Will fringe groups decide the future of agriculture?
Conference on the future of the egg industry in America raises questions about balancing the wishes of advocacy groups with the reality of feeding a growing world population.
“Don’t let the fringe determine things for everyone,” said Jeff Simmons, president, Elanco, to the audience of the Executive Conference on the Future of the American Egg Industry held in conjunction with the International Poultry Expo in Atlanta. He stated that the “fringe” constitutes only about 1 percent of the population, but they want to eliminate food choices for everyone. The fringe pushes for food bans and restrictions, according to Simmons.
The other 99 percent of consumers want choices. He said that 95 percent of people are “food buyers,” and they make decisions based on cost, taste and nutrition. Four percent of people are “lifestyle buyers,” and they will buy luxury or gourmet items such as organic or locally grown items.
Simmons said that the fringe is responsible for reduced sodium levels in many products, removal of high fructose corn syrup from many foods and for keeping irradiation from being used routinely on high risk food items. He cited the example of Campbell’s Soup Company reducing sodium levels by 45 percent in over half of its soups in February 2010, because of pressure from fringe groups with concerns about the impact of sodium in the diet on all consumers. Unfortunately for Campbell’s, the move resulted in a reduction in market share, and the sodium levels were increased in July 2011, in an attempt to win back customers who preferred the taste of the soup with the additional salt.
Double the food in 50 years
Simmons said that the goal needs to be to make safe, affordable and abundant food a global reality. Hunger is the number one health problem in the world today, according to Simmons. “More people live with food as an issue in their lives than those that don’t, but the minority of people who don’t live with food as an issue in their lives hold the keys to the solution,” he said.
“Technology is the answer to getting safe, abundant and affordable food in the future,” said Simmons. “In the next 50 years we will need to double food output. Meat, milk and egg consumption will grow 66 percent to 75 percent as much as total food consumption does. Over the last 60 years U.S. agriculture has doubled output while using the same inputs. We need to do this again.”
Simmons said that experts think that technology will provide 70 percent of the increased productivity needed to feed a growing world population and that agriculture needs to preserve the use of new technologies. “Access to safe, proven efficiency enhancing technologies ensure that consumers around the world will have three rights; food, choice and sustainability,” he said.
Will the fringe choose layer housing?
Preserving the use of technology to improve agricultural output to feed a growing population that will want choice in their diets, and not just a subsistence number of calories, was the theme of Simmons’ talk. From the talk given by Dr. Ferry Leenstra, Wageningen University, The Netherlands, on alternative housing systems being utilized in Holland, as a result of the EU ban on cages for housing layers, it was easy to draw the conclusion that in the EU, perhaps the fringe has already ruled. Will the fringe make the decision on what is acceptable housing for layers in the U.S.?
In an impassioned address, Gene Gregory, president, United Egg Producers, insisted that after years of battling with the Humane Society of the United States, the agreement reached on laying hen welfare that calls for a transition to enriched colony housing in the U.S. is good for egg producers, consumers and for bird welfare. He said, “The egg industry did not cave in to HSUS.”
Enriched colony housing results
Tom Silva, vice president, JS West, reported his impressions of the first flock of hens placed in enriched colony housing on a commercial egg farm in the U.S. Birds were placed birds in June 2010 and kept in production until the flock reached 90 weeks of age without molting. JS West now has two enriched colony houses with birds placed at 116 square inches per bird.
Silva said that the enclosures are 17 inches tall at the lowest point, and that you need every bit of the height for the perches and so that the hens can flap their wings. He said that visitors consistently comment about the amount of head room the birds have.
“The flock performed very well,” Silva said. “We didn't spend too much additional time in the house.” He said that they ran the manure belts every four or five days, they checked for mortality twice a day. “We ran the feeders the same as we would another house,” Silva said. “We had Hyline birds and did not need to coax them into eating to bring them up in production.” He said that the birds reached 90 percent production much sooner than has been the case with their flocks housed in conventional cages.
Silva presented the first flock’s performance numbers and compared them to the optimal results reported by Hyline extrapolating the performance of an 80 week old flock out to 90 weeks. “We had exceptional mortality,” he said. “We didn't do anything different, but the mortality did not increase at the end of the flock.” He said that the mortality never got over 0.1 percent in a week late in the life of the flock.
“Production was fabulous, particularly late,” Silva said. “The persistency was great, it just didn't drop off. They peaked in the mid 90s and didn't drop off. Case weight was good and egg size came in fast. We put eggs in the carton all the way to 90 weeks, so egg quality was good.”
The flock in the enriched cages did use more feed than the standard. Silva attributed some of the increased feed use to wastage in the scratch area where some feed is augured on to the scratch pad to encourage foraging and dust bathing behaviors. “They ate a lot of feed early,” he said. “We learned from this, and our second flock is well under this for consumption but our production is still high.” Silva thinks that feed consumption will run around 3 percent higher because of the feed on the scratch pad and increased exercise for the birds. “For the first flock we are happy,” he said. “We don't ever restrict feed, but the birds ate less food in the last half of the flock than the first half.”
More research needed
Silva was complimentary of the impact of the nest area and perches on the birds. “Over 95 percent of the eggs are laid in the nests,” he said. “Undergrade eggs are as low as they have been in any of the houses with conventional cages.” He said that the nest pads stay clean, the birds are only in the nest long enough to lay their eggs. The perches have a positive effect on bird behavior. "Birds really seem to calm down when they are on the perches," he said.
Silva said that he was not really fond of the scratch area. JS West runs the feed into the scratch area twice a day. He said the scratch pad just won't stay clean. He thinks researchers need to come up with a better solution. The first flock of birds had a touch of coccidiosis, according to Silva, but with a little treatment it was resolved. Silva also thought that the claw shortener could be improved upon.
The bottom line
Silva said that the depreciation cost for housing birds in enriched colonies at 116 square inches per bird runs about 75 percent higher than what you have at 67 square inches per bird in conventional cages. “Square inches cost money, it is a number that won't go away, and you really can't do much better than that,” he said. “The feed will be 2-3 percent higher; we are still learning and it might get better. Supplemental heat may be an issue in colder climates. They will figure out the scratch area. That will get solved.”