Sustainable poultry production driving industry advances

Sustainable chicken and egg production demands will continue to increase as consumers and governments demand more accountability and transparency.

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On-farm or off, poultry producers may need to become energy producers. Once complete, this Northern Ireland anaerobic digestion plant will generate 3 megawatts of electricity from up to 40,000 tons of litter annually, and will help resolve local nutrient run-off issues, says developer Stream BioEnergy. | Courtesy Stream BioEnergy
On-farm or off, poultry producers may need to become energy producers. Once complete, this Northern Ireland anaerobic digestion plant will generate 3 megawatts of electricity from up to 40,000 tons of litter annually, and will help resolve local nutrient run-off issues, says developer Stream BioEnergy. | Courtesy Stream BioEnergy

Pressure on the poultry industry to be more environmentally sustainable can only grow as concerns for the environment and demands for transparency increase.

As broiler and egg producers face growing demand for animal protein, how the industry responds will vary, as definitions of sustainability vary from country to country and company to company.

There is no universal definition of sustainability and, even where there is consensus, definitions have evolved since first emerging in the 1960s.

Sustainable production in its broadest sense interlinks three dimensions – environmental, social and economic, and companies and policymakers have placed varying emphases on each of these strands.

Yet where environmental sustainability is concerned, there is now general recognition that the earth’s resources are limited, and that the environment underpins economic and societal development.

Within the poultry industry, many companies have already made significant progress in reducing environmental footprints and greening their businesses. However, as demand for animal protein increases, reducing or stabilizing environmental impacts will become more important but harder to achieve, meaning that even businesses with advanced sustainability policies will need to constantly review them.

Sustainable birds

Poultry genetics businesses have made significant progress in developing birds that make better use of the resources expended on them.

The modern broiler or layer is a very different bird from that of only a few decades ago, with better livability, improved growth and feed conversion rates, and higher yields, be it for meat or eggs. Put simply, genetics companies have been developing, although not solely focusing on, birds producing more with less, making them perhaps ideal examples of sustainability.

However, the future may not be quite so straightforward

Newer considerations have been influencing bird development, including welfare, a growing preference for slower-growing broilers, and cage-free environments for layers. This could be viewed as less than optimal from an environmental sustainability point of view, given additional resource requirements.

Yet, selection programs have taken these demands into consideration, and birds able to respond to newer rearing practices have emerged. For producers, however, these demands for more space, or for keeping birds longer, may drag on environmental sustainability efforts.

A broader approach in genetic selection can be expected to continue, but there may be other limiting factors in making birds more sustainable -- the physiological limits of birds themselves.

Nutrition and feed

Continued progress will also occur in nutrition, both from the perspective of bird genetics and from a deeper understanding of nutrition itself.

As technology develops, it may be possible to include ingredients in diets that, to date, have not proved feasible or economical, and that can be locally sourced. Technological developments should also allow nutrition to be better aligned over the entire growing or laying period.

Adriaan Smulders, strategic marketing and technology lead, poultry and additives EMEA, with Cargill, explains: “Precision nutrition/mineral efficiency brings better welfare for the birds and optimal use of raw material resources.

“A tailor-made diet will ensure that the animal can use the building blocks of the feed as efficiently as possible. This will lead to less loss of valuable nutrients. By feeding the birds what they need, less is wasted.”

He continues that better nutrition can also mean healthier birds, less likely to be prone to disease. With better nutrition, more birds will grow optimally, survive and produce more protein.

The transport of feed or additives has an environmental impact, and the closer to home any sustainably produced ingredients can be sourced, the greater the likelihood of reducing environmental impact.

But transport emissions may be small compared with those from milling itself, and concentrating production in fewer, larger mills may be more efficient than relying on many smaller mills, and become more commonplace.

Intelligent systems on-farm

As larger mills may be more sustainable for feed production, the same could be said for larger farms. Economies of scale can result in more efficient resource allocation and make the use of precision agriculture, and its necessary investment, more feasible.

Sophisticated house management systems, able to control environments and feed and optimize performance, require investment, possibly beyond small producers. Such systems not only regulate inputs but also alert producers to problems.

From increased biosecurity, though to robots that “live” among flocks and highlight problems, technology will increasingly be applied, optimizing performance, minimizing waste and losses and so improving a farm's environmental credentials.

And producers may have to cease seeing themselves simply as producers of food, and increasingly as producers of food and energy, as waste becomes a growing issue and the technology to process it improves and becomes cheaper. Several producers are already well advanced on this path and are net energy exporters.

Yet large-scale “industrial” farming can be rejected by consumers who often see sustainability as rooted in traditional farming methods, for example free-range egg production, with less technological input, and this may be a barrier that producers will have to overcome if they are to be truly environmentally sustainable.

Addressing consumer attitudes

Consumer views on farming are not the only attitudes that poultry and egg producers may have to address as sustainability pressures grow: attitudes to food itself may need to change, requiring new consumer relationships.

Animal protein production tends to consume more resources than producing plant protein, and calls to reduce meat consumption in developed countries or to impose a meat tax to protect the planet have emerged from even the highest quarters.

While many would argue against such calls, the rationale becomes less unacceptable when taken in the context of food waste.

A study based on FAO data by climate change group Champions 12.3 found that in North America and Oceania, consumer food waste stands at 61 percent, while Europe scores 52 percent. A separate study in the U.K. found that chicken is the most wasted meat.

The poultry industry may be seen as the most sustainable of all land-based animal production, but if its output is wasted, there is no sustainability.

As part of any sustainability program, producers may have to engage consumers in new ways, perhaps encouraging consumption of all poultry meat – be it white or dark – reducing the need to ship product around the world and satisfying demand with local production.

Detailed sustainability reports are likely to become more common, but it may also be necessary to encourage consumers to live up to the standards they demand of the industry.

From farm to fork

A superficial approach to sustainability may become unacceptable, particularly as requirements for transparency build and governments intervene, and there are examples where the poultry industry is already leading the way.

For example, JBS has been recognized by the Carbon Disclosure Project, a global disclosure system enabling measurement and management of environmental impacts, as a top 5 company in Latin America for water management and security in the Program Supply Chain. The company’s Sustainable Water Management Program in Brazilian facilities has been selected by the Getulio Vargas Foundation Sustainability Study Center as one of Brazil’s 10 most innovative corporate water management initiatives.

But sustainability is a journey, not a destination. 2 Sisters, for example, which is already carbon neutral and a net energy producer, nevertheless has published ongoing targets for its own facilities and supply chains, putting everything from farm to fork under scrutiny.

Andrew Edlin, 2 Sisters sustainability director, says: “Having a plan in place is only the start. To be really effective, we know that our people, customers and partners have to understand what we are trying to do and why, and be engaged in working with us to meet these goals.

“To ensure we are working towards the right visions and targets, the entire Feeding the Future program will be reviewed at least every two years by a cross-sectional group of people from business and third parties as appropriate.”

Broiler Farm Aerial Shot 1

Larger, modern and more technologically advanced farming methods are often more environmentally sustainable than more traditional ones, despite public perceptions. | Courtesy Hydor Ltd.

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This is the ninth article in WATT Global Media’s 100-year anniversary series, which considers the future of poultry processing. The next article in the series will explore industry structure.

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