Importance of poultry production in sustainable agriculture
Worldwide, we have many environmental and societal challenges, including hunger, poverty, climate change, and loss of biodiversity. How we produce our food can help address these issues.
Poultry, including laying hens, meat chickens, turkeys, and ducks, are key in sustainable food and agriculture. Poultry are efficient convertors of feed to meat or eggs. When raised with nature in mind, they enable cycling of nutrients through feed, manure, and soil and help to increase biodiversity.
For climate mitigation, it is important to reduce the use of fossil fuels in agriculture in order to reduce greenhouse gases. Depending on how poultry and their feed are raised, poultry production can be carbon neutral. Compared to grazing animals, poultry do not produce significant amounts of the greenhouse gas, methane, during digestion. Poultry are raised on large, mid, and small-scales around the world.
The type of feed for poultry has an important role in sustainability. Poultry are typically fed grains and pulses, such as corn and soybeans. The use of soil-building methods, such as no-till, crop rotation, cover cropping, to raise feed crops can help keep carbon sequestered in the soil. Manure from poultry can be used to fertilize feed crops, especially when raised in the same region as poultry. Also, poultry can be fed by-products, such as cull crops or fruit pulp, to increase nutrient cycling. Insects raised on crop and food residues can also provide sustainable feeds for poultry.
Increasingly, laying hens are raised cage-free, which provides freedom of movement. Meat chickens are typically raised on the floor, which is covered with shavings or other litter to absorb the manure. Poultry houses are climate-controlled and are energy-intensive; however, sources of renewable energy, including solar heating and natural ventilation, can reduce energy from fossil fuels. Providing outdoor access can be an enrichment for birds, provide increased space, and range, particularly fresh forage, which can contribute to nutrients.
Poultry genetics can be adapted to the production system. Ex. fast-growing meat chickens efficiently convert feedstuffs to meat, while slow-growing meat chickens tend to forage and exercise in systems with outdoor access. A variety of hybrids and breeds, including standard breeds, help increase biodiversity and can be bred to be adapted to local conditions.
A holistic approach focuses on how the health of animals is integrated with the health of the natural environment and humans. Bird health can be maintained with practices that prevent the introduction of disease, such as biosecurity and vaccination. Increasingly, poultry producers raise birds without the routine use of antibiotics. In particular, antibiotics that are important in human medicine are avoided. Instead producers use good ventilation, generous space, probiotics, essential oils, and botanicals. Animal welfare guidelines help ensure the physical and mental well-being of farm animals and the ability to conduct natural behaviors, such as dust-bathing and foraging.
Slaughter and processing of meat and eggs tend to use a lot of energy and water. Increasingly, processing facilities focus efforts on renewable energy and energy efficiency to reduce the impact on the environment. Waste, such as poultry litter or feathers, can be integrated in sustainable systems and becomes a resource, such as composting for organic matter. Smaller, more numerous meat-packing facilities may reduce bottlenecking, such as was seen during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Poultry and other livestock help provide diversity on farms, and increase ecosystem services and resilience in agriculture. While poultry production is efficient, it is also important to address vulnerabilities in the supply chain and to increase resistance to emerging environmental challenges.
Poultry production can support the United Nations Sustainable Development goals of ending hunger, increasing economic prosperity, and promoting social justice. We can produce food in ways that benefit humans and the planet and are humane to animals.
For details on research on these topics, see
“Systems-based integrated program for enhancing the sustainability of antibiotic-restricted poultry production” (U.S. Department of Agriculture NIFI AFRI Sustainable Agriculture Systems program 2020-69012-31823) at the Univ of CT.
In addition, the US Round Table for Sustainable Poultry and Egg has metrics for sustainability in poultry production.