Debate heats up over economic and environmental impacts of higher welfare chicken production

By Jane Byrne

- Last updated on GMT

© GettyImages/Georgijevic
© GettyImages/Georgijevic
A recent study by AVEC highlights the significant economic and environmental costs of European Chicken Commitment (ECC) production. However, campaigners argue that the report fails to fully account for the benefits of higher welfare systems.

Dr Tracey Jones, global director of food business at Compassion in World Farming (CIWF), argues that these benefits, such as lower mortality, reduced antibiotic use, and better meat quality, could offset some of the economic and environmental impacts of ECC production.

Also known as the Better Chicken Commitment (BCC), the ECC is a framework promoted by NGOs that aims to enhance animal welfare beyond current EU legislation. Some 380 companies including retailers, restaurants, and catering businesses, have already signed up to the initiative in Europe.

“The ECC is raising the bar for broiler welfare in Europe. It may impact cost and environmental measures, but when combined with successful strategies such as feed reformulation, full carcase utilisation or innovative product development, it can be commercially and environmentally viable,” states Dr Jones.

The Association of Poultry Processors and Poultry Trade in the EU Countries (AVEC) commissioned an independent consultancy, ADAS, to conduct the study​. Based on 5,674 million birds per year moving from standard to ECC production in the EU, the report​ found that there would be significant increases in feed and water intake to maintain the current output of chicken meat.

The researchers also reported that production costs would rise by 37.5% per kilogram of meat, water consumption would increase by 35.4%, equating to an additional 12.44 million cubic meters annually, while feed consumption would rise by 35.5%, amounting to an additional 7.3 million tons.

Looking to environmental impact, the AVEC study indicated that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions would increase by 24.4% per kilogram of meat produced and that there would be a 44% reduction in total meat produced compared to current methods. Moreover, to maintain current production levels, 9,692 new poultry houses would need to be constructed at an estimated cost of €8.24 billion, showed the consultants’ review.

'Journey to delivering higher welfare is not easy'

Dr Jones acknowledges that the journey to delivering higher welfare is not easy and there are many external challenges – not least the cost of living and climate crisis.

“It is undeniable that the transition from conventional to ECC production typically results in an increase in production costs, by providing more space per bird (and therefore fewer birds produced per shed) and using breeds that are slower growing (requiring more feed to produce the same amount of meat and reducing the number of production cycles per year).

“For the same reasons, switching to higher welfare may have a higher environmental impact. However, these negative impacts can and must be mitigated through an adjustment of practices.”

However, she says that by excluding the breeding and processing phases, the report overlooked areas where ECC systems can outperform conventional systems, such as a better productivity of the parent stock, lower rejection rates in slaughterhouses and fewer carcass downgrades due to meat quality issues, leading to a reduction in food waste.

In addition, ECC flocks typically report much lower mortality rates, she maintains.

While investing in higher welfare chicken production bears a cost, signatory companies will often benefit from improved brand reputation, stronger marketing, and consumer loyalty due to their higher welfare standards, according to the CIWF representative.

"The welfare of chickens in conventional production systems has long been compromised. Broiler chickens are bred for rapid growth, feed efficiency and large breast meat yield, growing four times faster than they did 50 years ago." - Dr Tracey Jones, CIWF.

Low protein diet

“It is currently estimated that over 75% of the environmental impact of broiler production comes from activities associated with feed production, especially from the use of land to produce unsustainable soybeans. While slower growing breeds require more feed as they live longer and are less 'efficient' in converting animal feed into meat, they also have the important advantage of requiring a lower protein diet and therefore soy content can be lowered - which the report somewhat acknowledges but would have needed a stronger emphasis,” argues Dr Jones.

The report also failed to consider possible mitigation practices to lower the impact of the ECC on some environmental metrics, she says.

“For example, the use of alternative local protein sources in the feed, the adoption of renewable energy, efficient manure management or improving full carcass utilisation could significantly reduce the environmental footprint of ECC production. Those strategies are essential to achieve an animal welfare and environmentally friendly farming system that minimizes the need to trade off one for the other.

“Most importantly, the conclusions of the report around the increase in land use that would be needed to support current chicken meat production levels under ECC standards prompt questions about the sustainability of today’s production and consumption levels.”

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