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Poultry Around the World

Mark Clements' view of the world poultry industry with a British twist.

Poultry’s carbon footprint

July 28, 2011

I found myself in a pub the other evening talking about the market for chicken paws.

As I talked about the Chinese appetite for paws and how they have become a valuable export commodity, I was a little taken aback by my enthusiasm for the subject, then felt sorry for my friends, and then thought that work really should end at 5:30!

I’m not really one to look for patterns or coincidences, but yesterday someone commended me for taking baby steps with a problem that I’m currently trying to deal with, and now I am writing about carbon footprints. Perhaps I do look for too many links – and tend to ramble.

So to get to the point, another piece of research has found that poultry and eggs have the smallest carbon footprints of the major sources of animal protein.

Published earlier this month, the Meat Eater’s Guide to Climate Change and Health offers a lifecycle assessment of 20 popular types of meat, dairy and vegetable proteins.

Unlike most studies that focus only on production emissions, the assessment calculated the full cradle-to-grave carbon footprint of each food item based on the greenhouse gas emissions generated before and after the food leaves the farm – from the pesticides and fertilizer used to grow animal feed all the way through the grazing, animal raising, processing transportation, cooking and disposal of unused food.

The bad guys and the good guys 

Lamb, beef, cheese, pork and farmed salmon were found to generate the most greenhouse gases. With the exception of salmon, they also tend to have the worst environmental impacts, because producing them requires the most resources – mainly chemical fertilizer, feed, fuel, pesticides and water – and pound for pound they generate more polluting manure. Chicken, turkey and eggs were all found to be less damaging, with eggs being the least environmentally damaging of the three.

The report’s authors noted that only half of chickens’ emissions are generated during production. This is because, pound for pound, chickens require far less feed than pigs, or beef or dairy cattle, and chickens generate no methane.

When looking at emissions attributable to food that is not eaten or is thrown away, again, turkey, chicken and eggs scored favorably.

Chicken processing, however, was not cast in such a favorouble light, with the report’s authors arguing that it is more energy- and water-intensive than the processing of other meat.

Emerging patterns

While the authors favor a reduction in meat consumption, chicken, turkey and egg producers may not want to dismiss it out of hand. While meat consumption in the US may be higher than in most parts of the world, the poultry and egg industries do come out favorably. And as importantly, similar independent studies in Europe have had similar results when looking at carbon footprint.

So it would seem that on whichever side of the fence you perch as regards meat consumption, consuming poultry would seem to be best option. I’m afraid I think I already know what I’ll be talking about the next time I slip to the pub.  

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