Fowl play or cluckonomics?

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Andrew Livingston explores the implications of proposed welfare legislation changes and the ripple effects on food supply and pricing

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Once upon a time – in a world where your first weekly shop didn’t financially cripple you for the rest of the month – chicken was sold as a loss leader in supermarkets. The shops would sell chicken cheaper than they could buy it as a way to entice customers into their shops to buy other items.
This is no longer the case. The cost of purchasing the meat in supermarkets rose by 15 per cent last year, to try and cover the increasing costs that are required to grow the birds on the farm (electricity, feed, gas and bedding being the main expenditures).
Currently, UK farmers rear one billion broiler birds for consumption. I have experienced this side of the industry and it is intensive farming. It’s fast and furious – when the birds get to the age at which they are slaughtered, their houses have become overcrowded. It’s not pretty – but it’s a necessity to be able to grow enough meat to be able to feed an over-densely populated nation.

Drop the birds
UK legislation currently states that the maximum stocking density (the amount of live weight per square meter) a farm can reach is 38kg/m2. It’s possibly easier to imagine as 19 adult chickens per square metre. This may sound a worryingly high number but the UK still holds some of the highest standards of agricultural animal welfare in the world.
Despite this fact, pressure is mounting to drop the stocking density requirements.
The RSPCA has been campaigning that it should go down to
30kg/m2 (roughly 15 birds per square metre) – that’s a reduction of just over 21 per cent. This single change in legislation would mean that the one billion chickens reared in this country would straight away go down to less than 900,000,000 birds.
The simple answer would be to build 21 per cent more floor space to grow the birds on. But that has one major issue: just try getting planning approval for a new chicken site and see how quickly you get rejected.
Chicken farms are seen as the single largest issue when it comes to river pollutants. The River Wye in Herefordshire is an active case in point. Avara Foods, one of the larger poultry producers in the country, is currently being sued for alleged damage to the River Wye. In response, Avara announced in 2023 that its farms in Herefordshire and Wales were no longer allowed to sell their chicken litter to local farmers (where it is used as a fertiliser for crops) – instead it is being removed and used to create energy in anaerobic digesters.
But it’s not a solution to the pollution problem – if you remove the chicken litter from the farmers they still need to use something to fertilise their fields. And when they spread any fertiliser, in bad weather there will inevitably be run-off which will drag phosphates into the local watercourses.
There is a fine line which must be gently walked: protect the environment, have enough food for everyone to eat, and also look after the welfare of animals – all while ensuring the farmer can make a profit from his land.

Is it the right thing?
If the stocking density level is reduced to 30kg/m2 to protect the birds’ welfare, the cost of the chicken you eat will, of course, go up – and the number of birds that we import to feed the nation will also rise. The chicken breasts on sale in the supermarkets will all be from the Netherlands, Poland, Belgium and other European countries. And what, you may well ask, is the stocking density for those Europeanbirds?
It’s 42kg/m2 – 21 birds.
You have to ask yourself – are we then doing the right thing … and if not, where do we compromise?

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