Is today’s poultry industry up to the task of meeting the developing world’s predicted rise in demand for animal protein?

It probably is, but the industry that turned chicken meat into an affordable source of quality animal protein for developed markets was very different to that which exists today, and it now operates in a very different world.

Think back only 50 years: How many chicken producers were there in developed markets? How many breeding or animal health companies, and how much independent research was carried out by universities?

All of the these elements competed to gain market share and, in so doing, took our knowledge of production forward and advanced the sector as a whole. Now there are far fewer companies, and the nature of university research has changed enormously. Resources are scarcer, and the environment less forgiving.

That is not to say that our understanding of poultry production does not continue to move forward – probably faster now than ever before – but there is less competition, and the various elements that contributed to making developed world poultry production the success that it is today have become concentrated in fewer hands.

Response or imposition?

It can be argued that bigger companies are more efficient and able to exploit that efficiency for the benefit of consumers, wherever they may be, but it can also be argued that they are less agile and able to adapt. They may have plentiful resources to bring about change, but equally they may be more risk averse and remote from what the local consumer really wants or needs.

And once a certain scale is reached, often there is tendency to follow the route of one size fits all, and to bring product, whatever it may be, to market that suits the biggest or richest group of consumers.

The priorities or wants of developed markets are not necessarily the same as those of developing markets – think welfare, antibiotics versus basic nutrition – but when industry becomes concentrated in the hands of the few, alternatives can be hard to find.

In much of the developing world, backyard or small-scale production feeds much of the population, and it might be hoped that a few industry champions may well emerge from these, or from slightly larger, local producers, that will cater more closely to local needs.

But once a market really begins to take off, then larger companies will move in. Whether they will be able to provide what the local market really wants, or whether they will simply transpose what they have done elsewhere, is debatable. And without the competition that existed for the developing world, there will be little to encourage them to do anything else than what they already know.

There seems to be consensus that developing world demand will continue to rise. What perhaps needs a re-evaluation is how well that demand will be met.

Local production, whether carried out by a national or the biggest of multinational companies, is certainly of benefit. Recent trade disruptions due to avian influenza certainly prove how fragile the international trade in food products really is. And shipping food has an environmental cost. Do we really want the environmental footprint of transporting food to balloon as the world becomes richer?