Soy-free pork, poultry and eggs could be the next trend in sustainable food as retailers and farmers respond to growing awareness that the crop is contributing to deforestation in South America
Supermarket Morrisons made headlines last week after announcing it will feed insects to chickens, partially replacing soy in their diets, at ten out of its 60 free-range egg farms in a move it says will save 5,737 tonnes of carbon and 56 hectares of soy production.
Meanwhile other producers, including pork, chicken and turkey farmers, are also looking at other ingredients to replace soy in feed.
Insects, a rich source of protein have long been touted as a more sustainable alternative to soy in poultry and pig feed over concerns about carbon emissions and deforestation. And it’s becoming increasingly topical with recent news that deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon has reached a 15 year high, driven by land clearing for beef farming as well as soy production for animal feed.
Morrisons is working with insect feed start-up Better Origin to rear larvae of Black Soldier Flies in container units, which will be fed on the supermarket’s fruit and veg waste as part of a closed loop system.
“An insect diet could suit our hens better, they seem to enjoy it, and the nutritional and added health benefits are notable,” says Sophie Throup, Morrisons’ head of agriculture. “We’re also finding a good home for our fruit and veg waste. We think that this could be part of the future of egg farming.”
The supermarket said it has no current plans to extend the project to its pig and poultry meat production, despite both sectors being a significant consumer of soy.
Glen Burrows, co-founder of sustainable meat supplier The Ethical Butcher, has gone a step further and is already selling soy-free pork and chicken.
“We can’t be an ethical butcher if the animals that we’re selling are eating grains that are having a terrible effect on the planet halfway across the world,” he says. “That just doesn’t fit with what we consider to be ethical.”
However, in an industry that considers soy crucial in the early stages of growth for producing a bigger bird, managing to convince a producer to take a risk has not been easy, with many rejecting the idea.
“I was talking to feed mills, chicken nutritionists, and yes that is a thing, trying to find a producer who would produce commercial chicken without soy,” says Burrows.
Nutritionists told him that modern chickens are bred with soy-based feed in mind, which ultimately makes it harder to remove soy from the food chain.
The first person who attempted to remove soy from animal feed for The Ethical Butcher was Devon beef farmer Mark Chapple. “He’d read about a system in America, where poultry would follow the cattle in a rotational grazing system and get a lot of their nutrition from the increase in bug life on the land where the cows had gone through.
“Not only did they grow well,” explains Burrows, “but they tasted fantastic.” The success of the soy-free chicken inspired Chapple's 20-year-old daughter to trial some soy-free pigs for The Ethical Butcher. Although they are fed a mixture of British crops such as oilseed rape, barley, and beans, they gain most of their nutrition from rooting and foraging in pasture and woodland.
Elsewhere, farmer John Malseed, turkey producer for organic veg box company Riverford, has done trials of his own after noticing customer interest in cutting out soy.
After reducing the amount of soy he feeds to his birds this year, he is now confident that the birds will grow healthily without soy in the early period when they’re developing their skeletons.
However, he warns: “It will come with a heavy price-tag, but that’s the true cost of it. If you’re buying in the supermarkets where you can buy a chicken for three pounds, it’s probably the environment that is taking the true cost.”