As a professor at the University of Illinois and a recent DSM Nutritional Sciences Award winner, Dr Stein found himself wrestling with the challenge of how we will feed nine billion mouths by 2050. His answer? Not only to boost the protein available to humans by feeding pigs better, but to bridge this protein gap in a sustainable way.
“To produce more animal protein for humans we need to help pigs become more efficient at digesting and retaining nutrients,” he explains. “Until now, too many nutrients are excreted and effectively wasted – and even though they may be re-usable as manure, the cost, effort and carbon footprint of transporting them to where they are needed is not economical.”
The scientific community has already been successful in helping pigs increase digestion of certain minerals like phosphorous - thus reducing their excretion in the manure and minimizing potentially harmful effects on the environment. But boosting a pig’s ability to use energy and nutrients from high fiber ingredients has proved far trickier. Until Hans looked East for inspiration…
China consumes around 50% of the world’s pork – and a large proportion of the world’s rice. What if the natural bi-product of rice production – known as rice bran and inedible to humans – could be used to feed pigs more effectively?
“There were lots of experiments, plenty of down moments and at times progress was slow,” he explains. “But I knew that if we could find a way to achieve it, the potential could be enormous.”
Eventually Hans and his team found a solution – a fiber-degrading enzyme that gets added to the rice bran before being fed to the pigs. Early results indicate that introducing this one step could increase the pig’s digestion of fiber by an impressive 10%.
It’s a huge potential step in bridging the protein gap and hopefully the first of many. “If we approach this challenge in a smart way I truly believe we can double global protein production in the next 35 years,” says Hans.
If population estimates are even remotely accurate, we won’t have a choice.