Sustainability Research: Collaborative roadmap

Joint research project aims to align egg industry’s sustainability priorities.
Madeleine Baerg
June 20, 2019
By Madeleine Baerg
Egg Farmers of Canada’s four research chairs came together in search of viable answers to sustainability questions.
Egg Farmers of Canada’s four research chairs came together in search of viable answers to sustainability questions. PHOTO CREDIT: Michelle Munkittrick, Brave Art Media
What will keep the Canadian egg industry healthy and sustainable into the future? Egg Farmers of Canada’s four research chairs – an ecological economist, an animal welfare scientist, a behavioural economist and a public policy researcher – recently combined efforts to start to answer exactly that question.

Their collaborative paper, titled ‘Sustainability in the Canadian Egg Industry – Learning from the Past, Navigating the Present, Planning for the Future’, was published in the journal Sustainability in September 2018. It marks a clear departure from isolated, single-discipline study. More research roadmap than production how-to guide, the paper is a vital first step towards positioning the egg industry for success into the future.

“The idea was not to advance a concrete set of recommendations for what farmers or Egg Farmers of Canada (EFC) should do,” says lead author Nathan Pelletier, research chair in sustainability at the University of British Columbia. “This paper was the first effort of all four research chairs towards beginning to articulate our common ground, to defining what are the most interesting opportunities to collaborate, and where are the clear intersections and overlaps looking forward.”

“The discussions we had [throughout the creation of the paper] raised a lot of questions,” adds Maurice Doyon, the egg industry economics research chair at the Université Laval. “That was our objective. You can read [the paper] and see it as our research agenda for the next five years. It’s not typical to raise all these questions and not have answers. But, it’s also not typical to have four specialists with four very different backgrounds and areas of interest collaborating in this way.”

Conflicting demands
Sustainability is difficult to calculate because it can be defined according to many measuring sticks and depends enormously on perspective.

An animal welfare scientist would typically define sustainability in terms of animal health and welfare markers such as disease outbreak management or evolving husbandry best practices.

An economist would generally think in terms of financial sustainability: one’s ability to react to changing input costs, shifting markets and evolving efficiencies. An environmental scientist would prioritize different parameters again: carbon and water footprints, waste production, input efficiency and run-off concerns.

The biggest challenge to a practical discussion about sustainability is that there is often conflict between various criteria. Consider, for example, that according to a recent study cited in the paper, upwards of 70 per cent of U.S. consumer respondents reported believing that a move from conventional to cage-free housing would have a positive impact on hen health, hen behavior, natural resource use efficiency, worker health and safety, food safety and egg quality.

Science, however, points towards trade-offs: in many cases, the shift to cage-free may actually have negative impacts. For example, Doyon says, organic egg production requires more energy than conventional production because the lower hen density requires more supplemental heating of the barn, increasing the carbon footprint.

While meeting shifting consumer preferences is one of the key determinants of economic sustainability, doing so in this case would have negative impacts on multiple other aspects of industry sustainability. According to the joint paper, meaningful research into egg industry sustainability requires a multi-disciplinary approach that weighs various sustainability trade-offs against each other.

“Sustainability by nature is, first, an applied science and, second, so multi-faceted. The practical challenge facing the Canadian egg industry is that there are so many interactions between these various components of sustainability and so many desired outcomes. Research efforts really need to be undertaken on an interdisciplinary basis,” Pelletierexplains.

“Ultimately, I’m very cognisant that if I advance recommendations about environmental outcomes without considering animal welfare or economic trade-offs, I’m not providing information that is actionable or that will support the industry going forward.”

An innovative solution
Part of the solution to aligning various sustainability priorities may lie in creating systems to value them by the same measuring stick. For example, Doyon says, if animal welfare could be monetized, economic and welfare sustainability would more naturally align.

“If you take a plane tomorrow, you can cancel out the carbon units [you’ll use] by purchasing carbon credits from a market today. Some people have an idea – this idea doesn’t originate from us – of creating a market for animal welfare. Some farmers ‘produce’ more animal welfare.

“They could sell those credits to people who are worried about animal welfare. If you give your money to an animal welfare organization, there is a lot of friction – a lot of loss. Only a fraction of your money will actually go towards creating improved animal welfare. If you give directly to a farmer, you get a lot of welfare for your dollar.”

Lots of unknowns
While inter- and multi-disciplinary research is always valuable, the large-scale transition currently underway towards alternative layer housing makes collaborative research more vital than ever.

“When cage-based production was the norm in the industry, when the production system was fairly stable over a long period of time, multi-faceted research was less essential because there were not so many unknowns,” Pelletier explains. “Now, the industry is in the midst of housing system transition and a steep learning curve.

“What we tried to point to [in this paper] is why and where interdisciplinary research is necessary because we know there will be trade-offs, especially in the short term. We need to consider how the industry has come to the point it is at, what the challenges are that it currently faces largely because of changing societal expectations and looking forward what curveballs may be coming.”

The housing system shift is not the only change that could significantly impact the egg industry and for which multidisciplinary research collaboration is vital. According to the paper, some of the biggest future unknowns include: Whether supply management survives in its current or any form; in what direction societal demands and public policy shift; whether disruptive technologies like 3D food printing become mainstream; and how emerging technologies might impact resource use efficiency and, more broadly, farm economics.

Despite being written by four high level researchers, the paper – and, ultimately, any projects inspired by the paper’s many questions – is not intended to be solely academically focused.

“This isn’t ivory tower research,” Pelletier says. “We are generally looking to do research that can be put into practice and that can ultimately result in better, more sustainable and more profitable production.”

To that end, both Doyon and Pelletier respectfully request continued farmer support and collaboration.

“The most important thing egg farmers can do to enable the work we’ve identified in this paper is to be willing to collaborate directly with us, to welcome us onto their farms, to allow us to have insight into their management,” Pelletier says. “We cannot do this kind of work without the willingness of farmers to be open and involved.”

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