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Farmers aren’t the problem, they are the solution

There’s no doubt about it, Mother Earth is currently under a great deal of pressure, feeling the pain of billions of inhabitants going about their daily lives. Many blame protein consumption and its production, but it is actually farmers who are the stewards of our planet and can be its saviour. We just need to be more aware of this, is the conclusion of the annual Alltech ONE Ideas conference.
Alltech CEO, Mark Lyons, said farmers need to stand up for their industry when it comes to the benefits of farming for the environment. Photo: Alltech
Alltech CEO, Mark Lyons, said farmers need to stand up for their industry when it comes to the benefits of farming for the environment. Photo: Alltech

New eating habits and an ever-increasing focus on the agricultural impact on the environment featured heavily during the keynote speech by Dr Mark Lyons, president and CEO of Alltech. Lyons stated: “They are saying that we need to change our diet in order to save our planet. And while their ideas may not be based on fact, they are certainly not alone. We see in many media publications a lot of negativity towards agriculture and specifically animal agriculture, particularly aimed at the area of beef production.”

Lyons highlighted how some of the best restaurants in the world are removing beef from their menus and how the protein is also being removed from many recipes, all because some people think producing beef harms the climate. “Europe has introduced its Green Deal and in the United States the Biden administration is drawing up its own climate programme. One surprise, though, is that Argentina, a major beef producer, has launched a programme, Green Mondays, which encourages people to replace meat with plant-based proteins.”

Lyons said farmers need to stand up for their industry when it comes to the benefits of farming for the environment. He quoted one surprising figure that if the United States eliminated all its dairy cows, greenhouse gas emissions there would fall by only 0.7% and remove 39 essential nutrients from human diets at the same time.

His apt conclusions were that: “We really have to realise that we will not save the planet with a different palate.” He added: “It’s our use of fossil fuels that is driving climate change. And so even if all of humanity turned into vegans, we would not actually save our planet or prevent climate change.”

”...there is an alternative. It’s legacy thinking. And the farmer, the traditional steward of our planet, its animals, its land, forests and rivers, can be its saviour.”

Saviours of the planet

Lyons’ words were underscored by David McWilliams, economist and professor at Trinity College Dublin, as he discussed the world and the Covid-19 pandemic. “Mother Earth is currently under a great deal of pressure, feeling the pain of billions of inhabitants going about their daily lives, sometimes with complete disregard to the damage they are causing.”

"The farmer, the traditional steward of our planet, its animals, its land, forests and rivers, can be its saviour," said David McWilliams. Photo: Alina Kisina
"The farmer, the traditional steward of our planet, its animals, its land, forests and rivers, can be its saviour," said David McWilliams. Photo: Alina Kisina

He continued: “We have inherited a beautiful planet from our ancestors, people we can no longer hear, and we are about to pass it on to our descendants, people we cannot yet see.

“We’re all in this together. Conservationists and consumers, farmers and activists, industry and government, man and Mother Nature.”

Our job is to leave this amazing planet in better shape than when we got here.”

The pressures, said David, include global warming, rising sea levels, polluted rivers, parched lands, blackened skies and global pandemics. “We all have a fair idea of where the story ends but there is an alternative. It’s legacy thinking. And the farmer, the traditional steward of our planet, its animals, its land, forests and rivers, can be its saviour. So, with just one planet to share, we’re all in this together. Conservationists and consumers, farmers and activists, industry and government, man and Mother Nature. The goal is the 3 Hs: healthy people, healthy society and healthy planet.”

“We will continue to produce more with less. And this time for healthier people, a healthier society, and a healthier planet.”

David’s take-home message was that agriculture is the reason our civilisations developed in the first place and our food systems and diets still remain diverse and amazingly responsive. “While the challenge of feeding the growing population on this planet will fall on fewer shoulders than was the case in the past, with innovation and the will to be that good ancestor, we will continue to produce more with less. And this time for healthier people, a healthier society, and a healthier planet,” he concluded.

Sustainability key to the future of poultry farming

In terms of food production, sustainability is a real buzz word these days among consumers and is a goal many farms aim to achieve, but others may have different opinions.

Steeped in history and dating back 130 years, Burnbrae Farms is a family business now with the sixth generation in charge of operations. Today, Burnbrae Farms is all across Canada with 7 grading stations, 3 further processing plants, 5 farms and over 1,500 employees. Speaking at the Alltech ONE Big Ideas virtual conference, Helen Anne Hudson from Burnbrae Farms said sustainability was very important to the business and something they take very seriously.

Speaking at the Alltech ONE Big Ideas virtual conference, Helen Anne Hudson from Burnbrae Farms said sustainability was very important to the business and something they take very seriously. Photo: Alltech
Speaking at the Alltech ONE Big Ideas virtual conference, Helen Anne Hudson from Burnbrae Farms said sustainability was very important to the business and something they take very seriously. Photo: Alltech

“The sustainability of food systems is on the minds of Canadians, especially the younger generations. It has been reported that by 2027, Gen Z and millennials will account for 52% of the global population. We ignore them at our peril,” she said. “At Burnbrae Farms we have 5 guiding principles or areas of focus in our corporate social responsibility programme. These are animal care, safe nourishing food, community spirit, health and well-being, and the environment, of course”.

She continued: “We have 4 types of housing on our farms with 5 management styles. Conventional cages, enriched cages, cage-free (which we call ‘free run’ in Canada) and free-range. Organic production is free-range following the organic standards. We are slowly eliminating conventional cages from our operations as per the 2016 Egg Farmers of Canada announcement that Canada would phase out this housing system over the next 20 years.”

Animal welfare is of the utmost importance to Burnbrae Farms. We are committed to treating birds in a safe and humane manner, and continuously improving animal care practices as more scientific research and other evidence becomes available. Speaking about the environment, Hudson said: “We recognise the impact of bird management on the efficient use of resources on our farms. Feed production is one of the main sources of emissions from laying hen production.”

“The changing genetics of the birds will bring us to 500 eggs in 100 weeks.”

“By maintaining excellent nutrition, bio-security, health and vaccination programmes we can improve quality of life and egg production, thus reducing our use of reserved resources,” she added. “Healthier birds that live better, produce more eggs. Today, the changing genetics of the birds will bring us to 500 eggs in 100 weeks, allowing for longer flock cycles, which will reduce the use of resources and improve the efficiency of our industry in general.” She believes that egg farming is already one of the most efficient animal protein industries, due to research and innovation. Other areas she touched on where environmental factors could be improved included manure management on the farm and the type of sustainable packaging used for the eggs.

A closer look at the Nando’s success story in selling chicken

Originating in South Africa, the popular Nando’s restaurant chain is now a ‘cultural force’ according to Judith Irons, product director, Nando’s UK and Ireland. She explained how the origins of this company – which now has a turnover in excess of UK£1 billion – started with just 2 ingredients, chicken and peri-peri sauce.

Judith Irons, product director, Nando's UK and Ireland, explains how two ingredients can make all the difference. Photo: Alltech
Judith Irons, product director, Nando's UK and Ireland, explains how two ingredients can make all the difference. Photo: Alltech

Judith said: “Nando’s has become a cultural force. And it’s more obvious, I guess, in South Africa where we come from, but more and more – particularly in the UK part of the business – we are speaking to Gen Z customers, so people in the 18-24 age group, in their language. We resonate with their culture, with music, with art, and with social impact.”

Nando’s has signed up to the Better Chicken Commitment, which is a welfare commitment to move away from the current fast-growing industrial broiler breeds to a slower-growing breed.

With a background as a food technologist working with chicken, Judith is well placed to develop her passion with Nando’s to help produce and deliver protein sustainably to lots of people. Today, Nando’s is represented all over the world with over 1,000 restaurants in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, Australia, New Zealand, North America and Canada. The biggest market, however, is the UK with 450 restaurants accounting for most of the company’s overall turnover. During Covid-19, Nando’s kept all of its restaurants trading via a delivery service and had to develop tech solutions, new contracts and relationships with delivery partners, managing to maintain significantly more than 50% of its turnover through that period. Now the restaurants are open again.

Nando’s has signed up to the Better Chicken Commitment, which is a welfare commitment to move away from the current fast-growing industrial broiler breeds to a slower-growing breed. The chicken is still raised on a commercial scale but it takes longer to achieve slaughter weight which gives it a better chance to develop its immune system, its gastrointestinal tract and protect bone development. “This slow-growing breed is raised in a slightly lower stocking density,” Irons said. “That’s to try to address and improve welfare outcomes and allow the birds to live in an environment with less stress and express their natural behaviours. The commitment is to switch all our product to a slower-growing breed by 2026.”

Another target Nando’s is aiming for is to reach carbon-zero by 2030. To do that it needs to halve the carbon impact of a plate of chicken that goes through the restaurant. “The biggest area that will make a difference for us is chickens and feed, which contribute the most to the emissions from producing chicken. There is a lot of data to look at in order to make that happen,” Irons concluded.