The poultry industry has a long and complicated supply chain, incorporating a wide spectrum of costs and benefits. When you think about sustainability in that chain, it doesn’t make sense to improve one part of the system if that change may unintentionally burden another part of the process and outweigh the advantages achieved.
Nathan Pelletier is the president of Global Ecologic, an independent sustainability consulting firm that measures and manages strategy in food and other industrial systems. Speaking at the 2015 Canadian Poultry Sustainability Conference in London, Ont., he explained how life cycle thinking could be used to help analyze the past, present and future of the poultry industry in the quest for sustainability.
Life cycle thinking – changing from a management perspective to a systems perspective – is an analytical process that helps to examine the relevant interactions associated with the production of goods and services, allowing us to pinpoint which aspects of the supply chain have the biggest impact.
The results of life cycle thinking can often be counterintuitive, flying in the face of our current thoughts. For example, is local food more sustainable? With life cycle analysis, this argument is no longer credible if you factor in the efficiencies of transport over long distances by rail, truck or boat. “There will always be trade-offs,” said Pelletier. “We need to be conscious of these to make decisions regarding our own priorities.”
For the poultry industry, he sees no alternative but to embrace this management philosophy throughout the supply chain, but Pelletier says it won’t be a straightforward journey.
Complexity will surround everything from agreeing on definitions of sustainability to operationalizing the information, but he predicts that life cycle thinking will become a requirement in the new marketplace, coming to the forefront of regulatory guidelines within 10 years.
Looking back over 50 years, in an in-depth historical life cycle analysis published in the Poultry Journal in 2014, Pelletier compared the environmental footprint of the poultry industry in the U.S. in 1960 versus 2010, putting some hard numbers around poultry production.
The modern poultry industry is not the same as it was 50 years ago, and that’s an interesting story itself. His results show astonishing changes.
While egg production in the U.S. has risen 30 per cent in 50 years, the environmental footprint per kilogram of eggs produced in 2010 is 65 per cent lower in acidifying emissions, 71 per cent lower in eutrophying emissions, 71 per cent lower in greenhouse gas emissions and 31 per cent lower in cumulative energy demand during that same time.
According to Pelletier, the reduction could be attributed to factors such as feed and manure management. Up to 30 per cent of the improvement is based in improved efficiencies of background systems, for example supply chain efficiencies in transportation and energy use. Thirty to 44 per cent was from changes in feed composition, reflecting efficiencies realized in crop production with less inputs for increased yields. Another 28 to 43 per cent was due to improvements in genetics, feed conversion and bird health.
Productivity has increased 50 per cent, from 195 eggs to 297 eggs annually. In 1960, 3.1 kg of feed equaled one kg of eggs; now only two kg of feed is needed per kg of eggs. Not only that but the birds are healthier, with 63 per cent lower mortality.
This is a good news story, but how does poultry stack up against other protein sources? It’s hard to compare unless studies have been done with the same protocols, said Pelletier, but in general, monogastrics are more efficient. The most efficient protein source is pork, followed by eggs, both better than beef. This matters because sustainability is becoming such a differentiating factor in the marketplace, for social license, regulatory compliance and market access. In this respect, poultry is well positioned for the future.
Looking forward, Pelletier suggested that proactive engagement in sustainability is essential, making four suggestions.
First, develop a Canadian life cycle inventory of consistent data to support production. Defending any kind of comparison requires such data.
The poultry industry also needs to develop and implement a transparent, multi-criteria sustainability benchmarking program for producers, to support sustainability initiatives and provide benchmarking and goal setting targets.
He sees a third opportunity in acting as a leader in pushing new frontiers. “Don’t be too attached to the status quo,” said Pelletier. “Just think about the changes in your industry over the past 50 years, and imagine where you could be 50 years from now?” Support and participate in the research that will be necessary to define the sustainable poultry production systems of the future.
Finally, formalize a commitment industry wide by engaging all stakeholders in a round-table discussion on sustainability, defining a common vision and a strategy to achieve it. As Pelletier says, “use it as an opportunity to see sustainability not as a challenge or as a hoop to jump through, but as a source of competitive advantage, as an exciting and necessary collaborative journey toward that shared vision of the future.”