Poultry in Sustainable Food Systems

Poultry in Sustainable Food Systems

People need healthy protein. According to the U.N. FAO, poultry meat will provide one-third of global meat production for 10 billion people by 2050. As per capita income increases, people often choose to consume more meat and other animal derived products; in fact, meat consumption is considered an indicator of high quality of life.

In developing countries, people need safe, healthy proteins, and poultry meat is a dense, highly-digestible protein. In the U.S., where protein and meat are abundant, many people are interested in poultry as a lean meat.

As human populations grow, many people live in cities, and consumers may not know a lot about agriculture. In the U.S., consolidation in agriculture has led to bigger farms, although with fewer farmers.

Most consumers are interested in taste, price, health, and availability, but a growing number are also interested in sustainability issues that reflect their personal values, such as animal welfare and care for the environment. Many consumers would like to understand about how their food is produced and interact in their food system and with the people who produce food.

Consumers, companies, and other stakeholders share many values about food. Transparency in production and communication helps to make values clear and to increase trust. It is important to share information with people and, in fact, co-create knowledge as we make decisions together about food. Creating and sharing knowledge can be empowering.

Labels are important to communicate information, but are sometimes confusing to consumers. Many consumers may put more trust in third-party certification programs. An example is the USDA National Organic Program. Many consumers are interested in responsible antibiotic use, reducing the need for antimicrobials in production, and keeping antibiotics effective for medical treatment. The Certified Responsible Antibiotic Use (CRAU) is a standard verified by USDA https://certifiedresponsibleantibioticuse.org/certification/. Between 2012 and 2017, the market share of chicken raised without antibiotics grew from 4 to 11% and the market share for processed chicken products grew from 1 to 9%. Many are interested in animal welfare, and look for welfare assurance programs, such as American Humane Association or Humane Farm Animal Care. One Health Certified focuses on positive attributes related to disease prevention, veterinary care, responsible antibiotic use, animal welfare, and environmental impact rather than absence (or what the product is free from), which avoids denigrating other products. Many are interested in product life cycles in order to understand production, processing, distribution, and consumption and the impact of food production on the environment, particularly in terms of carbon. Many are interested in sustainable feed for poultry, including the use of insect meal or certified sustainable soybean production.

Some poultry companies purposefully engage their customers and consumers. For example, one company meets with growers, customers, consumers, and other stakeholders on an annual basis (ex. Animal Care Summit 2022) to tour facilities, hear guest speakers, and learn together. It is important to advocate for all those in the supply chain, including growers, chicken catchers, and plant workers. Telling stories can help build community. Feed the Dialog is an example in NC. Increasingly, social media also helps people make connections and build community.

Another key way to bring producers, consumers, and others together are local and regional food systems; this can also develop relationships around food. Many consumers would like to know their farmers and build grassroots community.  Community-based agriculture helps people work towards common goals and increase resilience.  Meaningful consumption and strong relationships can be empowering.

Sustainable food systems are aligned with the needs of communities and their populations. Ex. In cities, where human populations are dense, large-scale intensive production systems may be needed to feed people. In rural areas, more extensive systems can be used.

Awareness of sustainability issues can lead to changes in consumer purchasing behavior. It can add value, because many consumers are willing to pay more for products that are produced according to their values.  But more importantly, it can lead to changes in poultry production, improvements for the environment and animal welfare. Collective action can help us move towards equity, food security, and social justice in food systems.

According to a 2022 survey of consumers by the International Food Information Council (IFIC), 39% of U.S. adults say environmental sustainability impacts their decisions to buy certain foods. This is an increase from 27% in 2019. Many consumers are also interested in social issues. 45% said knowing that the workers who produce, distribute or serve the food are treated in a fair and equitable way is important in their decision to purchase a food. (Keefe, L.M. 2022).

Sustainable poultry systems can provide ecosystem services, increase food security, increase profits and livelihoods, and improve equity and justice.

Engagement among consumers and other stakeholders are key to increase equity and social justice:  It is important to ask: What do you think? What questions do you have? What critiques?  There are many interesting and challenging questions to pose.  It is important to make sure that all voices are heard, including immigrants and other marginalized groups.

  • Are consumers interested in buying chickens that have been raised on insect protein?
  • What do consumers think about antibiotics? Responsible use of antibiotics rather than total elimination can provide medical care for chickens when needed.
  • What sustainability and equity issues are you concerned about?
  • How can poultry production provide healthy food for all, sustainable livelihoods for farmers and producers, increase ecological services, and increase social equity?

While continuous improvement is important, participation helps us be part of larger social change. Change is needed at multiple levels to improve the environment and to increase social justice, including farmer consumer, community, producer, institution and government levels.

A consortium of universities is conducting participatory consumer surveys and hold interactive dialog and listening sessions to learn about consumer/customer thoughts and perceptions.

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.  Poultry focus groups help us understand even more (Univ of MN).  Consumer surveys help us understand consumer purchasing behavior (NC A&T University).

Listening Session: Sustainable Poultry Production and Social Justice; Carolina Farm Stewardship Association 2021 Sustainable Agriculture Conference (slides), 11/14/21 (summary)

Citation: Keefe, Lisa M. 2022. Consumers are all about values … sometimes. Meatingplace June 14. https://www.meatingplace.com/Industry/News/Details/105093