US egg industry cuts environmental footprint

23-01-2014 | | |
US egg industry dramatically cuts environmental footprint
US egg industry dramatically cuts environmental footprint

The US egg industry’s introduction of new technologies and production practices over the last 50 years has resulted in a dramatic decrease in the industry’s environmental footprint, even given today’s higher levels of egg production, according to the results of a new study published in Poultry Science.

The study quantified the environmental footprint of the US egg industry’s egg production supply chains in 2010 versus those in 1960.  The researchers looked at changes in what they term “foreground” (e.g. hen performance) and “background” (e.g. fertilizer production) variables that contribute to the industry’s environmental impact.  Their findings provide strong validation for the effectiveness of modern egg production techniques in reducing the industry’s impact on the environment.

On a per-kilogram of eggs produced basis, the environmental footprint of the US egg industry in 2010, versus 1960, was 71% lower in greenhouse gas emissions, 71% lower in eutrophying emissions and 65% lower in acidifying emissions.

While table egg production was 30% higher in 2010 than 50 years prior, the study found that the same key environmental impact factors were still sharply lower in 2010, even on an absolute basis.  Specifically, the US egg industry in 2010, as compared with 1960, had a total environmental footprint that was 63% lower in greenhouse gas emissions, 63% lower in eutrophying emissions and 54% lower in acidifying emissions.

The researchers determined that improvements in three key areas were responsible for the above reductions: feed efficiency, feed composition, and manure management.

The study was conducted by researchers at Global Ecologic Environmental Consulting and Management Services and at the Egg Industry Center at Iowa State University.  “The advances in the egg industry that this work revealed were, from an ecological perspective, really extraordinary.  In essence, we found that the industry can produce a dozen eggs today with one-third or less of the environmental impact it had 50 years ago,” said Dr. Hongwei Xin, the corresponding author of the study and a professor at Iowa State University.

To quantify their comparisons, the researchers used an approach called Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), an analytical framework for characterizing material and energy flows and emissions along product supply chains.   The LCA methodology has been standardized by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).

“One of LCA’s key strengths, for our purposes, is that it facilitates the identification of opportunities for mitigating key drivers of different kinds of environmental impacts.  Based on our LCA analysis, we believe that continued genetic improvement and improved management – of housing types, manure management, etc. – will enable the industry to continue reducing its impact on the environment,” said Dr. Xin.

The findings have been summarized in an article appearing in the upcoming February issue of Poultry Science, a journal published by the Poultry Science Association (PSA).   (“Comparison of the environmental footprint of the egg industry in the United States in 1960 and 2010”; 2014 Poultry Science, vol. 93, no. 2: 241-255; doi: 10.3382/ps.2013-03390.)