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Recycling: Food Waste For Pigswill Could Save Threatened Forests

Dec 10, 2015 02:49 PM EST

Domestic pigs have no problem eating our leftovers, and saving food waste to feed livestock could even save vast swathes of Brazilian forest and savannah, Cambridge researchers say. However, in order to protect these threatened environments, the European Union will need to lift its ban on pigswill-feeding.

The ban was originally implemented across the EU in 2002 when a U.K. farmer illegally fed uncooked food waste to his pigs, causing an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD), a highly contagious viral disease common in many wild and domestic cloven-footed animals. But researchers from the University of Cambridge suggest that if the EU was to lift its ban and harness technologies for "heat-treating" food waste to safely convert leftovers into pig feed, roughly 1.8 million hectares of land could be saved from excess grain and soybean-based pig feed production, according to a news release.

"Following the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak, different countries looked at the same situation, the same evidence, and came to opposite conclusions for policy," Erasmus zu Ermgassen, study leader from the University of Cambridge's Department of Zoology, explained in the release. "In many countries in East Asia we have a working model for the safe use of food waste as pig feed. It is a highly regulated and closely monitored system that recycles food waste and produces low-cost pig feed with a low environmental impact."

Since there is an estimated 102.5 million tons of food waste produced in the EU each year, recycling the "garbage" for animals could provide an environmentally sound solution, researchers added. On the other hand, nearly 35 percent of food waste is already being recycled into animal feed in Japan.

For their study, researchers investigated current land uses of EU pork, availability of food waste in the EU, and compared the quantity and quality of pork produced from pigs fed food waste versus a grain-based diet. Using this data, they developed a model of the amount of land that could be saved if the pigswill ban was lifted and kitchen waste was recycled.

The analysis revealed that roughly 21.5 million tons of pork – or 34 kilograms of pork per person – are produced in the EU annually. Furthermore, 75 percent of agricultural land worldwide is occupied by livestock production, much of which is used to grow the grains used in the animals' food.  In fact, EU pork alone hogs 1.2 million hectares of land across South America for soybean production. It follows then, if farmers use swill instead of soybean-based pig feed, they could conserve land and save money. 

"Pigs are omnivorous animals; in the wild they would eat anything they could forage for, from vegetable matter to other animal carcasses, and they have been fed food waste since they were domesticated by humans 10,000 years ago. Swill actually provides a more traditional diet for pigs than the grain-based feed currently used in modern EU systems," zu Ermgassen added in the unviversity's release. "A recent survey found that 25% of smallholder farmers in the UK admit to illegally feeding uncooked food waste to their pigs, so the fact is that the current ban is not particularly safe from a disease-outbreak perspective. Feeding uncooked food waste is dangerous because pigs can catch diseases from raw meat, but a system supporting the regulated use of heat-treated swill does not have the same risks."

Reintroducing pigswill-feeding could also help offset the growing food demand, researchers concluded. Their findings were recently published in the journal Food Policy

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