Harnessing nature’s complexity to solve complex challenges in animal production

The need to increase global food production has never been more pressing – this is the reason that, at Nutreco, we are so dedicated to our purpose of Feeding the Future. At the same time, animal production is becoming increasingly complex. Our Nutreco Exploration team is finding exciting new ways to fight the challenges that face farmers by harnessing a different kind of complexity – from the plant world. Nutreco’s Chief Science Officer, Dr. David Bravo, explains how Nutreco’s groundbreaking new Phyto-complexes, developed by the team at Nutreco's Garden of the Future in Switzerland could be the answer.

Dr. Bravo said that animal physiology has always been complex. Growth itself is a complex biological process – particularly in farm animals that are selected for quick production. “Farm animals’ diets are finely calculated to precisely satisfy their nutrient requirements and ramp up metabolism for efficient growth. However, their environments also play an important role; farm animals react to even what seem like very small environmental changes, making producers’ jobs much more challenging.”

But today, we are adding new layers of requirements to the animal production process. “It’s no longer just about producing as much as possible – it’s about HOW we produce,” said Dr. Bravo. This shift started over 20 years ago with a focus on reducing antibiotic use, and since then we’ve added other constraints around sustainability, carbon footprints, climate change, shifting consumer behaviour, animal welfare and sustainable ingredients. “These are all very legitimate challenges, that are incorporated into new regulations. But the constraints are piling up, and the situation is becoming truly complex, both for our industry and for animals.”

Solving complex challenges with natural complexity

At AgriVision 2023, Dr. Bravo talked about how organisations need to respond to complex challenges by dancing with complexity. “The law of requisite complexity states that, in an organisation, only complexity can defeat complexity. But the same principle can be applied to farm animals grown in a modern production context,” he said. “To solve the challenges that face animals and our industry, we need to respond by introducing some natural complexity.” Nutreco’s Phytotechnology program is centred around leveraging the complexity contained within plants to fix the complex problems faced by animals.

The solution: Phyto-complexes

Dr. Bravo said that the Nutreco Exploration team is creating a brand-new type of phytogenics he calls Phyto-complexes – and they are completely different from anything the industry has produced in the past. Nutreco is including them in functional feed, smart mix solutions and feed additives.

Phytogenics boomed in recent decades in response to the need to remove antibiotic growth promoters from feed, leading even sceptics to accept their value. “Today there is scientific evidence and practitioner acceptance of the benefits to animal performance of, for example, dietary additions of essential oils.” However, he said these products were mostly selected for their antimicrobial effect.

Phyto-complexes are different because they are not trying to kill pathogens; they trigger a systemic response that could lead to, for example, decreased inflammation or increased nutrient absorption, improving the production performance of the animal. “We are talking about a very specific, complex combination of active molecules in a particular plant that can defeat complex problems such as the inflammation farm animals produce in reaction to their environments.”

Unleashing the power of nature

Nutreco’s Phyto-complexes are a combination of active molecules expressed by the entire genotype of a plant. Instead of extracting one compound, the team uses an entire part – the root or the leaf for example. “The full effect of the Phyto-complex comes from the complete profile of active molecules in the plant. When we use a single compound to solve a health challenge, its effect is fairly narrow. When we use the whole plant, we achieve a more powerful effect, and with much lower concentrations. Phyto-complex can target the resolution of very specific problems, through a combination of many compounds. We are truly harnessing the power of nature and preserving its complexity – using the full set of defences a plant has developed for itself to target challenges in the animal world,” said Dr. Bravo.  

Cutting edge technology makes it possible

The Nutreco Exploration team’s ability to channel the power of nature in this way is possible thanks to modern technology and science. “Today’s technology, paired with the great expertise our people have at Skretting and Trouw Nutrition, is enabling us to understand the problems animals face much better than in the past and isolate them, so they can be treated much more effectively.” He explained that it’s now possible to identify a performance issue – such as glucose metabolism, inflammation or liver health – and translate it at a molecular level. Then, instead of finding one substance to solve the problem with a large amount of inclusion and unpredictably, Nutreco Exploration’s plant scientists, working together with our animal specialists, can identify a Phyto-complex that can solve the animal physiology problem consistently, reliably and in different ways all at once. “It's really tackling complexity with complexity.”

And the team’s discovery drills all the way down to the genotype level. “We don’t just build a Phyto-complex around a certain species of plant, we identify one specific plant with the right genotype to solve a problem. That’s the level of technology we are talking about. We can look at 1000 plants from the same species and only one has the right genotype to tackle the problem. That’s why the work we’re doing at our center for medicinal plant solutions in Switzerland called Nutreco's Garden of the Future is so exciting. We are able to identify the genotype of a plant with the right phenotype, and then propagate it ourselves using modern technology – so the whole process is under our control.”

Dr. Bravo said that this helps them get results that are incredibly consistent. “We’ve done over 100 trials – and I am flabbergasted when I see the results. They are so solid, so consistent, always the same, and very predictable.” He said they started with high inclusion levels in their initial trials, thinking it would be necessary. “But then we realised that the ingredients are so powerful that literally 100 grams per ton of feed works best!”

How will we do it? Organisational complexity connecting teams

The structure of Nutreco's Garden of the Future aligns with Dr. Bravo’s approach of solving complexity with complexity. “If you think of a complex organisation as a beehive – where hundreds of bees are flying around and working productively yet never crashing into each other – this is the kind of organisation we are building with Nutreco's Garden of the Future. It is intended to facilitate a constant stream of connection, discussion and exchange between all the people who are part of our Phytotechnology team and process.”

The team at Nutreco's Garden of the Future oversees the entire process of developing a Phyto-complex, from discovery to production. And its location in the centre of Switzerland’s Phyto Valley makes it easy to extend those connections outside of Nutreco, to the huge network of Phyto pharmacy companies and experts drawn to this area of the world. “That is an important competitive advantage. And this is what the Nutreco Exploration team and our Garden of the Future are all about: connecting our business and customers with the power of these Phyto-complexes, to help solve today’s multi-faceted challenges and create incredible value.”

That is an important competitive advantage. And this is what the Nutreco Exploration team and Nutreco's Garden of the Future are all about: connecting our business and customers with the power of these Phyto-complexes, to help solve today’s multi-faceted challenges and create incredible value.
Dr. David Bravo, Nutreco’s Chief Science Officer