Poultry production must peak in 2022

Campaigners want to see legal limits on intensive poultry production and caterers to push plants over poultry in schools and hospitals. David Burrows reports.

The UK government must introduce a ban on new intensive poultry sheds and remove industrial chicken meat from menus in schools and hospitals, according to campaigners.

Poultry overtook red meat sales for the first time in 2017 and now accounts for over 50% of meat consumption. A billion birds are consumed every year, of which 95% are fast-growing breeds, reared in intensive indoor units. These systems rely heavily on imported soya.

In a policy paper, launched alongside its new ‘peak poultry’ campaign, the Soil Association outlined how demand for chicken is driving habitat loss in South America.

“Soya production has contributed to deforestation and land conversion in biologically important areas, such as the Amazon and Cerrado, with rising global demand fuelling expansion into wild habitats,” the paper reads.

Just under a third (32%) of soya imported into the UK in 2019 was covered by a deforestation- and conversion-free certified soya standard, according to the UK Roundtable on Sustainable Soya 2020 report. However, in all 62% is thought to be either covered by certification or at “low risk of deforestation/conversion”.

The Soil Association has urged UK poultry producers to commit to zero deforestation within their supply chains. The Environment Bill contains a clause requiring due diligence in the purchase of forest risk commodities such as soya. Campaigners want this strengthened.

So too do businesses. McDonald’s and Nando’s were among the 16 food companies that last week signed another letter to Defra, warning that the bill as it stands “would not achieve halting the loss of these natural ecosystems”. They called for a “world leading regime that can deliver on our joint ambition to end all forms of deforestation”.

Sustainable soya would be great, but producers also need to curtail their use of the crop and adopt slower-growing breeds supported by the Better Chicken Commitment. Alternatives to soya can be more expensive and produce mixed results. There is hope that insects could eventually offer a sustainable solution, but their use as animal feed is currently restricted (though the rules are being relaxed in the EU).

Some brands are beginning to sell soya-free chicken. But as a report on ‘better meat’ set to be published in the autumn by Footprint Intelligence showed, this comes at a considerable premium. The Soil Association insisted that retailers should not be afraid of passing any increased costs on to consumers.

Major foodservice chains like KFC and Nando’s have recently committed to higher welfare production systems, including slower-growing breeds. The number of foodservice brands signed up to the Better Chicken Commitment is also growing.

Today (September 22nd), the Hen Caging (Prohibition) Bill will also have its first reading in parliament. Informally known as Beatrice’s Bill (after the rescue hen at the centre of a new campaign coordinated by Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation (CAWF) and The Humane League), the legislation includes a ban on enriched cage farming systems for egg laying hens.

CAWF research published in November showed such a ban had “strong public support” and is “economically viable”. Many major supermarkets and foodservice chains have committed to ban cages voluntarily by 2025.

However, changes to feed, birds and production systems might not be enough – consumption must also be reduced, the Soil Association said. The UK must reach “peak poultry” consumption and production within 12 months, with “declines thereafter in line with a transition to agroecology and healthy and sustainable diets”.

Public institutions such as schools and hospitals should be encouraged or required to serve more beans and pulses, with meat procurement restricted to higher welfare products from organic and agroecological systems, the organisation noted.

“We’re gobbling our way through some of the most precious ecosystems on the planet, sacrificing iconic wildlife for the sake of soya and an ultra-processed chicken nugget,” said head of policy Rob Percival.

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