On one side are concerns about animal welfare and on the other are those about environmental sustainability – two admirable macro trends heavily influencing consumers’ purchasing decisions and which, when pitted against each other as in this case, complicate manufacturers’ production and value decisions.
Animal welfare concerns were a driving force in the decision by Whole Foods Market and others to commit to sourcing only from suppliers that raise slower-growing breeds of chicken and offer better living conditions.
According to Global Animal Partnership, an organization Whole Foods Created to set animal welfare standards for its suppliers, the retailer’s shift away from conventional chickens, which have been bred for fast, efficient growth of about 65 grams per day and a higher yield of breast meat, will improve the lives of 277 million chickens.
“Conventional chickens are typically raised with ¾ a square foot of space each, are given no enrichment or natural light and suffer from the side effect of extremely fast growth,” including “immune and muscolskeletal problems resulting in limitations to the birds’ ability to express natural behaviors like perching, flying or even walking,” according to the farm animal welfare organization Compassion in World Farming.
Whole Foods committed to give chickens about 25% more space than conventional chickens, buy birds that grow 50 grams per day or less – which is about 23% less than conventional chickens – and provide natural light, straw bales, perches and pecking substrates.
In late December, Panera followed suit for similar welfare reasons, as did Pret a Manager. Others that also committed to slower growing chickens include Sodexo, Compass and Aramark.
These commitments likely resonate well with many consumers who increasingly worry about animal welfare, not just out of the kindness of their hearts but based on the belief that “happy” animals well create higher quality, better tasting products.
But these benefits also come at a cost, according to a new study released today by the National Chicken Council.
The study, conducted in August and September by Elanco Animal Health, in consultation with Express Markets, Inc., used a simulation model to detail the environmental, economic and sustainability implications of raising slower growing chickens.
The results revealed “a sharp increase in chicken prices and the use of environmental resources – including water, air, fuel and land,” according to NCC.
“In assessing a transition to a slower growing breed, the environmental impact is an important component often left out of the equation,” NCC says in a release. It explains, “If only one-third of broiler chicken producers switched to a slower growing breed, nearly 1.5 billion more birds would be needed annually to produce the same amount of meat currently produced – requiring a tremendous increase in water, land and fuel consumption.”
Specifically, the report found an additional 7.6 million acres of land, which is about the size of Maryland, would be needed per year to grow sufficient corn and soybeans to feed the chickens, and an additional 5.1 billion gallons of water would be necessary to keep the chickens hydrated, not counting the extra water to grow the additional feed.
Just as inputs would go up, so would outputs. The study found slower growing chickens that stay on the farm longer would produce 28.5 billion additional pounds of manure annually, which NCC notes is “enough litter to create a pile on a football field that is 27 times higher than a typical NFL stadium.”
The switch also would have negative economic impacts, according to the NCC study.
It found if just 1/3 of the industry switched to slower growing birds the additional cost would be $9 billion. Plus, it could reduce the US chicken supply, potentially leading to 27.5 billion fewer chicken meals per year, which NCC says could increase the risk of food instability for some people.
More research necessary
These tradeoffs do not necessarily mean NCC opposes switching to slower growing broilers or that it is willing to sacrifice animal welfare for environmental and economic reasons. Rather, NCC says it is open to evolving to meet consumer preferences, but that such shifts should be based on scientific research rather than emotional rhetoric.
“We are the first ones to know that success should not come at the expense of the health and wellbeing of the birds,” Ashley Peterson, NCC senior vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs, said in a statement.
But she added it is unclear if slowing the speed of growth would actually improve the health and welfare of chickens, and as such additional research is necessary to identify any “unforeseen consequences of raising birds for longer.”
As such, NCC says it urges addition research on all elements of the equation: animal welfare, environmental impact and economic implications.