quality and quantity of the goats’ milk, which is used to make the Vermont Creamery products that stock the dairy case of Whole Foods Markets, have been given the thumbs-up.

“The results have been measurably positive since they started working with us,” said Full Sun’s Netaka White. “They’ve been able to reduce if not eliminate imported soymeal from their mixed ration.”

This fall, Full Sun received $200,000 in financing from the Fair Food Fund that will help it ramp up production of its oils and meals with four presses that should be up and running in its Middlebury, Vermont, facility by late 2018. All this is good news for the beef cattle, poultry, and pork area farmers who are equally committed to avoiding GMOs.

“The very recent rise in interest and demand and availability of non-GMO products was eventually going to have to get to the feed side,” White said. Full Sun is the first certified non-GMO oil mill producing meal in the Northeast. “Unless you’re committed to the traceability and all your suppliers are committed to traceability,” livestock feed could be made with just about anything, according to White.

In Vermont, where the bar for fair food is set sky-high—the state took first prize for the second year in a row in a ranking of local food production—there’s a market for high-quality livestock feed that meets the same measures of sustainability consumers have come to expect from farmers and their animals. In this regard, Full Sun represents the best of the local movement. But even farms motivated solely by the bottom line may soon be forced to consider alternative animal feeds. The question is whether at-scale alternatives will beget new environmental problems.

That’s the problem at hand. The protein in commercial animal feed often comes from fish meal and oil made from small forage fish, such as herring or sardines, that make up the base of the marine food web. There’s a long history of this: Fish meal’s antecedent is mentioned in The Travels of Marco Polo, and the Norwegians were pressing oil from herring using wooden boards and stones as early as A.D. 800. But—big surprise—we’ve overdone it.

In 2016, the U.S. banned sardine fishing along the West Coast for the second straight year after finding populations had declined 90 percent since 2007. Up to 90 percent of the forage fish that are hauled out of the oceans go into pet food, poultry feed, and fishmeal, as San Francisco’s KQED reported.

High-protein soy and canola have been used in livestock feed at the commodity scale, and operations like Full Sun are pushing the envelope on being non-GMO, but soy has its own host of problems. Its growth has been the cause of global deforestation, and the meal can cause digestive problems for animals. So some are looking to other tiny, fatty creatures that are in far larger supply as a solution.

“My effort is to restore those ecosystems by putting proteins on the market that don’t destroy ecosystems,” ecologist Philip Taylor and founder of Mad Agriculture told Colorado Public Radio. In his “insect refinery,” voracious maggots feed on ginger and other waste from a Boulder juice company. The mature bugs are dried in a hot oven and turned into pellets. His final product is 42 percent protein and 34 percent fat—comparable to fish meal.

Some studies have also found that using algae in livestock feed as a soy substitute could have positive environmental benefits. In California, biotech company Calysta, in collaboration with food giant Cargill, is building a factory that turns methane into livestock feed. The feed has been approved in the European Union for farmed fish and livestock, and Calysta is seeking approval in the U.S. too—for more than livestock feed.

“We want to take it all the way to cats and dogs and potentially even humans,” said the head of Calysta, Alan Shaw. Yum.

An audit by Carbon Trust found that on a large scale, the product would use 77 to 98 percent less water than soy and wheat proteins and would require almost no agricultural land. But a factory producing 200,000 metric tons of feed a year would also increase emissions of carbon dioxide, contributing to climate change.

It doesn’t sound like the kind of alternative that would be attractive to Netaka White’s Vermont neighbors.

“We’re part of a growing network of farms and producers who are working to realign the food system here in the Northeast to rely more on local and regional sourcing, production, and markets,” he said. “That’s where Full Sun established its business, to be able to be one of those players.”

Full Sun’s mission aligns with the wishes of customers who are committed to quality in every link of the food chain and who prefer not to be reliant on far-flung sources of animal feed, White said. They also opt to benefit from the intangibles at play in the cyclical nature of the local economy.

When you’re working on a local scale, “you know the face of the people involved in this part of the food system—that’s important to them.”