Fifty years of sustainability analysis and insight – that is what Egg Farmers of Canada (EFC) recently commissioned Canadian consulting firm Global Ecologic to produce. The report is entitled: “Environmental Footprint of Canadian Eggs: 1962 versus 2012.”
EFC CEO Tim Lambert says the study results demonstrate the way Canadian egg farmers have been, and still are, constantly looking for new ways to make egg production more efficient and environmentally sound. “While egg production increased by more than 50 per cent between 1962 and 2012 [from about 43 million dozen to 66 million dozen eggs per year],” he notes, “the industry’s overall environmental footprint decreased across all emissions and resource use domains.” Indeed, Nathan Pelletier (president of Global Ecologic) found the average environmental impact for eggs produced in conventional housing systems in 2012 was roughly one-third of what it was in 1962.
To begin the study, Pelletier identified the average conditions that existed in the egg production supply chains of 2012 and 1962, and measured supply chain water, land and energy use, as well as greenhouse gas, acidifying and eutrophying emissions. For this, he relied on recent environmental life cycle analysis done for EFC that outlined the state of the industry in 2012, and also drew from various sources to gain insights into the realities of 1962. Taking these conditions, uses and emissions, he then evaluated the resource and environmental performance gains linked to specific advancements over the past five decades, differentiating between changes attributed to supply chain versus farm-level activities.
However, any study that involves gathering and analyzing data from decades ago has potential challenges. “Important to conducting an analysis such as this is to know in advance which variables really matter, and to focus data collection activities accordingly,” Pelletier explains. “For example, having previously evaluated contemporary egg production systems in both the US and Canada, as well as a variety of other livestock production systems, I knew that gathering representative data for variables such as feed composition, feed conversion efficiency, rate of lay, and mortality rates in the early 1960s would be quite important for the overall results. Fortunately, 1960s data for these variables are available in peer-reviewed literature, Canadian random sample egg production test data and from Statistics Canada.” Pelletier also found good information on such factors as fertilizer production, and inputs and yields for feed production.
Pelletier found that compared to 1962, Canadian egg industry acidifying emissions (those that cause acidification of freshwater systems, such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides) of 2012 were a whopping 61 per cent lower. Eutrophying emissions (those that lead to excessive nutrients in waterways, resultant explosive plant growth such as algal blooms and death of animal life due to lack of oxygen; sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and ammonia) were even lower (68 per cent). Greenhouse gas emissions were 72 per cent lower. The energy, land and water use in the entire supply chain decreased by 41, 81 and 69 per cent respectively.
Pelletier notes the Canadian egg industry was in transition to cage-based production during the 1960s, and explains that the specific mix of housing systems does not really matter for an analysis such as this. “What is important are hen performance data (e.g. rate of lay, mortality, etc.), whatever the housing system employed. Quite good data are available for these variables.”
Reasons for improved performance
As you can imagine, the Canadian egg industry’s much-diminished environmental footprint compared to fifty years ago is due to several factors. The most important of these is changes, for both layer and pullet feeds, in feed composition, feed conversion efficiency, and the environmental footprints of specific feed inputs. Layer feeds in 2012 had, on average, just 38 per cent of the overall environmental impact of those of 1962, and pullet feeds 69%. This is because the average impact per tonne of production of feed ingredients improved, such as a 43 per cent decrease for corn in 2012 compared to 1962. It’s also because general inputs for field crops also dropped. Pelletier found, for example, that the energy required for ammonia synthesis (used to make nitrogen fertilizer) was cut by half over the study period. Improved crop yields and higher fuel efficiencies in freight transport also contributed. In addition, the amount of meat/bone/feather meals and fats in feed has dropped over the last 50 years, and these inputs have a much higher environmental impact compared to ingredients whose use has risen over the decades, such as soy meal.
Other important industry improv-ements include improved animal health and higher productivity in pullet and egg production. Production per hen has improved by almost 50 per cent and feed conversion efficiency by 35 per cent, while the combined mortality rate for pullets and layers declined by 63 per cent.
Energy use, however, was the least improved factor, and Pelletier says this is because current energy production involving fossil fuels requires more input energy (for extraction and processing, etc.) than it did 50 years ago. “Without the changes we’ve seen in feed composition and efficiencies at the level of pullet and egg production,” he notes, “contemporary egg production would be considerably more energy intensive, simply due to the declining efficiency of fossil energy provision over time.”
Several years ago, Pelletier and colleagues from other organizations conducted a similar 50-year comparison of life cycle environmental impacts for egg production in the U.S. (1960 compared to 2010). Feed efficiency was the biggest factor. “The feed conversion ratio for egg production improved from 3.44 kg/kg in 1960 to 1.98 kg/kg — a gain of 42 per cent,” he notes. “Nonetheless, achieving feed use efficiencies comparable to the best performing contemporary facilities [the range reported by survey respondents was 1.76-2.32 kg/kg] industry-wide would do much to further reduce overall impact.”
As it has in Canada, differing feed composition has also played an important role in reducing impacts — in particular, both reduction in the total amount of animal-derived materials used, as well as increased use of porcine and poultry materials in place of ruminant materials.
Overall use of study
Pelletier sees several uses to which the study results can be put. “First, they help us to understand the relative importance of specific variables in changing the environmental footprint of Canadian egg production,” he notes. “This knowledge will inform future efforts to continue to improve the sustainability of Canadian eggs in terms of priority areas for targeted management initiatives.” The results, in Pelletier’s view, also provide valuable benchmarks. He says looking forward individual producers as well as the industry as a whole will be able to measure their sustainability performance and track their progress relative to these benchmarks.
Finally, the study results provide solid evidence of the progress that the Canadian industry has achieved. “The results are also a source of inspiration for the future,” Pelletier says. “When I think about what has been accomplished over the past 50 years, I’m excited to imagine what will be possible over the next 50! The next steps, I believe, are for the industry to collaborate in defining a sustainability agenda, along with metrics, targets and milestones for sustainability initiatives looking forward.”
Lambert agrees. “Egg Farmers of Canada is becoming recognized as a global leader in agriculture for its commitment to society through its sustainability initiatives and dedication to social responsibility,” he says. “This 50-year study provides a firm foundation for the industry’s sustainability initiatives going forward, setting out benchmarks by which we can continue to measure progress. Understanding the components of the industry’s environmental footprint ensures that we can work with our producers and stakeholders to make sound, sustainable choices for the future.”
Percentage change in Canadian egg production from 1962 to 2012, per tonne of eggs produced
- Acidifying emissions 61% lower
- Eutrophying emissions 68% lower
- GHG emissions 72% lower
- Energy use 41% lower
- Land use 81% lower
- Water use 69% lower
- Feed conversion rate 35% increase
- Production per hen housed 50% increase
- Mortality rate (pullets) 21% lower
- Mortality rate (layers) 75% lower
Percentage change between 1962 and 2012, industry-wide
- Acidifying emissions 41% lower
- Eutrophying emissions 51% lower
- GHG emissions 57% lower
- Energy use 10% lower
- Land use 71% lower
- Water use 53% lower
- Egg production 51% higher