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Farming in focus: poultry can lead the way in sustainable farming, says Aidan Connolly

29 November 2019, at 4:28pm

Aidan Connolly, Chief Executive Officer at Cainthus, President of AgriTech, has written extensively on recent innovations in agriculture and livestock which may shape the landscape of food production going forward.

Sustainability has become part of the vernacular of most industries. How do you feel the poultry industry is progressing in its push to be more sustainable?

The poultry industry probably perceives itself as being very sustainable. Of course, feed conversion continues to come down, and indeed we are now predicting that we can grow a 2kg chicken with 2kg of feed by 2022. Something we forget, of course, is that chickens are not just dry matter but contain a lot of water so the theoretical feed conversion we should be able to achieve could be much lower than that.

It’s also clear that we have to think about things like greenhouse gases; we have to think about the fact that a lot of water is used in the processing plant and other factors which might influence what eventually creates the footprint of the chicken. All of that said, clearly from a sustainability perspective, the poultry industry has a very good story to tell, both for broilers and for eggs, and continues to improve thanks to genetic selection and other improvements in terms of housing etc.

What do you feel are the greatest challenges to sustainable broiler and egg production today?

I think to a large degree we are still very imprecise in our knowledge of how to manage chickens. A lot of this is down to the fact that we have very little real data about how chickens are produced at the level of individual birds. That is, we tend to manage for the average or for the flock and not for the individual bird, but within that flock there is, of course, tremendous variation.

This is even the case in terms of egg production, where we may get, if we choose, two numbers per cage. But quite often we measure egg production per line, and we certainly don’t measure feed or water consumption on an individual bird basis. This is where I think the greatest improvements can be made, alongside understanding which nutrients are being consumed, potentially through in-line NIR (near infrared) systems, but aiming to become even more precise than that.

What are some recent or potential innovations which could help to overcome these particular challenges?

There certainly are great opportunities such as within the eight technologies that I’ve talked about before – things like robots and sensors: both of these can collect information and help us to manage birds more effectively without human intervention. Ultimately, I think we’re moving toward machine vision and artificial intelligence where decisions will be made in a manner which is in many ways more intelligent than human decision-making.

Crypto technologies such as blockchain will allow us to have traceability systems that show the ways in which the product is moving through the system: all the inputs into the feeding of that animal and into the production of the meat at the end of the process. Overall, this will be more favourable from a consumer perspective, although frankly there is no guarantee that consumers will be happy with it. From my point of view, there is a lot of potential there.

Also, technologies such as virtual reality and enhanced reality are going to be harder to implement and we are inexorably moving towards a reliance on the internet of things.

What will it take for high-welfare, environmentally friendly chicken and eggs to become as affordable as the conventionally raised alternatives?

I believe that when you look at these challenges it often seems as though they are going to increase the cost of production. In actual fact, there are frequently opportunities to avoid that and arrive at a better place. We have seen this with things such as the recycling of water and packaging which in the end bring their own economic advantages. From my perspective, welfare and environmentally friendly practices appear to be costs at the moment, but if we can understand them and increase bird welfare we may well end up with better feed conversions and feed efficiencies, less stress - and therefore less disease - and better meat quality, all of which have to be positive things. Making lemonade out of lemons as we sometimes say; perhaps it will take longer and more imagination, but embracing technologyand nutrigenomics - that is, the precise feeding of nutrients from a gene expression perspective - are essential for what we need to do.

There’s a quietly growing trend in agriculture to go “beyond sustainable” and “beyond organic” by striving to regenerate the land. How can poultry production contribute to the “regenerative agriculture” movement?

I think that poultry probably has a better story to tell in terms of minimal impact on the environment. The use of things like poultry litter and ensuring that that achieves better uptake with plants might allow for better retention and result in less leaching into the soil. What we all strive for is an eventual restoration of the land and to work towards making the area we’re farming into a better place than it was when we found it. I am not entirely sure we have yet seen this principle truly being applied, but this might change with the advent of precision agriculture. But from my perspective this is something which can be achieved. I feel that the poultry story is not only a good story from the point of view of where the sector is at currently, but it’s also a good story from the point of view of progress in the meat industry as a whole. This is a species that will most easily arrive at the next stage in sustainable farming – and that will answer questions that other species will struggle to address.