As the clock ticks toward 2050 and the world population progresses toward an estimated 50 billion, countless daily discussions occur on how humankind can be more sustainable. This is especially true for the agriculture industry.
Poultry’s progress toward sustainability
Sustainability, in its simplest form, is meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.
The poultry industry’s sustainability journey has a long history. A 2017 Agricultural Systems Journal article detailed the results of a 45-year, retrospective analysis of the poultry industry. Using life cycle assessment (LCA) methodology, it demonstrated the production of poultry required 39 to 78% fewer resources and carried 26 to 50% less environmental impact potential in 2010 than in 1965.
The U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Poultry & Eggs
The LCA wasn’t performed to declare the poultry industry ended its pursuit of greater sustainability. It is a benchmark of the industry’s position and will be used to prioritize future efforts. The LCA was the historical foundation of an initiative that began late in 2014 to create the U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Poultry & Eggs (US-RSPE). Now in its third full year of existence, the US-RSPE just announced the development of a framework to report on the sustainability of the chicken, egg and turkey supply chain in the U.S.
The UN’s sustainability objectives
At about the same time, the United Nations (U.N.) was working on a plan to advance sustainable development around the world. The U.N. plan to elevate the economic, social and environmental positions of all humans is based on 17 so-called sustainable development goals (SDGs) deemed critical in achieving world-wide sustainable development by 2030. To make progress on the 2030 commitment, the U.N. announced in 2019 that it would host a food systems summit expected to deliver progress on all 17 SDGs. A preliminary summit was scheduled to take place in Rome in July 2021.
In order to engage a diverse group of participants, the U.N. is encouraging dialogs to identify ideas, solutions and partnerships. These dialogs will occur on a global level, at national levels and independent levels. Ideally, the outcome of these dialogs will inform the decision-makers that convene in 2021 to presumably develop a roadmap to meet the 2030 commitments.
A vegetarian agenda?
One troubling component of the messaging leading up to the 2021 summit is what may be an endorsement of a so-called planetary health diet such as the diet endorsed by the EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health. That diet recommends including only small amounts of meat or fish occasionally.
This recommendation was made despite the report’s acknowledgement that the consumption of white meat — like poultry and fish — was not associated with increased mortality. Furthermore, the report outlines the benefit of adding meat to the diet of low-income populations, because the addition of meat or other major protein sources is likely to mitigate micronutrient deficiencies and have metabolic benefits by reducing high glycemic load. Never mind that 80% of the authors that developed the report supported vegetarian diets.
The aspirational goals of the 2030 commitments are noble. We can all agree ensuring equal opportunity to all mankind is righteous. However, undervaluing the role the poultry and egg industries can play in meeting those goals while advancing so many SDG’s — poverty, zero hunger, good health and well-being to name a few — is puzzling.