Breakthroughs

This enzyme helps chickens absorb more nutrition from less feed

Nine billion broiler chickens were produced in the United States during 2017.

One of the larger dilemmas faced by food producers — from farms to meat processors — is how to meet the nutritional protein needs of a growing global population while minimizing the impact of those activities on the fragile soil needed to sustain them. 

Novozymes, a Danish biotech company that maps its research and development to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, is pitching one potential solution: a new enzyme that can be added to feed that helps animals absorb more nutrients from what they’re eating.

For now, the product, Balancius, is specifically intended for broiler chickens. It’s already available through more than 40 trials across North America and Latin America, and is licensed for use in Bangladesh, Pakistan and India. The product itself is part of a feed additive being sold by Novozymes' longtime business partner DSM, which often commercializes Novozymes' innovations, said Susanne Palsten Buchardt, vice president of animal health and nutrition, commercial, at Novozymes.

"We aren’t going to get more land; we need to make a more efficient production system," she said, describing the rationale for this particular innovation.

A backstory born in a pig sty

Novozymes produces enzymes — which you can think of as naturally occurring catalysts for various biological or chemical processes — that are used in more than 40 industry sectors. They are often used to maximize the performance of other materials. For example, enzymes are what improve the performance of certain laundry detergents at lower temperatures.

"We go find nature’s own solution and bring them to commercial state," Buchardt said. "The difficult thing is not to discover — it is bringing things to scale and proving that it works."

The idea behind Balancius reaches back to 1984, when scientists discovered a naturally occurring enzyme called muramidase in a Japanese pig sty. It’s a catalyst in an animal’s gastrointestinal system, affecting how foods are digested and absorbed. It specifically works by breaking down bacterial debris that adversely can affect absorption, according to Novozymes technical materials, which improves weight gain.

When the enzymes are combined with animal feed at recommended dosages, they improve "feed efficiency" by about 3 percent. Put another way, a farmer feeding 1 million chickens would be able to save 125,000 tons of feed per year.

While Buchardt declined to discuss per-ton pricing, she suggested that the return on investment is compelling. "As a farmer, if 70 percent of your costs go to feed, then getting more out of that helps quite a bit," she said.

From an environmental standpoint, that means less land that must be committed to producing crops such as corn that are currently dedicated for non-human consumption. That means more land that might be dedicated to regenerative agriculture or carbon capture applications or to growing more protein for human consumption.

Novozymes has cooked up another fun fact to describe the potential impact: If Balancius were added to the feed for all the broiler chickens currently raised and consumed in Latin America and North America, it would save roughly 4.2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions. 

Right now, Balancius is approved for use only with one very specific class of chickens, broilers, and Novozymes and DSM have yet to announce any marquee customers. It's a chicken-and-egg scenario when it comes to adoption: once one large facility embraces the approach, the biotech company expects other to start using this sort of additive. "Livestock production is inherently conservative," Buchardt said.

As of 2017, 35 "federally inspected" chicken processing facilities were in the United States, served by up to 25,000 family farmers. Almost 9 billion broilers were produced last year, according to statistics from the National Chicken Council.

Balancius is also being tested with pigs as well as other animals with one stomach, Buchardt said, and the cost-savings potential could be right catalyst for inspiring farmer adoption.

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