Climate protection: Grass is the solution
Climate protection

Grass is the solution

Protein from grass: Will new technology make soy imports superfluous in the future?
Protein from grass: Will new technology make soy imports superfluous in the future?

DENMARK, Copenhagen. Meat production must become more climate-friendly. Denmark's pig sector has set itself ambitious targets to this end.

By 2050, nearly ten billion people will populate the earth, according to the UN. That would be about two billion more inhabitants than today. In global terms, this will also increase the demand for protein. And as the appetite for meat continues to develop, particularly in the emerging countries, with the growth in economic performance and per capita income, Denmark, as a classic pork exporting nation, sees further potential in this sector. Pork accounts for almost half of the kingdom's agricultural exports and more than 5% of its total export volume.

Achieving more with less

At the same time, however, there is growing concern about the climate, especially in industrialized nations, which actually stands in the way of expanding meat production. Not so for the Danes: their agriculture wants to produce "more with less," i.e. more, but with less environmental and climate impact. The industry is turning all the screws to make meat production as climate-friendly as possible.

The Danish pig sector has developed a vision for this: From 2050, pork production is to be completely climate-neutral. The first milestone is to halve the environmental footprint of meat by 2030, although our neighbors have already made good progress in this area in recent years: since 1990, the Danish pork industry has increased its production by 40% while reducing emissions by 40%.

Incidentally, according to studies by the Danish Pig Research Centre SEGES, the majority of greenhouse gases are produced during fattening, namely 57%. Transport (three percent) and slaughter (five percent), on the other hand, have a much smaller impact on the climate. For Lisbeth Henricksen, director of innovation at SEGES Innovation, it's clear: "There's no doubt that agriculture and food production play a central role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, and we need to find ways to reduce the sector's carbon footprint."

In 2019, the Danish Technological Institute identified 10 development goals to help the industry develop and implement the right solutions to current challenges (see box). These primarily include items such as increasing efficiency while conserving resources, but animal and human welfare are also defined goals.
Ten goals for a good climate
  • Technology and cleaning support 24/7 production.
  • 50% less water consumption (based on 2017).
  • Conversion of transport from frozen to superchilled.
  • Production technologies support small batches.
  • Optimal utilization of raw materials through digital value chains.
  • Elimination of stressful workflows.
  • Efficiency increase of 30% (based on 2017).
  • Maximum lead time of 17 hours.
  • 25% reduction in energy consumption (based on 2017).
  • Maximization of animal welfare, product quality and food safety.
According to Danish researchers, the biggest factors influencing the climate are feed cultivation, litter size and pig digestion. As a result, the industry is tackling several issues at the same time. One important adjusting screw: feed. From 2025, the soy used to feed Danish pigs is to come exclusively from responsible and sustainable production. In concrete terms, this means that no more soy will be grown on land that has been cleared of forest. In order to become less dependent on imports in this context, Denmark is stepping up the cultivation of domestic protein crops. While these supplied a share of 20% last year, the quota is to be doubled this year.

Grass protein instead of soy

One promising approach is the production of grass protein as a feed additive. Using a centrifuge, protein is extracted from the previously shredded and pressed stalks, and a highly concentrated green powder is produced from it by heating and drying. Tests conducted by Aarhus University have shown that this grass protein concentrate has a protein content of around 50%. That puts it on par with soybean meal. And the amino acid composition appears to be at least as good as that of soy protein. Grass shows high levels of unsaturated fatty acids.

The process is particularly interesting for the production of organic pork. This is because self-sufficiency and sustainability play a prominent role here. In addition, organic soy is about twice as expensive as conventional soy. This makes the use of grass protein, which is currently still quite expensive to produce, all the more attractive.

Denmark's first farm facility for biorefining grass has gone into operation on the Ausumgaard estate not far from the small Jutland town of Struer. The Danish Ministry of Food, Environment and Fisheries has provided funding of DKK 14 mill. (around € 1.88 mill.) for this as part of the "TailorGrass Project." "This technology has enormous potential, which I think we can also use on a larger scale and in other farms and areas," said Mogens Jensen, the minister in office at the time, underlining the pilot nature of the plant. Grass, he said, is a locally produced sustainable alternative protein source that could help reduce soy imports.

Open to new ideas that combine ecology and economy: Kristian Lundgaard-Karlshøj.
Open to new ideas that combine ecology and economy: Kristian Lundgaard-Karlshøj.
Sustainable and in harmony with the environment is also how Kristian Lundgaard-Karlshøj wants to run his farm. The history of the Ausumgaard estate goes way back to the 15th century. The Lundgaard family has been here since the 1940s. And to ensure that the next generation later on, the children Sigrid, Solvej and Rasmus, enjoy continuing to run the estate with its 1,200 hectares and 20 employees, parents Kristian and Marie always have their ears to the ground. "Developing new things means questioning current ones and makes you curious about the future. I like that." This is how Kristian explains his philosophy.

In addition to the drive to constantly optimize business processes in their core business, the entrepreneurs are also constantly taking a look at new areas of business. For example, there is the production of insects, with which the farm already participated seven years ago in a large development project with Aarhus University, among others. Renewable energies are also an important aspect of sustainable agriculture for Kristian. The Ausumgaard estate has a number of wind turbines as well as biogas plants.

One of the young owner's favorite projects is the Ausumgaard pigs, around 200 of which he fatten directly on the farm in open stalls. This compares with 25,000 conventionally fattened animals a year. At the same time, he says, raising the open-pen pigs is about four times as expensive. "But as a farmer, I'm happy that there are consumers who like to buy this meat and are willing to spend more money on it," says Kristian Lundgaard-Karlshøj, "actually, all pigs should live like this."

No sensory losses

But back to grass protein: what effect does feeding the green powder actually have on the taste of pork? Trials with fattening pigs found no changes in meat quality as a result of the grass powder in the feed. No differences were seen in feed intake or weight gain compared to conventional feeding, nor was diarrhea.

However, there are still some challenges to overcome before grass protein can be used on a widespread basis, explains Erik Fog, SuperGrassPork project manager at SEGES: "The process works, but requires lots of fresh grass. So, in addition to appropriate cultivation areas, we need many decentralized refining plants, which in turn require high investments. In parallel with further development of the technology, we need to identify where it's worth building plants, who produces the grass, and who raises the necessary capital and operates the plants."

Source: afz - allgemeine fleischer zeitung 1-2/2022


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