With poultry production and standards on the up, will emissions follow suit?

Foodservice companies have committed to higher chicken welfare standards, but there could be a carbon cost in doing so, asks David Burrows.

UK consumption of chicken needs to be dramatically reduced, according to a new report, which outlines the environmental impact of poultry production as well as concerns relating to animal welfare.

Dropping red meat, like lamb and beef, in favour of poultry is often regarded a “sustainable” solution given the greenhouse gas savings (a recent collection of studies showed a kilo of chicken produced 9.9kg of greenhouse gases, compared to 99.5kg for beef). Chicken production also requires significantly less land and is often seen as the “healthier” meat.

But production of poultry is spiralling out of control, according to the Eating Better alliance. “We need to call out that further growth of chicken production is not a health or sustainability solution,” said executive director Simon Billing.

Sales of poultry overtook red meat for the first time in 2017, but continuing to promote further growth as a sustainability solution “does not make sense,” Billing said.

The report, “We Need to Talk about Chicken, acknowledges that intensive production of chickens has a lower carbon footprint but highlights the additional “unacceptable” costs of production, many of which remain “hidden”.

Feed is a particular concern. The UK imports around 3m tonnes of soya annually, almost 60% of which is used by the poultry industry. Over half of the soya used to feed poultry in the UK is not certified deforestation-free, the alliance noted.

Intensive chicken sheds can also release ammonia emissions from damp litter and from spreading manure on land. Poultry farming produces 15% of the UK’s agricultural ammonia emissions, according to Defra. There is guidance available on how to reduce emissions and, as part of its 2019 Clean Air Strategy, the government said it would introduce new rules for intensive housing to “minimise environmental pollution to air”. But the regulations are yet to materialise.

That chicken is a healthy meat is also worthy of debate, said Eating Better. The fat content of chicken increased from 8.6g of fat per 100g in 1970 to 22.8g of fat in 2004. Chicken now offers “69% less iron” than in 1940 and “five times less” omega-3 than in 1970.

Eating Better also wants to see a switch from high-volume intensively reared chickens to lower volumes produced to “better” standards. This is a big ask: the UK produces 850m chickens a year, of which 95% is in intensive indoor units; the remainder is reared to “higher welfare” standards, such as organic and free-range.

Still, many food companies are moving towards such systems. For example, 100 firms have signed up to the European Chicken Commitment (ECC). KFC, Casual Dining Group, Unilever, Compass Group and Elior have all committed to 100% ECC chickens by 2026. The voluntary standard requires suppliers to reduce stocking densities and adopt slower-growing breeds. “Momentum is building, and we are on the cusp of a significant change for broiler chickens,” explained Tracey Jones, director of food business Compassion in World Farming.

However, the British Poultry Council (BPC) recently warned that shifting wholesale to such standards would push up emissions and potentially put farmers out of business.

Addressing January’s “Pigs and Poultry – Optimising Production” event in Scotland, run by Moredun Research Institute (MRI), BPC technical director Máire Burnett said moving towards lower stocking densities and slower-growing birds would also be “less sustainable” and more costly to farmers.

The NFU has claimed the Better Chicken Commitment (also known as the ECC) would not significantly improve animal welfare and would increase production costs, greenhouse gas emissions and water use by 18%, 23% and 22% respectively.

Indeed, whether people will pay more for free-range chicken as they do eggs is only half the question; will they also accept these “happier” chickens come with a bigger carbon footprint? Of course, we could always consume less, which is the very point Eating Better is making.

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