Background 4 commentsupdate:Mar 9, 2016

Welfare - at what cost?

A few weeks ago I had the honour of being the chairman of a poultry conference in the Netherlands. The main topic was the future of the poultry industry in well developed countries. It is clear that when consumers have distanced themselves from agricultural society and live in a wealthy country where food security hasn't been an issue for decades, animal welfare demands soar. Ensuring animal welfare in itself isn't a bad thing of course, the question is at what price?

A poultry farmer once told me that he would produce any chicken, slow growing, with access to the outdoors, fed with GMO-free feed and grown without the use of antibiotics. If that is the demand of the consumer and the farmer can make a business case on that, one should take the opportunity. This market demand, which really exists and is actively promoted by animal welfare organisations, has a flip side. Slower growing chicken and/or free range layers use up more energy to reach the production parameters set by their more efficient counterparts in conventional housing systems and thus need more feed.

Making good money by improving animal welfare and tapping into wealthy consumer demands is an opportunity. However, the paradox is that less efficient production has strong negative effects. On a worldwide scale the poultry sector needs every point of (feed-)efficiency to meet the growing demand for food. For the sake of reducing malnutrition or even preventing famine one should at least know the consequences of the balance between extra animal welfare and efficiency losses.


  • Christophe Pelletier

    By following the rational logic you present combine with environmental concerns, the natural conclusion would be to recommend a drastic reduction of animal products consumption in developed countries, if not even switching to a vegetarian diet. That bothers me.
    Consumers may be a part of the problem, but the beauty is that they also can be part of the solution. You mention the disconnect. It does exist indeed but nothing should stop producers to help them reconnect. It is just that it is difficult when consumers have lost trust in the industry. Reconnecting can be done but it will take time and candor. PR type of content works in the opposite direction. In this day and age of global social communication, consumers want to make up their own minds and do not accept being told the "official " story. Even much less so than ever before.

  • LM Thomson

    At the moment, every day, there are less and less vegetarians / vegans in developing countries as millions more reach, or aspire to reach, the middle class. I believe, therefore, animal product production and consumption will continue to rise, overall, for quite a while. In the fullness of time, it's likely to fall again to a plateau, as consumers realise the value of eating a moderate amount of animal protein (predominantly poultry and fish, with perhaps some arthropod thrown in for good measure). The tricky part will be navigating the "crunch" period around the middle of this century, when the demand for animal products runs close to outstripping supply, planet-wide. We need to achieve a fine, dynamic, balancing act between human demands for energy and resources and environmental sustainability; we shall see how that works out.

  • e Kessler

    For every "less" vegetarian or vegan in developing countries, there are THREE new vegetarians/vegans in developed countries. So your theories are just wishes, not reality.

  • Steve Winterberg

    It is pretty well established that grass fed or free range animals for meat or eggs consume much more resources, such as water and land as battery installations and has a much higher predation and sickness mortality. The big worry is that it takes around 5000 acres of pasture to rear enough beef just to feed around 1000 well off people per annum and there isn't enough land in world to rear enough meat animals to feed the world. So we have slash and burn of the rain forests either to provide more grazing or to grow animal feed. Apparently 51% of all grain grown is for animal feed and if this was transferred to feed the human population 3rd world starvation could be cured almost overnight. One has also to think of all the untreated animal sewage washed off the grasslands into the sea to shudder frankly. The instant gratification of western culture is likely to finish the world off dead. The only saving grace for me is that I won't be around long enough to see it but my great, great grandkids will, such is this generations legacy for the future..

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