Securing the future: Profitable animal welfare

The one thing about the future that is certain is that it is uncertain. Still, this does not mean that we cannot or should not plan for it. The most pressing question in our industry is: Can we achieve food production that is at once sufficient, sustainable and profitable? The answer is: Yes, we can.

By Dr. Bernhard Eckel


According to popular demographic models, the world’s population will continue to grow for at least the next two to three decades and then peak. With almost 10 billion people to feed by 2050, we know that food production has to both increase and change. The population in some regions will change too—sometimes dramatically—not only because of lower population growth rates, but also due to migration caused by conflict as well as climate change.

We are therefore left with the enormous challenge of ensuring that we will have enough food for the world’s population, and that the food is healthy, nutritious and produced in a manner that is sustainable for humans, animals and the environment.

FAO Sustainable Development Goals

A few years ago, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) together established a series of global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These formidable goals show us how to achieve sustainable development across the globe by 2030. Not only in terms of agriculture, but also in terms of business, society, economics and politics, to mention but a few.

Of the 17 ambitious goals, three in particular concern our industry: SDG 2. Zero hunger; SDG 3. Good health and well-being; and SDG 12. Responsible consumption and production. Of course, as part of the feed industry, combating hunger should be our main goal. However, we need to achieve this goal in a sustainable manner, ensuring good health and well-being—for humans and animals. Otherwise, no sustainable development will be possible, and none of the other goals will be achieved. Neither by 2030, nor later. This is why future food production should not simply be efficient in raising productivity. It also has to be responsible. And, of course, profitable.

A holistic approach

In the case of animal production, responsible production means effective resource management, efficient feed production, no waste in terms of energy and raw materials, and also healthy animals. Human well-being is directly associated with the well-being of animals. Only healthy animals can provide healthy food, which is ultimately what the consumer wants and what our world needs from a perspective of sustainability. Animal welfare is not only about farm management: it is a holistic approach that also accounts for factors like health and barn management, animal behaviour, feed and feed additives. Feed is the first step in the food chain and therefore has a key role in improving animal welfare. Much can be achieved through feed—though not in isolation. This is why we always say, “Animal welfare starts with the feed.”

If we want responsible as well as profitable production, we need to change the parameters of animal production to improve animals’ health and welfare. We need to promote such improvements in animal welfare and to talk about them, so that customers know what they are getting and are willing to buy it. We need to provide the right solutions for the various target species to enable profitable, healthy production.

And this is what we have to do to achieve this.

Get the message out

As you drive along EDSA, the famous Epifanio de los Santos Avenue in Manila, you are bombarded by billboards advertising antibiotic-free, hormone-free, free-range chicken. Demand for healthy food and awareness of animal welfare issues have long become global phenomena. Experts even speak of a consumer-driven market. So, what is it that consumers want?

On the one hand, they want their food to be safe and healthy. They are aware of the risk of antibiotic resistance and no longer accept it. Antibiotic growth promoters have already been banned in several regions of the world, and strategies for antibiotic-free production are being increasingly implemented. Let me be clear about this: there are still applications for which we do not have an alternative yet, where antibiotic treatment is still necessary. However, there is a huge difference between administering antibiotics for therapeutic reasons and using them as growth promoters. Because there are alternatives to growth promoters.

On the other hand, consumers also want their food to be affordable. And here we come to our customers in the feed and feed additives industry: the farmers and food producers who sell their produce—be it meat, fish, eggs or dairy products—to the consumers and who need to comply with the consumers’ wishes while still turning a profit. It is them that we support with our research and solutions. They need feed additives that are safe, easy to handle and beneficial to both their animals and their profit margins so they can satisfy their consumers’ wishes.

Some time ago, while on a Bangkok Airways flight to Myanmar, I saw an advertisement on detoxing in the airline’s magazine. It stated: “Why detox? Detoxing the body helps prevent many diseases and is one of the most efficient ways to slow down the aging process and restore optimum health.” I believe that many animal nutritionists would agree too. It is exactly what we want to achieve with our additives: optimum health. Yet why are we not using the same argument in our industry? Let us rephrase it: “Healthy nutrients promote detoxification, which helps protect animals from disease and enables them to maintain optimal health, well-being and performance.”

This is a message that is universally understood, from Africa to Asia and from Europe to the Middle East. And consumers are generally willing to pay extra for healthier food, given the choice.

Target species: what additives can do

What can feed additives do to improve the respective species’ welfare?

Let us first take a look at global animal protein production. According to FAO statistics, the leading regions for animal protein production are the Asia-Pacific, North America, Europe and Russia. The most common species are poultry—including chickens, turkeys and, to a much lesser degree, ducks, geese and quail—followed by pigs and ruminants. Aquaculture is of particular interest: while it only plays a minor role in Europe (and basically none at all in Germany), it is indispensable to animal production in Southeast Asia. Here is where we expect the most growth globally in the coming decades.

When Dr. Eckel started its business in Asia, we had but little experience in aquaculture. This changed quite rapidly, for when you go to Southeast Asia, you have to work on aquaculture whether you like it or not. Today, we have our own research facility in Germany to conduct tests in aquaculture. On top of this, we have excellent collaborations with academic institutions such as Kasetsart University in Bangkok. A joint trial we recently conducted on shrimp determined that feed additives—in this case, Anta®Ox Aqua—can reduce cell necrosis in the hepatopancreas, clearly improving the animals’ health and well-being while significantly improving shrimp output for the producer.

Anta®Phyt, another of our phytogenic products, has proven beneficial to poultry. Keeping poultry litter dry is of critical importance to poultry farmers since it has so many impacts. Anta®Phyt acts on the digestive system, increasing the dry matter content in litter. This means cleaner animals, less footpad lesions and better hygiene, management and air quality. In the case of dairy cows, the same additive reduces the somatic cell count in milk. A recent study, which was conducted at a renowned European academic institution, showed a dramatically reduced somatic cell count in milk. This increases the price the farmer gets for the milk, reduces veterinary and medication costs, improves dairy cows’ health and provides consumers with a healthier, better product.

A last example. Lately, tail docking in pigs has been in the public eye in Germany as in most of Europe. Farmers, fearing severe injuries to their herds, dock their piglets’ tails to prevent the occurrence of tail biting. However, this practice will have to stop sooner or later, as consumers, animal welfare associations and politicians are all calling for a solution that dispenses with preventive tail docking. A recent study with our product MagPhyt, one of our most recent innovations, which has a calming and stress-reducing effect on animals, clearly showed that the application of MagPhyt significantly reduces physical injury in pigs, even in those whose tails have not been docked.

Our race to 2030

As said before, there is no single solution. Feed additives alone cannot do everything. Profitable, responsible production can only be achieved with a holistic approach. Consumers are the driving force of the market. To comply with their wishes, we will see a lot of change in production systems: there will be very different production systems in the future. However, at the end of the day, rather than an obstacle, good animal welfare practice is the key to highly profitable animal production.

With our focus on the FAO’s SDGs, Dr. Eckel will contribute to ending hunger and ensuring that safe nutrition and sufficient food are accessible to all people at all times. This is our goal. And when I say ’our goal’ I know that it is not ours alone but that of all of us in the feed industry. Together, we will strive for this goal. And together we will achieve it.