June 20 (UPI) -- Can cows subsist on space food?
Scientists want to limit the environmental impacts of livestock feed crop cultivation. New research suggests nutritional livestock feed can be grown in the laboratory.
Roughly one-third of the planet's arable land is used to grow livestock feed crops. In the Amazon, livestock feed crop cultivation is driving deforestation.
In addition to requiring significant land use, growing feed crops increase pesticide and fertilizer inputs, causing further environmental damage.
"However, a new technology has emerged that might avoid these negative environmental impacts: Microbes can be cultivated with energy, nitrogen and carbon in industrial facilities to produce protein powders, which are then fed instead of soybeans to animals," Benjamin Leon Bodirsky, researcher at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, said in a news release.
Bodirsky and his colleagues used computer simulations to calculate the economic and environmental impacts of replacing traditional feed with protein-rich microbes. They determined that by replacing just 2 percent of livestock feed with lab-grown microbes, 5 percent of cropland usage, global nitrogen losses and agricultural greenhouse gas emissions could be decreased.
"Cultivating feed protein in labs instead of using croplands might be able to mitigate some environmental and climatic impacts of feed production," Bodirsky said. "And our study expects that microbial protein will emerge even without policy support, as it is indeed economically profitable."
The technology for lab-grown microbes was developed during the Cold War for space travel. While the growing process can be decoupled from cropland, it requires significant energy use. Improvements in the process's energy efficiency could improve its economic viability.
"Feeding microbial protein would not affect livestock productivity," said PIK researcher Isabelle Weindl. "In contrast, it could even have positive effects on animal growth performance or milk production."
Despite the benefits offered by lab-grown livestock food -- detailed in the journal Environmental Science and Technology -- researchers don't see the solution as sufficient to solve global sustainability issues.
"Our findings clearly highlight that the switch to microbial protein alone will not be enough for sustainably transforming our agriculture," said PIK scientist Alexander Popp. "For our environment and the climate as well as our own health, it might actually be another considerable option to reduce or even skip the livestock ingredient in the food supply chain. After further advances in technology, microbial protein could also become a direct part of the human diet -- using space food for people's own nutrition."