Are sustainable poultry claims all they’re cracked up to be?

The chicken industry says its meat is better for the planet than beef, but efficiency claims come with setbacks for animal welfare

Most Canadians care about climate change. Some are even willing to alter what they eat in an effort to curb their individual impact on the planet. Beef in particular has taken much of the recent heat for its contribution to global warming, while chicken has flown under the radar. Chicken production comes with a notably smaller carbon footprint when compared to other meats. But as some experts point out, sustainability claims made by Canadian chicken marketers may not be all that they appear, and producing chicken that is relatively better for the planet can come at great cost to animals.

In the lead-up to Canada’s federal election this fall, the Chicken Farmers of Canada (CFC) – an industry lobbying and marketing group that represents 2,800 chicken farmers – was busy promoting chicken as a climate solution. In an August 19 tweet, CFC pushed the idea that compared to the rest of the world, “Canadian chicken has one of the lowest carbon footprints of all.”

Around the same time, CFC released a poll by Abacus Data it had commissioned that found 82% of Canadians support the supply management system that chicken farming operates under. The industry group heralded the survey of 5,000 Canadians as proof that the “Canadian chicken sector is very popular heading into a federal election” and that “party support for the chicken sector will bolster the vote strength, attract opposition voters, and bring in swing voters.”

The tweet and survey were part of a larger effort by the chicken industry to push its products as the sustainable protein of choice for many Canadians. CFC first created a campaign called Let’s Talk Chicken to promote its Sustainability Excellence Commitment program a few years back. More recently, the group published a “Life Cycle Assessment” that claimed the carbon footprint of Canadian chicken decreased by 37% over the last four decades “due to major productivity gains and improvements in the feed to gain conversion ratio.”

But what exactly are these gains in productivity, and what does that feed conversion ratio mean for the environment? While raising chickens in our own country might sound wholesome on a food label, what, if anything, does that translate into for the animals and the planet?

Low-carbon poultry?

Research suggests that minimizing or forgoing meat consumption, in particular red meat, can be a key component to keeping climate chaos at bay. And polls show Canadians are taking that to heart, with one in four having considered cutting their beef consumption in the last year, according to a 2021 survey by the Agri-food Analytics Lab and Dalhousie University. However, as beef consumption in Canada has decreased in recent years, chicken consumption has boomed by almost 20 pounds per person since 1998. As of 2020, chicken is the most consumed meat in Canada. Of the nearly 834 million land animals slaughtered in Canada in 2019, around 90% of those are meat chickens. So how has CFC managed to make farming those hundreds of millions of animals more eco-efficient?

“It just means they are cramming more chickens into barns,” says Nicholas Carter, an environmental researcher and the co-founder of Plant Based Data.

Being small and monogastric (having one stomach rather than multiple methane-belching stomachs, as cows do) naturally lessens chickens’ impact. Chickens also require less food, water and space per animal. However, in an effort to boost both profit and efficiency, modern animal agriculture has become increasingly industrialized and intensified. Though the number of chicken farms in Canada has dropped since 1976, from more than 99,000 to fewer than 30,000, the average number of chickens per farm has increased sevenfold, from fewer than 900 to more than 6,000 today. Growing a greater number of animals faster for maximum yield has been the central goal. This increase in efficiency has brought with it an additional bonus: a reduced carbon footprint. This is thanks to faster-growing birds who require less food and water and produce less waste over their shorter life-spans. Canadian chicken farmers now claim to have a smaller carbon footprint than the majority of the world’s chicken farmers.

Despite efficiency gains made by using fast-growing birds, chickens remain the greatest consumers of feed crops such as soy, corn and other grains on the planet, according to WWF, requiring copious amounts of land and water. The CFC acknowledges that “feed production contributes to half of the total carbon footprint” and that “GHG emissions are mainly caused by fertilizers and diesel use to produce feed crops.” The association also points out that 62% of the entire sector’s total energy use comes from renewable sources, but that’s not because barns are powered by solar panels. The group clarifies that “chicken feed accounts for the bulk of renewable energy consumption” – meaning the grains being fed to chickens are being counted as a renewable energy source for the sector because the sun that helps the crops used as chicken feed grow is a renewable input.

Mounting calls for better chicken

Sylvain Charlebois, the director of Dalhousie University’s Agri-food Analytics Lab, says public pressure and changing expectations have forced the chicken industry to put more focus on sustainability. But, he adds, “more Canadians are conflicted these days. While they benefit from industrialized farming, they are increasingly questioning farming methods and how their food is made.”

And the chicken industry is aware of that tension in the mindset of Canadian consumers. But instead of making meaningful change, says Camille Labchuk, an animal rights lawyer and the director of Animal Justice, the industry has “consistently tried to greenwash and humane-wash their cruel processes.”
There have been international efforts made by animal advocates to push individual businesses to switch to slower-growing chickens by 2024 through an initiative called the Better Chicken Commitment. More than 200 companies, including Nestlé, Campbell’s, Burger King and Starbucks, have signed on to the commitment, but compared to the U.S., Canadian companies have been slow to join the program.

Even so, in an email to Corporate Knights, the CFC claims slower-growing chickens would have a greater impact on the environment, requiring more water and feed and producing more waste. Thus, it appears that when it comes to chicken meat production, environmental efficiency is at direct odds with animal welfare.

Canadian animal welfare laws include exemptions for standard farming practices. Instead of being overseen by the government, the daily treatment of animals on farms is governed by a voluntary code of practice created by the National Farm Animal Care Council (NFACC), a group mainly made up of industry stakeholders. The CFC claims farmers are held accountable by third-party audits, but as Labchuk explains, audits are industry-controlled, not conducted by the government or animal welfare organizations. “Any private audits the chicken industry conducts on itself are meaningless, and a poor substitute for public oversight.”

Is the chicken local?

CFC’s Raised by a Canadian Farmer marketing campaign was developed to push back against public concerns around conditions on “factory farms,” a term commonly used to refer to large, industrialized facilities raising animals for food. “Over 90% of Canadian chicken farms are family owned and operated,” says the CFC, implying that family-owned farms cannot be factory farms, and leaving out the huge spike in the average number of chickens per farm in Canada in recent decades.

Though the eat-local trend has gained traction in recent years among conscious consumers looking to support Canadian farmers, sourcing animal meat locally “has very little impact on the actual environmental footprint,” says Carter, adding there are much better sources of eco-friendly protein, such as beans and peas. For example, chicken meat production emits about six kilograms of greenhouse gases per serving, whereas production of beans – another high-protein food grown in abundance in Canada – emits around one to two kilograms per serving. So while chicken has a smaller carbon footprint than beef, many suggest a total shift away from all industrial animal farming will be necessary for the world to reach net-zero.

In the spring, Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food Marie-Claude Bibeau announced new federal funding to help Canadian chicken producers become even more efficient. The program will provide nearly $350 million in funds over 10 years, in part to help chicken farmers increase efficiency, productivity and environmental sustainability. Though part of the program’s mandate is also to respond “to consumer preferences,” including “improving animal welfare,” there is no indication that would mean increasing standards beyond existing NFACC codes.

Though this multimillion-dollar investment is likely to shrink the carbon footprint of the protein we eat, through improvements in areas such as lighting and heating efficiency, Carter says it is also likely to lead to greater animal welfare concerns. “I don’t think most Canadians want more factory farming, more intensive animal agriculture,” he says, “and that’s really how the industry is getting more efficient.”

Jessica Scott-Reid is a freelance writer covering animal rights and welfare and plant-based food topics. She is also a co-host of the Canadian animal law podcast Paw & Order.

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