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Permit offal to be put into animal feed again

Environmental burden of meat, milk and egg production can be reduced
15 September 2009

Worldwide, many environmental problems are attributed to the production of meat, milk and eggs. But how much of a burden is this production in actual fact? And what can we do to reduce this? Emiel Elferink has discovered that a good start would be to permit offal to be included again in animal feed production. Elferink will be awarded a PhD by the University of Groningen on 25 September 2009.  

As a consequence of the BSE epidemic – mad cow disease – when infected people died of Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease, offal was removed from the animal feed stream. Offal is currently used as fuel in power stations. Elferink: ‘And offal used to be a major source of protein. It’s been replaced by soya by-products, particularly from Brazil, and the result of this is that soya bean production has increased enormously. Because Europe does not want to cultivate genetically modified soya, imports to the EU since offal was banned has increased exponentially. About 16 million tons of animal meal has been replaced by about 23 million tons of soya beans. If you calculate the agricultural burden, it appears that we would need ten percent of all EU agricultural land just to replace the offal.’ 

High temperature

In order to reduce the environmental impact of animal husbandry, Elferink suggests the following solution: ‘Permit offal to be put into animal feed again.’ He explains: ‘BSE was created by a mistake made in England. Offal is processed into animal meal at high temperatures. In the UK at the time, however, the temperature in the guidelines was not high enough. If you then feed cattle offal to cattle, you get BSE. However, if you process offal at a high enough temperature and ensure that the animal meal from cattle is not fed to cattle but, for example, to pigs or chickens, then the refuse streams can remain in the system safely. That is a much more efficient system than having to replace that protein with another product.’ 

Environmental impact

In order to determine the environmental impact of meat, milk and egg production, Elferink measured the degree to which natural resources such as energy, water and land were burdened. Elferink: ‘Of course there are other factors that play a role in the production of meat, milk and eggs. Animal welfare and biodiversity are just as problematic, for example. Unfortunately, those aspects are difficult to quantify. That’s why we’ve decided to concentrate on the environmental impact. How does the animal production system work and what happens if we fiddle with the knobs?’

Remarkable result

One remarkable result of the research is the non-linear relationship between the consumption of animal products and the environmental impact. Elferink: ‘The current trend is that consumers are eating more and more meat. The latest predictions say that by 2050 we will be consuming 150 percent of the current amounts. The environmental impact of that increase is not proportional, however, it is increasing much faster. If meat consumption doubles, the environmental impact will be more than twice as high.’ 

Elferink: ‘Of course there are other factors that play a role in the production of meat, milk and eggs. Animal welfare and biodiversity are just as problematic, for example. Unfortunately, those aspects are difficult to quantify. That’s why we’ve decided to concentrate on the environmental impact. How does the animal production system work and what happens if we fiddle with the knobs?’

Less meat

Eating less meat would be much better for the environment, states Elferink. The less meat that is consumed, the less the burden on the environment. But here, too, the effect is not linear: if meat consumption was halved, the burden on the environment would be reduced by much more than half. ‘Incidentally, that does not mean that we all have to become vegetarians,’ says Elferink. ‘You have to keep a certain balance between agriculture and animal husbandry.’ 

The less meat that is consumed, the less the burden on the environment. But here, too, the effect is not linear: if meat consumption was halved, the burden on the environment would be reduced by much more than half. ‘Incidentally, that does not mean that we all have to become vegetarians,’ says Elferink. ‘You have to keep a certain balance between agriculture and animal husbandry.’ 

Curriculum vitae

Emiel Elferink (Enschede, 1975) studied biology at the University of Groningen and conducted at the same university his PhD research at the Centre for Energy and Environmental Sciences IVEM of the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences. His supervisors were Prof. H.C. Moll, Prof. A.J.M. Schoot Uiterkamp and Dr S. Nonhebel. The title of his thesis is Meat, Milk and Eggs: Analysis of the animal food environment relations. Elferink is currently a researcher/climate and energy advisor for the Centre for Agriculture and Environment (CLM) in Culemborg. 

Note for the press

For more information:Emiel Elferink, tel. (0345) 470 747 (work), e-mail: eelferink@clm.nl

Last modified:15 September 2017 3.27 p.m.
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