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Focus on China: Dr Ashleigh Bright, FAI Farms

Dr Bright is a consultant with FAI Farms with specialist training in poultry welfare.

by Ryan Johnson
24 September 2019, at 12:00am

Dr Bright began working directly for FAI Farms in January 2007, but had been researching the laying hens at FAI's flocks since 2004. She and her family recently returned to home territory in New Zealand, where she works as an external consultant for FAI.

Before coming to FAI, Dr Bright completed her BSc and MSc in animal behaviour at Waikato University in New Zealand. She studied sexual selection in blackbirds, in particular how the bill colour of males could reflect their health and status. During this research, she came to see that bird vision was vastly different from that of humans, and become interested and concerned with what this might mean for the billions of broilers and laying hens we humans keep indoors under artificial light - light which is designed for human eyes, not bird eyes.

This realisation drove her to search for PhD programmes in animal welfare with a focus on poultry, which she found at the University of Oxford. Completing her DPhil under Marian Dawkins, Dr Bright studied injurious feather pecking in laying hens, which has been a major issue for the egg industry and for producers who have switched to cage-free production.

Dr Ashleigh Bright, FAI Farms
Dr Ashleigh Bright, FAI Farms

The topic of your presentation at the 2019 Global Animal Welfare Business Benchmark Conference is “Scaling up cage-free egg production in China: opportunities and challenges for animal welfare”. Could you provide a brief synopsis of the main points you will deliver in this presentation?

China is largest egg producer in the world and currently only has a relatively small percentage of cage-free production. Globally, retailers are making commitments to cage-free production, so if they are to meet these commitments then they will need to source cage-free from China. Plus China’s own citizens are starting to ask for higher welfare products.

By scaling up, I mean large farms/flocks that are currently caged – transitioning to cage-free and small/family farms either improving production, improving access to markets and if not currently farming poultry - starting to rear poultry. Small/family farms represent an incredibly important farm type in China (~75 percent of all farms are <2 hectares) and for agriculture and food security globally.

There are a few key challenges and opportunities for welfare that accompany the different farm systems.

Challenges

A cage-free marketing and production standard is needed that is trusted as well as an understanding that food safety and welfare are linked (food safety is a key issue of concern in China). For small farms, there needs to be more consistency in good management/husbandry biosecurity protocols as we see quite a lot of variability.

Opportunities

China is the number 1 producer in the world – if welfare in China’s egg production system improves, we are improving the welfare of a lot of animals.

China can be a leader in implementing a standard, training and collecting data to demonstrate welfare, impacts on the environment, people and financial viability. Culturally, Chinese citizens have different tastes to westerners: they prefer older, darker chicken meat and this can fetch a premium price – thus it is viable for traditional breeds to be raised, which are dual purpose (eggs and meat). There are inherent welfare benefits when egg production is not pushed to the same extent as conventional laying breeds, such as improved bone strength plus less waste because there isn’t a culling of male chicks.

To address challenges and fulfill opportunities, support is required for large-and small-scale – training, extension services and retailer commitments, as well as a transparent and safe product.

Why is scaling up cage-free production in China so important to this market?

The demand described above is a key factor here.

What makes it challenging compared to elsewhere in the world?

Currently there is no standard for producers, retailers and citizens to work to or trust.

Variability in farm size (commercial and small/family farms) means one size fits all doesn’t apply. Plus small farms are very important to food security and culture, but it's more difficult for those farms to access markets and ensure consistency of supply.

What does “a cage-free China” represent for other countries yet to commit to implementing this change?

A cage-free China would mean that global egg production would be predominantly cage-free – this is pretty huge! If China, with its large diversity in farm types and predominantly small scale agriculture can achieve this, then other countries can too. An understanding of the process of transition and what it means for people, birds and suppliers can be documented and then used to help other countries and other production systems make similar transitions – it’s a process that can be applied to more than just eggs.

What was the focus of your DPhil and how has it shaped the course of your career?

It was looking at factors to predict injurious feather pecking. I examined commercial flocks and tracked them over time using farm production data as well as data I collected on behaviour and other welfare outcomes. FAI was the main farm at which I completed the research. I was really interested in applying research to commercial settings – that interface between academia and producers, suppliers and retail. I wanted to make the science more relevant and implementable, and help to make commercial decisions more scientifically robust.

When did you come to FAI Farms and what inspired you to work with them?

I cam to FAI Farms in January 2004 as a DPhil student and in January 2007 to work on the Brazil/China model farm project.

They were a farm trying to implement animal welfare science, and they were genuine. FAI had integrity and were realistic about how hard it sometimes was – there was a real focus on bringing different disciplines and points of view together to work towards solutions. This really resonated with me.

What are the main challenges that you face in your role?

Time difference!

Plus I do like to get lost in a topic, as an external consultant that now charges for time – I can’t really do that any more – advice needs to be succinct and helpful.

Ryan Johnson