Last week the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute held a Pig Technical Seminar outlining the current advances in pig research, with a strong focus on environmental sustainability.  This is not a new topic for the sector, as demonstrated by Dr Elizabeth Ball, who succeeded in packing fifteen years of research into a fifteen-minute presentation on reducing the nitrogen, ammonia and phosphorus emissions from pig production through precision nutrition. 

The pig sector has been proactive in horizon scanning for challenges and utilising research to advance solutions.  Consequently, the collaboration between feed companies, producers and academia has delivered a positive news story to tell.

The research undertaken at AFBI by the Pig Research Consortium, consisting of John Thompsons & Sons, Devenish Nutrition and PCM, revealed that the secret to reducing nitrogen excretion is optimum production, achieved by precisely meeting the protein requirements of the animal while maintaining or enhancing performance. 

Pigs require a precise combination of amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein, and are essential for growth and normal body function.  However, excess protein in the diet, which is not utilised by the animal, is excreted as nitrogen and can contribute to nitrate leaching, acidification, ammonia emissions and nitrous oxide (a potent greenhouse gas), thereby damaging biodiversity, air and water quality.

One of the first trials conducted proved that dietary crude protein levels for growing pigs could be reduced from the standard level of 23% at that time to 19% without any adverse impact on performance or carcase quality.  If applied across all of Northern Ireland this would reduce the total amount of nitrogen excreted from growing pigs by 750 tonnes per year.

Later research honed in on the finishing phase, the most critical period from an emissions perspective, applying the ideal protein concept to ensure that the amino acid requirements of the pig were appropriately balanced, enabling crude protein levels to be lowered to 15% without impacting performance.  Dr Ball was at pains to point out the absolute necessity of ensuring performance is not compromised by lowering the crude protein level too far, which would otherwise increase nitrogen excretion and ammonia emissions. 

This research has led to revisions to the nitrogen excretion figures for pigs in the Nutrients Action Programme and has provided a robust evidence base for updating the national inventory which models ammonia emissions for Northern Ireland.

From a carbon perspective, Professor Ilias Kyriazakis confirmed that over the past 20 years the pig sector has dramatically reduced its carbon footprint by 40%, which is a huge achievement, driven by performance improvements and efficiency gains. 

Emissions associated with feed, particularly from land use change, and manure management, are key hotspots for delivering future improvements.  As such, there has been a lot of focus on alternative protein sources, which gained attention in the recently published Rapid Evidence Assessment from the Food Standards Agency.  There is undoubtedly potential for many of these alternative protein sources, including insect meal, as was outlined in a talk by Dr Katerina Theoridou.  However, challenges with legislative barriers, societal acceptance, cost, availability, quality, consistency etc. must be overcome to induce widespread uptake. Furthermore, it was noted that not all of the alternative protein sources will have a lower environmental footprint, especially where there is a high energy requirement for production or processing.

Tough targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions have been set under the Climate Change Act (NI) 2022, while DAERA’s draft Ammonia Strategy consultation is proposing NI agricultural ammonia emissions should reduce by at least 30% by 2030 based on 2020 levels.  It is clear that significant change will be required going forward, but the proactive steps taken by the local pig industry through collaboration and research, show that there is great potential to find win-win solutions.  Precision nutrition and feeding strategies, coupled with professional nutritional advice, are all part of the toolkit that will be needed to help the local agri-food industry meet the challenges that lie ahead.