Daniel Berckmans: "We need view animals as individuals”

Tension rises in the Nutreco Feed Tech Challenge. Great ideas for feedtech innovation keep pouring in. With the Challenge well underway, it is time to present the jury members who will eventually pick the winner(s) of the Challenge. In this interview jury chairman Prof. Dr. Ir. Daniel Berckmans of KU Leuven, offers his views on the ‘bigger purpose’ of the Challenge.

Prof. Berckmans, you are an expert in animal and human health engineering, and one of the pioneers of precision livestock farming. What makes this Challenge so important?

“Since 1991 our research in Leuven focuses on real-time monitoring of livestock. What bothers me is that in our world, feed-to-farm efficiency still falls short at ‘only’ 70 per cent. This means that no less than 30 per cent of the genetic potential of today’s farm animals is left unused. Meanwhile, animal farming has a great impact on the environment and food production. With the world population growing to over 9 billion by 2050 and finite natural resources, we need to step up our efforts to come closer to the 100 per cent efficiency mark.”

 The purpose of this challenge is not to create new leads for Nutreco – what is the higher purpose?

“Nutreco has a firm belief that innovation will not appear all by itself. Nutreco’s management feels the obligation to create the spark, the ignition and to provide the fuel for the flame. That is what the Challenge is – the perfect way to bring forward concepts that go against current ideas and beliefs, that ignore current market interests. We are looking for the ideas and people that decide to swim against the tide.” 

What, in your opinion, should be the key focus points for the next ten years?

“We definitely need to curb the use of antibiotics, not only in animals, but also in humans. We need to step up our efforts to steer production in farming towards the true genetic potential of existing breeds of farm animals. Precision livestock farming should be one of our priorities, as there is still a lot of potential in improving feed conversion and optimising growth speed of animals while producing less manure. Also, we need to focus more on sustainable production, as it is the only way to secure our future. With a world population growing towards 9 or even 12 billion in the future, focusing on sustainable ways of feed and food production are our only option.”

Obviously, all categories are equally important. Is there one issue in the categories that you find particularly pressing or urgent? 

“To me, the antibiotics issue is the most pressing issue. The efficiency issue is also crucial. We need to find ways to produce more animal products – meat, milk, eggs et cetera – with the same or less feed. I am convinced that we need to view animals as individuals, not as the average of a population. It is about time we embrace individual feed and medication concepts, as they will help optimise results in an economically viable and sustainable way. I hope that some of the contestants will address the challenge of precision liv

What qualities define a prize-winning idea?

“Undoubtedly: daring, challenging, creative. And above all: the idea should have a disruptive nature, resulting in an ability to change the livestock sector into a technologically advanced arena where young people feel challenged.”