Following the launch of ‘We need to talk about chicken,’ we asked ffinlo Costain, chief executive of Farmwel, to explain how broiler chicken production could be dramatically improved, and why now is the right time to do it. This is what ffinlo had to say:
The broiler chicken industry has become an exemplar of intensive agriculture, focussed on volume rather than quality, breeding for rapid breast development, which affects the birds’ ability to walk, their immune system, and their ability to display natural behaviours.
Poultry now accounts for over 50% of meat consumption worldwide, the vast majority of which is intensively produced. In the UK, despite years of campaigning for improved chicken welfare and the development of organic and free range brands, around 95% of chicken is still produced in intensive indoor systems.
Should we give up? Not a bit of it – in fact, in the UK, the stars seem to be aligning to support a big new push to improve broiler welfare:
- The European Chicken Commitment is delivering engagement and change at industry level.
- GWP* is helping to prove that chicken meat, despite the hype, is not a climate-friendly alternative to well-produced red meat.
- Our departure from the European Union means the UK has full control over labelling policy.
- New trading arrangements will require industry adaptation, and welfare quality has become a renewed opportunity.
- Defra Secretary, George Eustice, has made personal commitments to improving farm animal welfare.
European Chicken Commitment
This initiative has taken off with a bang with big name signatories, including KFC UK & Northern Ireland, committing to deliver extensive indoor systems throughout their supply chain by 2026.
The leap of faith taken by KFC cannot be overstated, as discussed recently on the Farm Gate podcast. Delivering on the Commitment will represent a gargantuan level of change, particularly when KFC buys only 10% of the average flock, usually at thinning. This means that despite their scale they have relatively limited capacity to direct farmer behaviour.
NGOs can support this change by applauding KFC and other brands such as Nestle and Unilever who’ve also signed the Commitment. They can also seriously increase the pressure on major retailers to do the same. If Tesco, for example, buys the other 90% of the chicken shed, we need them on board as well.
GWP* and global warming
GWP*, the metric developed by Oxford University and accepted by the UK Committee on Climate Change and the IPCC, shows that the global warming impact of ruminant methane has been greatly overstated. GWP* assesses the warming impact, rather than the rate of greenhouse gas emissions, and treats short and long-lived gases differently. This new metric is helping to demonstrate that chicken meat is not in fact the answer to the climate crisis, and that well-managed, grass-fed beef and lamb can actually have a lower impact on global warming. A Farm Gate podcast episode focuses on this issue and features the scientists who developed the metric.
Method of production labelling
The food industry has 15 years’ experience of method of production (MOP) labelling. EU labelling rules were introduced for shell eggs in 2004 and were so successful in growing the cage free egg business that in 2014 the British Egg Industry Council called for an extension of the mandatory marketing standards to all egg-based products, such as egg sandwiches and quiches. The British pork industry, responding to customer demand, voluntarily introducing higher welfare labelling in 2010.
Now more than half of the eggs produced in the UK are cage free (barn eggs, free range, organic), while 40-50% of pigs are reared in higher welfare systems (outdoor bred, outdoor reared, free rage, organic).
With labelling's potential demonstrated, it seems astonishing that the poultry sector is still resisting labelling. Just 5% of the broiler industry is currently benefiting from the higher value/higher welfare market.
MOP labelling would allow customers to make an informed choice, reward welfare quality, and drive further improvements from the market place. NGOs should work with industry to help them develop a voluntary label, while pressing Government to legislate if the poultry sector fails to move. This is an action called for in the Better by half: roadmap.
A more competitive industry
Government, industry and NGOs all recognise that the UK may become vulnerable to cheap imports as we leave the EU. We cannot win a race to the bottom – so instead our economic opportunity comes from a focus on excellence and quality, both at home and abroad.
In 2014, I met the chief executive of Avec Poultry (the EU voice for broiler producers). He recognised that a shift to extensive indoor production, alongside MOP labelling, offered the best opportunity for growth for European chicken farmers. A continued failure to promote labelling seems to me an abrogation of duty. In the UK, chicken producers now have a chance to choose better policy, and better representation.
NGOs should work to mobilise forward-thinking chicken farmers so that they can demand change from their industry representatives.
A committed DEFRA Secretary
George Eustice has made it clear that improving farm animal welfare is a top priority. NGOs should reflect on the Secretary of State’s priorities, help him identify the biggest political wins, then mobilise support for change and reward progress with loud applause.
A big push
A perfect storm could be brewing. Separately, any of these opportunities could make a substantial difference to broiler chicken welfare. Delivered together, the march of change would be unstoppable.
Interest is simmering throughout the industry – now is the time for NGOs to push harder and smarter for improved welfare quality, and to make the UK the most humane producer of chicken meat in the world.
ffinlo, is the chief executive of Farmwel, a think tank that works closely with FAI Farms, where he advocates for practical solutions for climate and food security. ffinlo has advised governments on farm animal welfare metrics and the role of agricultural greenhouse gases. He previously worked with Conservatives to help re-frame climate change as an issue for the political. ffinlo also presents the Farm Gate podcast.