It is the most valuable resource on our planet: water. While every German consumes an average of 121 liters of water a day, 660 million people, or roughly 10 percent of the world's population, cannot even open a water tap. Clean water is a valuable good for them.
But also in Germany the question of clean water supply is focused more intensely because a considerable part of the German groundwater shows increasing nitrate levels. According to a report from the German Federal Government from 2016, nitrate concentrations above the allowable level of 50 milligrams of nitrate per liter have been determined in 28 percent of the sampling points of the national water analysis network. In 2012 only 14 percent of the samples analyzed were above the limit.
Regional waterworks are therefore forced to close wells or to drill deeper and deeper into the earth in search of a fresh and clean well water. This is costly.
Farmers and animal breeders are often criticized for contaminating water – by producing too much manure and by fertilizing their fields with too much nitrate-rich manure. In case of over-fertilization, nitrate leaks into the soil, enters the groundwater, flows into rivers, lakes and finally into the sea.
But where does the nitrate come from? Just like humans, animals also need vital nutrients such as carbohydrates, fats and proteins. The proteins play a key role here: they are the building blocks of life. An organism can only grow and develop well, if the protein supply is adequate. However, an excess of protein can also be detrimental. High protein content does not necessarily lead to better muscle growth. An animal can only utilize as much protein as the body needs. Excess protein is degraded in urea, from which microorganisms then make nitrate. Manure containing this nitrate is then brought to the fields as fertilizer. Nitrate and urea are components of the so called reactive nitrogen.
But do we have an alternative? Yes, we do. In livestock production, modern and sustainable feed formulation can help to protect ground water and atmosphere from nitrogen surplus.
"Thanks to the consistent use of amino acids in animal nutrition, it is possible to reduce the output of reactive nitrogen significantly", says Dr. Reiner Beste, Chairman of the Board of Management of Evonik Nutrition & Care GmbH.
If the feed is supplemented with essential amino acids such as methionine, lysine or valine, the feed can be better adapted to the nutritional requirements of the animal. Chickens need more methionine, for example, while lysine is particularly important for pigs. The effect of these amino acids: nutrients are better utilized, the animals consume less protein as their balanced amino acid requirements are met.
This is not only good for the balance sheet of a company, but also for the environment as less nitrogen is emitted. Worldwide, the use of our amino acids has reduced the emission of reactive nitrogen into the environment by 900,000 tons per year. For comparison: In Germany, agriculture uses 2,700,000 tons of reactive nitrogen in the form of fertilizer per year. "As far-fetched as it may appear at first glance: animal nutrition is the key to protecting our waters. Amino acids and a reduction of the protein content in animal feed enable us to produce food for a growing world population", says Dr. Thomas Kaufmann, Head of Sustainable Development at Evonik Nutrition & Care.
A pilot project in China has already proven this in practice. One of the largest pig breeders and feed manufacturers in China, Anyou Biotechnology Group Co., is a pioneer in sustainable animal nutrition. In 2016, the company placed about half of their animals on a “diet“. They consume less protein, but still have all of the amino acids they require to live and grow healthily.
This balanced diet changes their metabolism. Less excess nitrogen from the feed is metabolized and excreted. The result is that the animals take up less water. Consequently, water consumption in agriculture as well as nitrate emissions drop.
At Anyou's test facility in the province Jinagsu, water consumption has declined by 12 percent, after reducing the protein content in the feed by three percent – a powerful lever. "These initial results are so encouraging that we are extending the low-protein diet to all other operations. China’s demand for pork is significant and we want to be on the cutting edge”, says Hung Ping, Founder and Managing Director of Anyou.
It is worth investing so much effort in protecting our water. About 97 percent of the world’s water resources consist of salt water and only 3 percent is fresh water. We derive our drinking water from only about one percent of this freshwater. A small amount that is crucial for the health of humans, animals and our planet.