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Sustainability of pig production through improved feed efficiency

Genetically improved high producing pigs require high quality feeds that allow the expression of production traits, which otherwise may result in reduced resilience to environmental stressors and the genesis of production diseases. Modern livestock diets consist of feed resources with high nutritional and commercial value that is sourced from international markets. For example, soybean meal is a major ingredient in livestock feeds, however, Europe is heavily reliant on its import. Due to the notion of the unsustainability of this heavy overreliance on imported feed resources in the EU, there is an increased interest in using local feed resources and feedstuff co-products in pig production. Because the quantity and quality of feed resources limits productive output, a different type of animal may be required with different performance characteristics than those currently selected in intensive, high quality input – high output production systems. Our research evaluates if improved feed efficiency (FE) can be sustained with climate change and with more reliance on local feeds with suboptimal quality, and to evaluate the environmental, social and economic impacts of this strategy. SusPig’s goals are achieved through multi-disciplinary research involving pig production, animal physiology, nutrition, genetics, environmental and social impact, and system modeling, and the close co-operation of seven European partners from Spain, France, Norway, Sweden, and the UK, and expert external partners from the USA and Australia.

Preliminary results suggest that high production efficiency in commercial pigs reduced resilience to heat stress, i.e., less productive pigs were more robust to averse environmental conditions. Blood biomarkers related to FE and indicative of health and fitness are being collected from 300 pigs divergently selected for FE and 700 commercial pigs. Our research network shows that the potential for high FE in commercial pigs is not fully realized when pigs are fed high fiber (e.g., rapeseed) diets; we are currently evaluating FE in pigs fed a legume-based diet. Pigs with higher FE on a commercial diet had lower FE when fed acorns, supporting literature suggesting a possible negative relationship between potential for high production efficiency and resilience to environmental (dietary) stressors. FE traits have been recorded to be compared and correlated with several other measurements (e.g. transcriptomic and microbiota profiles) to increase our understanding of metabolic processes contributing to the variation in FE. Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) shows that lean tissue growth and maintenance have the highest effect on environmental impacts; FE animals have an advantage for all environmental LCA criteria considered.

Grain legumes have a nutritional profile that is of great interest to feed pigs due to a high protein content. The presence of antinutritional factors is offset by a high production yield, low need for nitrogenous fertilizer, high disease resistance, and adaptability to suboptimal soils and climatic conditions. In Spain, production of legumes is currently marginal and is not included in the crops that receive EU support. However, SusPig’s results are highly anticipated by the Spanish Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, who invited ITACYL to present and discuss our results and national crop potential in Madrid, 2019. Similarly, rapeseed can improve the sustainability and self-sufficiency of pig production in Europe, however, its use is associated with reduced feed intake, growth rate, and nutrient utilization. In Norway there is a large interest from the industry in the potential use of alternative feed resources, and NMBU, in cooperation with Norsvin - one of the world’s largest pig breeding companies, investigates the potential to select pig genotypes for improved digestibility of high-fiber diets, in line with Norwegian policies for Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). Our research network has already developed LCA for current pig production systems in Europe; these models will enable us to predict the environmental impact consequences of breeding and feeding the pig of the future.     

Messages to: 

A) Actors from private sector (entrepreneurs, traders, investors etc.)

  • Selection for feed efficiency is a major driver of environment-friendly pig production.
  • A potential negative relationship between potential for high production and resilience to environmental stressors needs to be taken into consideration.
  • Selection on alternative feed resources should be considered to optimize production potential on local feed resources and feedstuff co-products.

B) Civil society and practitioners’ organizations

  • Social aspects are part of a sustainable pig production and methods for assessing social issues together with the environmental ones are now developed.

C) Policy makers

  • We have identified pig genetic traits contributing most to the environmental impact of production systems
  • More research is needed into the production potential of local, regional, and national feed crop alternatives.

Knowledge products: 

Knowledge networks: 

  • Life Cycle Network
  • Strategic platform “Future Agriculture – Livestock, Crops and Land Use”



Coordinated by: Dr. Wendy Rauw - Instituto Nacional de Investigación y Tecnología Agraria y Alimentaria (SPAIN) - Contact

Funded by: INIA, ANR, RCN, Formas, DEFRA, Iowa State University and University of New England as part of the ERA-NET Cofund SusAn through a virtual common pot model including EU Top-Up funding from the European Union´s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement no 696231).

8 research partners:

  • FRANCE: Institut national de la recherché agronomique and Institut du Porc
  • NORWAY: Norges miljø- og biovitenskapelige universitet
  • SPAIN: Instituto Tecnológico Agrario
  • SWEDEN: Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences
  • UNITED KINGDOM: Newcastle University
  • USA: Iowa State University
  • AUSTRALIA: University of New England


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