Sustainable food

Written evidence submitted by the British Poultry Council

Summary points

1. Poultry meat is the most environmentally efficient of all meat proteins.

2. Improvements in poultry production yields and efficiency have resulted in major environmental benefits and reduced some land use change impacts.

3. Poultry meat consumption contributes just 1% of total UK greenhouse gas emissions.

4. Soybean meal is the most nutritionally and environmentally efficient protein crop for inclusion in poultry feed and other livestock feeds globally.

5. Most alternative protein crops that could be grown in UK contain more significant anti-nutritional factors that severely limits the proportion that could be included in poultry feed in place of soybean meal.

6. Criticism of UK imports of soybean meal confuses UK food self-sufficiency with sustainability of UK food.

7. Cattle-ranching is the major driver of deforestation of the Amazon and of attendant land use change impacts, though Brazilian soybean crops are implicated.

8. Responsible sourcing initiatives for soybean meal from Brazil are working.

9. More sustainable food requires greater environmental productivity in food outputs, from better knowledge transfer and new science.

10. More sustainable consumption requires consumers who are better informed about environmentally efficient and less resource intensive meats and other foods.

11. Producers, processors, retailers and consumers need to recognise and reduce waste at ever stage of the food chain.


1. The British Poultry Council (BPC) is a voluntary trade association representing the whole UK poultry meat chain from primary breeding through to slaughter and further processing. BPC member companies are responsible for slaughtering and processing over 90% of all chickens, turkeys, ducks, and geese farmed in the UK. These poultry are reared either on member companies’ own farms or by farmers contracted directly with the companies.

2. The scope of this Enquiry is wide and the subject is complex. It has been the subject of some very authoritative independent and objective scientific studies and reports in recent years. Some other publications that have been fed into this great discussion have been less objective, resting more on emotional appeals than on scientific rigor and have often confused UK self-sufficiency in food supply with sustainable food production.

3. This submission concentrates on the aspects of the discussion that mainly relate to poultry meat production and consumption in the UK.

Environmental impact of UK Poultry meat sector

4. Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) addresses the environmental aspects and potential environmental impacts throughout a product’s life cycle from raw material acquisition through production, use, end-of-life treatment, recycling and final disposal (i.e. cradle to grave) 1 LCA may also be "cradle to gate" measurements.

5. The environmental burdens and resource use in the production of livestock products in the UK as measured by LCA show that poultry (chicken) meat production is the most environmentally efficient with beef the least efficient.2 The reasons for this are the productivity of the breeding stock with a parent hen producing around 150 chicks per year, very efficient conversion of feed into live-weight, and higher relative daily weight gain in chicken compared with other livestock species. These benefits have been achieved by improved genetics through selective breeding for production as well as well health and welfare traits, improved understanding of the nutritional needs of the birds, continual investment in housing and equipment, and in the training of stockmen.

Table 1. The main burdens and resources used in animal production in the current national proportions of production systems 2

Per tonne of carcass





Primary energy used, GJ





GWP100, tCO2





Eutrophication potential, kg PO4





Acidification potential, kg SO2





Pesticides used, dose per hectare





Abiotic resource use, kg antimony





Land Use *

Grade 2, ha



Grade 3a, ha





Grade 3b,ha



Grade 4, ha



* grazing animals use combination of land types. Land for arable feed crops was normalised at grade 3a

6. LCA does not reach immutable conclusions – it needs to be continually updated as input mixes change and as innovations and technologies are taken up by producers. Preliminary results from a current Defra–funded LCA project updating and refining the input data on chicken production suggests that the environmental burdens of poultry in Table 1 above have mostly reduced or not increased since the 2006 study.

Raising yields and efficiency - improving poultry sustainability

7. Within the EU, the poultry meat sector has not been cushioned by any EU CAP production subsidies and has therefore had to be entirely responsive to market signals. This has been a key driver in the sector’s continuing improvements in productivity and efficiency in the use of all inputs including natural resources.

8. Improvements in poultry genetics and nutrition have had major environmental benefits. The 369million chickens slaughtered in 1973 required just over 1.5million tonnes of feed. Now that same volume of feed will sustain 527million chickens grown to the same live-weight.3 This productivity increase represents a more than 40% effective reduction in the volume of feed and water required with obvious land use change benefits. Improvements have been through increased daily weight gains, shorter growing cycles, more eggs and higher fertility from the parent birds, and better disease resistance.

9. Environmental benefits, as well as health and welfare benefits, accrue from better disease resistance and lower mortality rates because fewer birds have to be placed on farms in order produce the required volumes of poultry meat and requiring fewer natural resources and less land area for feed. Better specified diets have also reduced the volumes of poultry manure excreted per bird and the amount of nitrogen in poultry manure. One study estimates that nitrogen efficiency i.e. the amount of ingested nitrogen in the product, ranges from 7% for beef and sheep to 33% for poultry meat.4 While greater focus in the UK on this aspect in recent years will have improved these figures, further increasing nitrogen efficiency in livestock has more potential for reducing environmental emissions.

10. Currently around three quarters of UK poultry litter/manure is used as a renewable fuel in electricity generation.

Low UK food GHG contribution

11. The direct GHG impact of food consumed in the UK account for an estimated 19% of the GHG impact of total UK consumption.5 This figure is considered to be highly provisional. Around half of food’s GHG emissions (8.5% of total UK consumption GHG) is estimated to come from agriculture mostly methane CH4 from enteric fermentation in cattle and sheep, and nitrous oxide (N2O) from both arable and grazed soils and manures. Poultry meat consumption accounts for just 1% of the total UK GHG emissions6 even though it is by far the largest volume of all meats consumed.

12. Few studies have attempted to attribute measurements of global land use change (mainly deforestation) to the UK food supply chain. A study for WWF published in January, 2010 estimated that when global land use change emissions are considered, food consumption emissions rise from the 20% (for direct emissions) to 30% of total UK consumption emissions. 7 The study attributes three quarters of this global land use change emissions to ruminant meat.

13. Expansion of agriculture is considered the main driver of deforestation of the Amazon, with cattle ranching being mainly responsible. In Latin America 70% of previous forested land in the Amazon is occupied by pastures, and feed crops cover a large part of the remainder.8

The need for sustainably sourced soybeans

14. Soybean meal is the main protein feed ingredient in poultry feed and in the feed of other livestock globally. Soybeans are used for the extraction of soy oil for human consumption and increasingly for production biofuels, and for soybean cake and meal, a co-product, used in animal feed. Protein crops are an essential inclusion in poultry diets to provide the growing bird with the right nutrient balance, and soybean meal provides this in a form that the birds can most readily utilise. Compound feed diets of chickens reared for meat consist of around two thirds wheat and one quarter soybean meal.

15. A Friends of the Earth campaign against imported soybean meal for use in animal feed now recognises that most alternative protein crops that could be grown in the UK contain more significant anti-nutritional factors than soybean and this limits the proportion that could be included in feeds in place of soymeal.

16. A study, carried out by the Royal Agricultural College for FoE,9 calculated that field beans could not be fed to chicks and could replace only 8% of soybean in chicken feed. Dried peas were not recommended to be included in chick or broiler chicken feed. Lupins could replace up to 12% of the soybean proportion of chicken feed. Oilseed rape meal could replace just 5% of the soybean in broiler chicken rations but could not be fed to other poultry. Sunflower could substitute for up to 9% of soybean in broiler chicken diets. The study did not recommend linseed be included in broiler chicken feed.

17. Potential incorporation rates for alternative UK protein crops are higher in ruminants, but any moves to significantly increase growing areas of protein crops in the UK would divert land from growing wheat crops for human and animal feed and could lead to wheat having to be imported instead. Substituting crops which are well suited to the UK climate and which are meeting food and feed demand, for feed-only crops, which are significantly less feed efficient than soybean meal, does not make environmental sense.

18. It is clear that, even if alternative protein crops could be grown in the UK, these would be of very little benefit in substituting soybean meal in poultry feed. Soybeans are considered to be the optimum protein feed input in relation to animal performance and in relation to any limiting anti-nutritional factors. 9

19. The EU imports over 400,000 tonnes of poultry meat annually from third countries, mostly from Brazil and Thailand. If UK and EU poultry production capacities were significantly reduced through constraints on soybean meal feed imports, then the imported feed ingredient would be replaced by increases in imported meat. The environmental impact would be more damaging in that unlike the soybean meal, the meat has to be kept frozen throughout the whole chain.

Cutting down deforestation in Brazil

20. It is more important to focus policy initiatives on mitigating and preventing any damage to the Brazilian rainforest that could be attributable to soybean production, rather than seeking to demonise soybean production per se or UK soybean imports, whether from Brazil, Argentina or USA.

21. There are several initiatives, such as moratoria on sourcing soybeans (and beef) from recently deforested land in Brazil, and such as the world-recognised work of the Round Table on Responsible Soy started in 2005 by WWF and others. These initiatives are working. The Brazilian Government has policies designed to reduce deforestation by 80% by 2020.

22. Brazilian agricultural production is expected to increase substantially during the next 20 years but the total net area needed to produce the estimated volume of production of the selected crops (including soybeans) and beef is forecast to grow at an annual rate much lower than that in 2000 to 2009 i.e. 1.1% compared with 3.3%. It is expected that conversion of low productivity pastures to soybeans and sugar will not necessarily displace beef and dairy herds. Rather several technologies are available and being developed to recover pastures’ productive capacity, improve soil fertility and increase stocking rates.10

23. Soybeans have significant natural and environmental advantages over other protein crops for both food and feed consumption. The use of imported soybean meal in animal feed is environmentally sustainable. The campaign against imported soybeans is confusing UK self-sufficiency in food with the more environmentally important food sustainability.

On-going GHG reduction

24. Further mitigation of the environmental impact of the poultry meat sector and other livestock sectors, is possible and is being pursued. The poultry and pig sectors have Climate Change Agreements with DECC with agreed energy reduction targets. New CCAs are to be negotiated this year. Pig and poultry farms over a certain size are required to be permitted by the Environment Agency and permits carry rigorous controls and requirements to reduce environmental emissions from all sources. An agricultural industry-wide GHG Action Plan will be launched in early April focussing on reducing CO2e by 3Mt by 2022.

25. The Future of Food and Farming Report published in January, 201111 identifies five major challenges and their drivers. Though the actions proposed in the Report to address these global challenges necessarily reflect different geographical and geopolitical imperatives, we think that several of the actions are directly relevant to improving the sustainability of UK food production and consumption.

26. Some of the Foresight thinking on the way forward is already reflected in the ‘sustainable intensification’ that has already improved the sustainability performance of the UK poultry meat sector over recent years.

Improving productivity sustainably using existing knowledge.

27. Even in the UK which has a relatively high level of technological transfer there is good scope for improving the application of existing scientific innovations on farms to lower the environmental impact towards the lower resource intensive and lower GHG intensive management systems.

New science and technology to raise the limits of sustainable production and address new threats.

28. Adequate and assured long term funding of appropriate science in the UK is vital to the reducing environmental impacts while increasing sustainable food production and to foresee and be able to counter future threats from climate change.

29. However, the take-up of new technologies by farmers will depend on the reaction of the public and NGOs. Hand in hand with the new science there must be determined and responsible effort to ensure their benefits are understood and accepted. Concerns over possible public reaction must not stifle good research, which could be taken up in countries whose scientific and regulatory processes are less politically constrained than in the EU.

Reducing waste.

30. Reducing the post-harvest waste in developing countries and waste from food thrown away in developed countries is highlighted in the Report. It is entirely possible within the existing available technologies. Also important is the waste from farming systems that could be reduced by better management to ensure sound animal health and welfare and reduction in farm animal diseases and mortalities pre-slaughter. Great advances have been made in this area but improved knowledge transfer and investment incentives for housing and equipment would help.

31. The controlled re-introduction of processed animal proteins in monogastric farmed animals would change a current waste stream back into a useful source of safe protein. This is part of the EU Commission TSE roadmap. However, it needs to be recognised as safe and acceptable by consumers for retailers to allow these proteins to be used.

Changing consumption by informing consumers

32. Much of the research published to date points to meat and dairy products as being responsible for the greatest GHG emissions per unit of output and contributing most to land use change impacts through deforestation, particularly in the Brazilian Amazon. However, the scientific research confirms there are wide differences between the environmental efficiency and sustainability of different livestock species and farming systems.

33. Therefore any policy attempt to influence demand must clearly differentiate between the environmental impacts of different meats and other foods, and provide consumers with that information. There is significant potential for reducing the environmental impact of meat by moving from eating environmentally less efficient and resource intensive meats to eating by environmentally efficient and less resource intensive poultry meat.



1. ISO 14040:2006

2. Williams, A.G., Audsley, E. and Sandars,D.L. (2006) Determining the environmental burdens and resource use in the production of agricultural and horticultural commodities. Main Report. Defra Research Project IS0205. Bedford: Cranford University and Defra.

3. Derived from Laughlin, K. (2007) The evolution of genetics, breeding and production. Temperton Fellowship Report No15, Harper Adams University College.

4. Van der Hoek, K.W., (1998) Nitrogen efficiency in global animal production

5. Garnett, T. (2008) Cooking up a storm. Food Climate Research Network, University of Surrey.

6. Garnett, T. (2007) Meat and Dairy Production & Consumption: Exploring the livestock sector’s contribution to GHG emissions and assessing what less GHG intensive systems of production and consumption might look like. Working paper for Food Climate Research Network, University of Surrey.

7. Audsley, E., Brander, M., Chatterton, J., Murphy-Bokern, D., Webster, C., and Williams, A. (2009) How low can we go? An assessment of greenhouse gas emissions from the UK food system and the scope to reduce them by 2050. WWF-UK

8. Steinfeld, H., Gerber, P., Wassenaar, T., Castel, V., Rosales, M., de Haan, C., (2006) Livestock’s long shadow. FAO

9. Baines, R. N. (2010). Baines, R. N. (2010). The potential for replacing imported soy with alternative home grown protein feeds for UK livestock. Friends of the Earth

10. Foresight. The Future of Food and Farming (2011). Final Project Report. Regional case study: R5 Productive capacity of Brazilian agriculture: a long term perspective. The Government Office for Science, London

11. Foresight. The Future of Food and Farming (2011). Final Project Report. The Government Office for Science, London

5 April 2011