Red clover leads UK self-sufficiency push; Demand for animal feed set to climb 85%.
GROWING demand for meat and milk is leading to a UK shortfall in vegetable proteins for use as animal feedstock.
South American soya currently accounts for over 90% of EU protein imports but concerns over its environmental sustainability is forcing scientists to examine ways of boosting domestic production.
Now Aberystwyth University has launched a five-year research project which could see red clover returning to favour as a forage-based protein.
Dr Athole Marshall, leader of the Public Good Plant Breeding Group at IBERS, said the pounds 2.15m study will develop varieties with improved resistance to pests and diseases.
He said: "Red clover is a high protein forage, but yield is erratic due to lack of resistance to Sclerotinia fungus and stem nematode for which there is no chemical means of control."
As consumers switch from vegetable-based diets and eat more meat products, global demand for animal protein is predicted to rise by 85% by 2050.
It's part of a trend which, between 1980 and 2010, saw the global population of farm animals Red climb 23%, from 3.5bn to 4.3bn, according to a new report by the Worldwatch Institute.
Most of this growth was in developing countries, with appetites for meat stagnating in industrial countries.
In the 25 years up to 2005, milk consumption in developing countries almost doubled, meat consumption more than tripled, and egg consumption increased fivefold.
"Farm-animal production provides a safety net for millions of the world's most vulnerable people," said report co-author Danielle Nierenberg.
"But given the industry's rapid and often poorly regulated growth, the biggest challenge will be to produce meat and other products in environmentally and socially sustainable ways."
Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), or factory farms, are the most rapidly growing system of farm animal production.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 80% of growth in the livestock sector now comes from these industrial production systems.
CAFOs now account for 72% of poultry, 43% of egg, and 55% of pork production worldwide.
But CAFOs produce high levels of waste, use huge amounts of water and land for feed production, spread disease and play a role in biodiversity loss, said the report.
In an attempt to improve UK livestock production, IBERS is also looking to to improve the efficiency with which farm animals convert plant protein into animal protein.
It aims to increase the availability of high sugar grasses (HSG) - perennial ryegrass varieties with high levels of water-soluble carbohydrate.
However some HSG's have low seed yields, making them less attractive to seed producers. IBERS will address this problem using molecular techniques.
IBERS director Prof Wayne Powell said: "This is a good example of how IBERS' research can offer benefits on many different levels - to the environment, to farmers, the food sector, to human health and the general public."