The long relationship between the poultry industry and poultry scientists was celebrated in July at the 100th annual meeting of the Poultry Science Association in St. Louis. As the industry and the research community enter the next phase of this relationship, what challenges and opportunities lie ahead? We’ve come a long way together, and it would be great to report that the most difficult challenges are behind us, but in fact many are already with us, and more lie ahead.
Scientific investigation at land-grant universities enabled today’s efficient and productive poultry enterprise that feeds the world with ever-decreasing numbers of producers. Public perceptions and societal pressures have created new challenges for all animal production systems that industry and universities must address together. Such challenges include, for example, increasing threats from diseases shared by animals and people; development and deployment of new technologies and nutrient management (GMOs and nanotechnologies); and perceptions of the public about food safety (antibiotics, food-borne pathogens), animal welfare and air quality/environmental issues.
An essential element as we face these challenges is a strong collaboration among university, industry, growers, consumers and other stakeholders. Only by asking the tough questions and using the best collective wisdom from all sectors can we answer them effectively. I have long wrestled with the disconnect between poultry/animal science departments and the poultry industry, as the increasing size and complexity of poultry companies means decision makers are more insulated from the production operations on which the industry is based. Bottom-line considerations, driven by stockholder expectations for financial returns, have largely supplanted biology and science as the driver of poultry production, and this has contributed, rightly or wrongly, to an undermining of consumer confidence in food quality and safety, and generated concerns about animal welfare and production practices.
Production/processing issues and niche markets
In looking forward, an overarching issue facing us as an industry and a society is feeding up to 9 billion people by 2050 in an environmentally, ethically and economically sustainable way that also ensures affordable, nutritious and healthy food. That’s a tall order and understanding what those words really mean makes it even tougher. We know that the environment is under pressure from human overuse; that some consumers want different housing systems for animals in production; and that many people in the world are already living below the poverty level without access to adequate nutrition. Food production, environmental quality and human quality of life issues will be increasingly exacerbated by global climate change. I believe we have the knowledge and the technological power to address these issues if we keep our heads and are willing to communicate and work together.
Consumer and societal demands for poultry produced in other than currently conventional systems is increasing. For a variety of reasons, both real and perceived, people increasingly want access to poultry products that they believe to be safe, healthy, humanely produced and, often, locally grown. A recent initiative, School Food FOCUS, is dedicated to seeking, for lunch programs in the country’s 40 largest school districts, whole-muscle poultry products raised with specific growing criteria in systems that also provide humane worker conditions. I was invited, with PSA support and a poultry industry representative, to provide FOCUS science-based information as it developed its buying criteria.
Consumer initiatives such as FOCUS will not decrease, and it will require expertise from university, USDA and industry scientists to help meet such efforts in ways that are sustainable for both industry and society. Could, for example, a major broiler producer opt to add to its conventional contract growers several dispersed smaller-scale operations at the local level? Would it be economically feasible? How might it affect global disease transmission? Could it increase market share, name recognition and goodwill among consumers, ultimately adding to profitability? Questions such as these are just examples, but they can be tested using transdisciplinary approaches with broad collaboration.
Looking through different lenses doesn’t necessarily mean impulsively abandoning current practices in favor of something that seems better on the surface. For example, some consumers have long pushed to abandon cages in layer operations because they think cage-free and free-range are more desirable than conventional cages for hen welfare. In the recent agreement between United Egg Producers and the Humane Society of the United States, enriched colony cages are identified as the standard in proposed federal legislation. There are several issues with this agreement, not the least of which is the push for federal regulation of a practice on which research is not conclusive.
Cage-free has been shown to be inferior to various cage systems with regard to carbon footprint, ammonia production, pest control and disease (Xin et al., 2010), and even the best-managed colony cage systems are not necessarily optimal for all strains under all conditions (Lay et al., 2010). In addition, the current UEP certification that prohibits feed/water-withdrawal molting practices is already “complied with by a majority of egg producers” (UEP-HSUS Agreement). Pushing to legislate a practice that could well become outmoded as new research produces new understanding seems not only risky but likely unnecessary.
Many other production practices could fall under this same scenario, so identifying the questions and developing the appropriate research initiatives will be critical going forward, and this must be done in a concerted effort among industry, university and government scientists, consumers and other stakeholders.
A major challenge facing us in academia and industry is funding for new technologies and systems research. Research costs money and budgets are tight. Historically, federally funded research at land-grant universities ensured unbiased scientific information that, in this case, underpinned the phenomenal growth of the poultry enterprise. Since 1980, withdrawal of federal funding has created an environment in which the unbiased status of land-grant research is vulnerable to question.
As scientists seek funding wherever they can get it, a balance between strings attached and research outcomes has been increasingly hard to achieve. The USDA has not been effective in supporting animal agricultural research or in petitioning Congress for increased funding. Industry support for research is needed, but university scientists, dependent as they are on research funding and resulting publications, must remain free of even the slightest hint of special interest influence to effectively address longer-term industry issues.
One of the strengths of university research has been, and will continue to be, peer review. Poultry Science and the Journal of Applied Poultry Research are both published by PSA, which pays for the production, archiving and dissemination of published research. These journals, and others, face issues of open access (no-cost public access to published research), precipitated by ease of access to the internet. Challenges associated with open access (on the surface a desirable thing) include maintaining rigor of academic research through a safeguarded peer-review process and avoiding misuse and unintended consequences (of preliminary health-related data, for example).
A thorough discussion of open access is beyond the scope of this article, but publication is expensive, and digital publication is no exception. While it might seem that posting articles online should be free, electronic platforms necessary for journal production (formatting, hyperlinking, archiving and copyrighting) rely on expensive technology that someone has to pay for. Whether open access can be made sustainable remains to be seen, but the bottom line is that ease of access does not mean free and therein lies tremendous tension.
Complacency is our common enemy
Historically, poultry scientists provided the research base that enabled the poultry industry to become what it is today. Historically, a uniquely diverse and non-traditional cadre of university, government and industry scientists advanced poultry science beyond the imaginable with regard to efficiency, food safety and high-quality, affordable protein production. We dare not be complacent about those achievements.
As we move forward, the poultry industry cannot afford to be afraid to adjust to evolving societal pressures, and university scientists must be out front helping with that adjustment through sound science and education of the next generation. We must use our best collective thinking to address issues and provide answers to shifting landscapes and moving targets. Now is the time and opportunity for industry and other stakeholders to participate in this endeavor and support a forward-looking vision with transparent collaborative science and open, frank debate, even when it’s uncomfortable.