Text: Always do what is right

Poultry farming and the paradox* of the quest for sustainability -second section-

* The paradox is a powerful stimulus for reflection. It reveals both the weakness of our capacity for discernment and the limitations of certain intellectual tools for reasoning. Thus, paradoxes based on simple concepts have often led to great intellectual breakthroughs. Sometimes it was a matter of discovering new mathematical rules or new physical laws to make conclusions that were initially ‘seemingly unacceptable’ acceptable. Other times, it was a matter of identifying the subtle reasons why ‘seemingly acceptable’ premises or reasoning were fallacious. (wikipedia)


Link to the first section


Animal welfare/environmental associations have, over time, (by indirectly lobbying the consumer public, governments and large retailers, and by relying on emotional aspects) obtained a commitment from the poultry farming system to adapt some of its practices to many of the demands made.

Before acting so ‘indirectly’ there were some attempts at dialogue with the industry, but -for the reasons mentioned at the beginning of this article- they did not result in positive responses because, the proposals to improve welfare on the part of animal welfare activists, rarely passed the technical-scientific scrutiny of the producers who, having overall visions and research results, cannot but consider, many of the requests received, as paradoxical objectives.


By pursuing some of their mainly ideological goals, these associations have in fact given rise to certain paradoxes that run counter to many of their own missions.


One of these paradoxes is generated by the fact that, by indirectly ‘forcing’ farmers (indirectly meaning that, instead of talking to farmers, these associations threaten large-scale retail chains to make their customers defect in their purchases of eggs and poultry meat) to follow their advice to protect the environment and the health of chickens, they are actually causing a retreat from the achievements made by the industry in over 70 years of research precisely in reducing environmental impact.


With regard to the issue of animal welfare, it should be repeated that chickens on modern farms have long since been experiencing a progressively increasing level of welfare, in some ways even exaggerated when compared to human welfare https://moreaboutchicken.com/chickens-are-fine-everywhere/


By conforming to the ‘wishes’ of the various most active associations (including CIWF), farmers are being ‘objectively forced by the large-scale retail trade… which responds to the associations… who talk to consumers… who shop in the large-scale retail trade…’ to enter into stark contrast with the very objectives of environmental protection that had instead become a flagship of research in the poultry system.


The paradox arises from the fact that -wasn’t it already obvious- forcing the industry to follow breeding logics that foresee, for example, a slow growth of the animal, leads to a series of negative effects on the environment.

M.A.C. has already addressed this issue in other articles. However, it is one of those points that needs to be repeated because getting an idea of what it means to have animal welfare as an objective should also be in the interest of those who demonise the poultry sector, who instead, very cleverly, concentrate on instrumentalising – rather than praising – the choices that the sector makes.

Readers of M.A.C. know that broilers are conventional chickens, i.e. those most commonly bred for human consumption because of their high efficiency (what is more technically called ‘conversionhttps://moreaboutchicken.com/why-do-slow-growing-chickens-cost-almost-twice-as-much/ ).


Animal rights activists and environmentalists (certainly also dedicated to meritorious activities), by acting on the poultry sector with initiatives that are not very rational, are indirectly (and hopefully unconsciously) going against the environment, risking future economic damage to the world food economy and the family economy of the many people who eat chickens and eggs. This is good to know, even if it is difficult to understand the full range of causes and effects that are generated by intervening only on the gut on dynamics matured over more than 70 years of research.


The poultry sector is undoubtedly a safe, nutritious and economical source of food and it is an area where research into animal welfare has made it possible to select methods and genotypes that constantly and naturally improve the so-called ‘performance’, both in terms of the economic aspects of those who work in it (breeders) and those who benefit from it (consumers), and in terms of the environmental footprint, which has been steadily decreasing over the years (in the sense that the impact is becoming lighter and lighter).


If we had the patience to listen to the ‘insiders’, it would be easier to understand the policy behind the selection of poultry breeds and their care.

One would understand how the evolution of selected breeds of broilers (the chickens destined to provide us with meat) has resulted in animals that

  • for the same amount of growth, they consume less feed and drink less water;
  • consumption being equal, they grow more;
  • for the same weight, they are more balanced.


This selection, as summarised in the tab below, has initiated natural improvements that have led to a steady increase in biological efficiency and environmental sustainability.



For example, today (2023) to reach a weight of 2.5 kg a chicken consumes 0.5 kg less feed than 15 years ago. This translates into a 37% reduction of the land needed for feed production, and since the economic aspect for farmers is linked to the weight reached by the animal, it follows that for the same number of chickens as 15 years ago, 10% less sheds are needed.


All this would be bound to create environmental and economic impacts that are increasingly in favour of the planet and the economy in general if the adoption of so-called conventional animals, which are then the most ‘efficient’ in terms of conversion, which today is 1.5 (i.e. the chicken grows 1 kg in weight while eating only 1.5 kg of feed), is maintained.


But then came the ‘charge’ of the ‘against’ associations that have been pushing for the breeding and marketing of so-called slow-growing breeds for some time now.

In 2013, therefore, the ‘Chicken of Tomorrow’ was born in the Netherlands out of an agreement between the government, producers, retailers and animal rights activists.

Objective? A mediation. Or better still, a breeding method that considers introducing an alternative to conventional chickens (broilers) with animals to be fed to humans after at least 50 days – instead of 42 – and that do not grow, on average, more than 50 grams per day. The Dutch experience was then taken as a model to support similar initiatives in other European countries.


The point, however, is not whether or not other breeds can be bred in different ways, it is not a question of whether or not slow-growing animals can be used, but rather that each breed has different needs and, of these, conventional breeds have needs and habits that are well defined and equally well known to breeders.


To take a conventional chicken and breed it in a different way than its genetics suggest is to generate ill health in the animal. Not welfare.

In order to keep up with slow-growing demands, one cannot even use old native breeds, because they are too unproductive to cope with mass consumption.


The poultry system, putting its responsibility, expertise and knowledge into play, then rolled up its sleeves and developed/selected slow-growing animals from alternative genetic lines, which were little used due to their lower economic efficiency and therefore higher environmental impact.

The specimens of these breeds, which are very rustic and vital, offer an excellent meat quality (always subjective) similar to those ‘of yesteryear’.

You can do anything, but it is the consequences of what you decide to do that you need to foresee when you operate on a global scale. And it is no coincidence that only those who have been working on it competently for years have a scientific approach. So one has to be aware that resorting to the use of slow-growing breeding animals means having to renounce the achievements made in 70 years of evolution of the poultry system: in short, this means, among other things, the inevitable increase in consumer prices resulting from the considerable increase in the costs of that type of breeding.

To better understand, let’s let the simple-to-understand numbers speak for themselves: they show the impact on production efficiency of using slow-growing breeds for the same kg of meat.

Below are the figures showing the result of comparing slow-growing breeds with conventional breeds (broilers):

Impact of slow-growing breeds compared to conventional breeds (broilers).
Impact of slow-growing breeds compared to conventional breeds (broilers).


The resulting cost of production is so high that it becomes a brake on the mass distribution of slow-growing animals and restricts their purchase to the niche of convinced animal rights activists, gourmets, for special occasions and in any case those who are willing to pay about twice as much as ‘conventional’.

To try to improve the welfare of animals used for mass feeding anyway, in 2017, more than thirty European animal welfare NGOs jointly proposed an improvement of breeding and slaughtering standards in the commercial broiler chain to be completed by 2026.

This proposal, which is active in both Europe and the USA, goes by several names: European Chicken Commitment (ECC), Better Chicken Commitment (BCC) and Broiler ASK. The ECC project is based on a reduction in stocking density and the adoption of various environmental enrichments (editors note: environmental enrichment consists of providing the necessary stimuli to ensure the psychological and physiological well-being of a captive animal. In the poultry context, it consists of equipping farms with resting areas, panels, barriers and straw bales, covered verandas, open-air access…), but unlike slow-growing breeds, it does not place particular limits on the growth of chickens as long as they meet high welfare standards.


Until a few years ago, the success of a breed crossbreed was decreed by the poultry industry on the basis of its efficiency (consumption>VS>growth) and was exquisitely an economic view.


The entry into the scenario of public opinion, animal rights activists, and retailers potentially facilitates the consideration of demands that can influence and balance each other. Responsible, serene, conscious and scientifically oriented contamination between different entities can bring about important developments that hostilities certainly cannot.

From the economic sustainability of yesteryear alone, we have in fact moved on to consider environmental and social sustainability as well, even if this is ‘based’ on idealised concepts of animal welfare. For example, to think that if the animal grows faster then it suffers, is a suggestive idea, but meaningless. What should we think then as we watch our children grow taller and faster than us thanks to their lifestyle and diet that our grandparents dreamed of?

As a matter of fact, the poultry industry is having to compensate for the effects of demands aimed at an unconscious retreat in overall biological efficiency by pursuing new genotypes that meet the welfare criteria of the ECC (European Chicken Commitment) and at the same time have a higher biological efficiency than slow breeds.


The future of the evolution of the poultry industry in breed selection will probably follow the available breed options on which the market will have to make important decisions between Broiler (conventional), Slow Growth or what we could call the middle way and that is BCC (Better Chicken Commitment) which is less efficient than conventional but more efficient than Slow Growth.

In essence, they will be different crossroads. Choices that will force all those involved to carefully consider the economic and environmental consequences that each choice will entail.


The goal is always efficiency as the world’s population grows.


Indeed, the United Nations has indicated that food production and climate action are among the world’s greatest challenges. 

Added to this is the fact that consumers are always looking for food that is simultaneously high quality, affordable and part of a healthy, balanced diet.


The Editorial Board of M.A.C.