Guest commentary: Can slower-growing chicken be sustainable?

The burgeoning trend of slower-growing broiler breeds in the U.S. piqued many attendees’ interest at this year’s Sustainable Agriculture Summit in Atlanta.

Bachoco Oklahoma Plant

The burgeoning trend of slower-growing broiler breeds in the U.S. piqued many attendees’ interest at this year’s Sustainable Agriculture Summit in Atlanta. The buzz was not surprising, considering recent commitments from food service giants Compass Group USA and Aramark to change broiler breeds by 2024.

Just as the cage-free egg movement swept the food industry, broiler welfare and the quest for healthier, slower-growing strains of birds is undoubtedly the next focus for the farm animal welfare movement. But some see the animal welfare motivated trend as an obstacle to sustainability.

Rather than fight back against the trend as an obstacle, companies should embrace slower-growing breeds as an opportunity to ensure long-term sustainability and success.

But how can slower-growing breeds of chickens be more sustainable if they may live longer, require more feed, more water, more room, and more housing?

Read a counterpoint from Terrence O’Keefe, WATT’s content director of agri-business: Faster growing broilers can still have good welfare

The answer is simple: chicken production is not sustainable as it currently operates. While yields are high, so is lameness amongst birds, so is dependency on antibiotics, so is loss of product to woody breast and white striping, and so is the loss of consumer trust that companies are treating chickens well.

Less dependence on antibiotics possible

Good animal welfare can serve as a strong indicator to consumers and investors that companies are engaging in sustainable practices. Reduced reliance on antibiotics, consistent meat quality, and company commitment to building positive long-term relationships with consumers and investors are all part of a sustainable business model.

As the pressing need to reduce antibiotic usage in meat production becomes all the more urgent, embracing slower-growing breeds may help reduce reliance. Data collected by the Dutch government, where slower-growing breeds have been growing in popularity, shows that antibiotic use has decreased dramatically as the proportion of healthier, slower-growing broilers has increased.

Less food waste likely

$200 million dollars’ worth of chicken breast, the highest-value muscle on a broiler chicken, was lost this past year to woody breast and white striping. Incidence of these two defects have increased as chickens have been genetically selected to grow faster and to put on more weight. Surely, the long term sustainability of the chicken industry relies on its ability to deliver chicken breast that hasn’t had its quality and nutritional makeup severely compromised.

Consumer expectations

While sustainability is most tangibly measured by outputs and inputs, the long term viability of an industry also relies on positive consumer perception. Consumers across the board care about animal welfare. The desire to buy affordable meat and the demand for animals to be cared for in ways that align with consumer values are not mutually exclusive. Making the transition to slower-growing breeds is an incredible opportunity for the industry to raise the baseline for what is acceptable, and to step up and meet consumer expectations.

As investors increasingly take sustainability and animal welfare into consideration when making investment decisions it is important that companies minimize the risks associated with unsustainable practices and inadequate animal welfare policies. One investor facing report, the Business Benchmark for Farm Animal Welfare (BBFAW), assesses the strength of a company’s animal welfare management practices and governance. It is becoming increasingly important to investors that animal welfare be taken seriously by the companies they choose to invest in.

It is a critical time for companies to choose what kind of definition of sustainability they want to invest in. A definition that embraces the shift to higher animal welfare production systems, and the superior food and nutritional quality that comes with them, is the most future-proof investment.

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