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2020-02-11

Interview with Prof. Dr. Stefan Pelzer and Dr. Alfred Petri from Evonik

Dr. Petri, what role will AI play in herd management in the future to improve animal welfare and health?

The Precision Livestock Farming system already has a high potential per se to improve animal welfare and animal health. This is achieved primarily by the continuous provision of "real-time" data such as images or sensor data from stables, which allow deviations from the target condition to be detected and corrected immediately. In addition, monitoring of the herd can be used to detect diseases before they break out. This allows intervention to take place more quickly and more gently. If this data from a large number of farms is then combined and used to generate algorithms in the context of artificial intelligence (AI), there are further possibilities to improve the well-being of farm animals. How quickly and widely these new systems will be used in herd management for dairy cows, pigs and poultry will depend not least on the willingness of consumers to focus their product selection at the shop counter accordingly.

To what extent can the sustainability of livestock production be improved by changing feed?

State-of-the-art diets for farm animals have a great potential to improve the sustainability of livestock farming and reduce negative environmental impacts. One of these is the concept of low-protein diets, which allows a reduction of the protein content in the diet by supplying the farm animals with amino acids, the protein building blocks, at the exact point of time. This significantly improves the utilisation of feed protein, less excess protein is excreted in the form of urea, which significantly reduces the pollution of groundwater with nitrate and of the air with ammonia. The concept can thus also make a significant contribution to achieving the objectives of the German Fertiliser Ordinance (DüV). Furthermore, by optimising the composition of the feed, the water consumption of the farm animals can be reduced by up to 20 percent, as the farm animals require less water to excrete urea under these conditions. And animal health also benefits: The level of ammonia in the ambient air of the animals in the barn is lowered, which increases their well-being. 

Another forward-looking concept in modern livestock farming is to avoid the use of any antibiotics by replacing these products with alternative solutions such as probiotics, organic acids and other substances. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the sharp increase in the spread of pathogenic microorganisms that are resistant to antibiotics will severely restrict treatment options for infectious diseases in humans. Modern livestock feeding without the use of antibiotics can help to defuse this situation. 

The production of alternative feeds using algae or insects is another example of how farm animal husbandry can be made more sustainable. Veramaris, for example, offers an algae oil for use in salmon feed which can completely replace the use of fish oil while providing an optimal spectrum of essential fatty acids for human nutrition. Similar saving effects on natural resources are offered by alternative proteins, which, for example, help to significantly reduce the use of fish meal in aquaculture or other farm animal species. Consumers should take the opportunity to support the spread of all the above-mentioned systems through targeted purchasing decisions, as the use of these alternatives is usually associated with increased costs for producers.

Professor Pelzer, as an international company, how do you assess Europe's competitiveness in food innovation?

The EU is regarded as one of the most strictly regulated markets in the world, both for food and feed. There is a particular trade-off here between framework conditions that promote innovation on the one hand and consumer protection and concerns of interest groups on the other. As a result, for example, the approval of new products in the EU is much more complex and, unlike other markets, can take several years. Furthermore, the use of new technologies such as CRISPR-cas9 in the field of genetic engineering, particularly in the EU, is seen as a method that leads to the creation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). In many other countries the assessment of this technology varies. There, the GMO / non-GMO assessment refers to the result, i.e. the target organism, rather than the methodology, since the same target organism can be obtained by normal breeding. In this respect, research, innovation and the introduction of new products in these areas are today shifting mainly to Asia, North America and to non-EU countries in Europe. As an international company, we must take these regional differences into account in our business strategy.