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Cambridge Global Food Security

An Interdisciplinary Research Centre at the University of Cambridge
June 2017: Meet Erasmus zu Ermgassen

Erasmus zu Ermgassen trained as a vet, but after a short stint working on farms decided to move into academia to investigate livestock production at an altogether different scale. Currently in the final year of his BBSRC-funded PhD in Cambridge’s Department of Zoology, he has just returned from a three-month internship at the European Animal Feed Manufacturer’s Association (FEFAC) in Brussels, helping policy advisors to understand and reduce the global environmental impact of livestock production.

Q: What’s the point of your research?

A: I’m interested in how we can make the production of livestock - that’s farm animals - more sustainable. There are different approaches. In Brazil, for example, I looked at how people are increasing the productivity of cattle ranching in the Amazon. This allows more to be produced on less land, sparing forest from clearance while also increasing the profitability of farming. Another approach is to reduce the environmental impact of animal feeds, for example by feeding pigs with our food waste. This is happening now in places like Japan and South Korea, but it’s currently banned in the EU as it’s a controversial practice. I’m interested in informing the debate about the benefits and risks of this practice.

Q: How is livestock production related to Global Food Security?

A: Food security, for me, is about producing enough nutritious food for the global population in a sustainable way. We use a lot of resources in rearing our livestock, so it really matters how livestock feed is produced.

Q: Do you think there will always be a demand for livestock products?

A: Livestock are key to many people’s culture and identity, and to their dietary habits, so I don’t think people will stop demanding livestock products. There’s a whole spectrum of views, from we should have no livestock, to livestock aren’t a problem at all. The truth lies somewhere in the middle. Livestock products can be a nutritious and sustainable portion of diets, but it’s a question of how much and how they’re produced.

Q: What did you do during your internship in Brussels?

A: I worked with FEFAC, who represent the national animal feed associations across Europe and provide a communication channel from the animal feed industry to the European Union. I was advising on what European companies can do to meet zero net deforestation targets so that their products are either deforestation-free, or if deforestation occurs its impacts are offset by restoration.

These zero net deforestation commitments have been around since 2010, but there hasn’t been a lot of progress because it’s not straightforward! There are logistical and definitional challenges. First, tracking deforestation along supply chains is still difficult, though there has been a recent burst of transparency tools. Second, we need to standardise the way that net deforestation is calculated. How many hectares of restoration are required per hectare of forest cleared, and at what scale should net deforestation be measured: farms, counties, or countries? I helped FEFAC’s policy advisors by producing a document explaining what the commitments these companies had made really meant, and giving recommendations for the steps they can take in Europe to reduce deforestation in practice.

Q: Why did you switch from being a vet to being a researcher?

A: I like the research approach to solving problems. If you’re a vet you deal with small problems - they’re still very important, but you’re working with one animal or one herd at a time. If you work in research and use the same knowledge I think you have a bit more leverage. You can model UK, or European, or Brazilian livestock production. I wanted to do something at a bigger scale.

Q: What challenges have you encountered in research? 

A: I did my field work in Brazil and it was really tough! Field work is easily romanticised, but you’re faced with new challenges all the time. When I first arrived I wasn’t properly prepared for working in such a different environment, and my Portuguese was basic at best. I was driving around in a jeep meeting farmers to learn about how they farmed. Luckily people were incredibly welcoming. They were intrigued as to why this blonde European guy was asking them about how many cows they had and how they managed their grass!

Q: What have you enjoyed most about your research so far? 

A: Collaboration with others. You meet people who think slightly differently from you and have different skills. For example, I’ve collaborated with an engineer on assessing the environmental impacts of using food waste as animal feed in the UK. We wrote an article together that I don’t think either of us would have been able to write on our own.

Q: Where do you have your best ideas? 

A: One of the reasons I’m in academia is that I really like reading. I try to read new articles every day. I think most knowledge is developed incrementally, and my ideas come from this. You really need to know what other people are doing to work out what the next question is.

Q: What might others be surprised to learn about you?

A: We served a meal made from supermarket food waste to the guests at our wedding. The delightful ‘Real Junk Food Project’ rustled up paella, pancakes and parsnip soup for us. I’ve spent about half of my PhD researching food waste and what the best way of recycling it is. First is feeding people, then animals, then recycling the nutrients through biogas or composting. I couldn’t miss the opportunity to apply my research in the real world by dishing up food waste to my friends and family.

Q: What’s your favourite research tool?

A: The computer programming language ‘R’. It’s open-source, developed by thousands of volunteers around the world, and allows you to manipulate data and plot beautiful graphs to communicate your work with people very easily. It’s one of the things that makes me most optimistic - all these people put in their time for free to build something that everyone can benefit from. 

Q: Who or what inspires you?

A: There’s a rhetoric that the world’s in a bad state and it’s only going to get worse with an increasing population consuming more and more resources. I’m inspired by the view that such a doomsday scenario isn’t inevitable. I interact with a fantastic international community who are really passionate about sustainability. Each one of them works on a very small part of the puzzle. I’m optimistic about our collective ability to create a society that is sustainable in the long-term.