Whole Foods embraces slow-growing chickens: Why that’s not so environmentally sustainable


Alison Van Eenennaam | Genetic Literacy Project

November 30, 2018


Many agricultural scientists research ways to make agriculture more sustainable. As a geneticist, I see genetics as a solution to many of the problems that farmers face, be that disease resistant plants and animals, or species that are optimally suited to their place in agricultural production systems. Plant and animal breeders have perhaps the most compelling sustainability story of all time. Genetic improvements in our food species have dramatically increased the yield per plant, animal, or acre – and unlike other inputs – genetic improvements are cumulative and permanent . The following graphic illustrates the additional land and/or animals we would need to deliver 2014 levels of production using 1950s genetics and farming methods.


Since I am an animal scientist I am going to focus on that last row containing the broilers. If not for the genetic and management improvements in broiler production since the 1950s, we would need to grow an additional 8 billion animals annually to equal the production achieved in 2014.  Think about that number. 8 billion more. Every year.


It’s obvious that staggering advances have been made in plant and animal production since the 1950s. How did breeding companies achieve such improvements? They did it largely through conventional selection which includes sophisticated techniques such as genomic selection, large pedigrees, and very comprehensive performance recording for a number of traits. For example, Cobb (Cobb-Vantress Inc., Siloam Springs, AR) records 56 individual observations on each pedigree selection candidate in their broiler breeding program. More than 50% of these 56 individual traits are some measure of health and fitness of an individual. This underscores the importance of combined selection for many traits, including robustness, specific and general disease resistance, absence of feet and leg problems and metabolic defects in the breeding objectives.


Current breeding programs are improving the efficiency of meat production in the broiler industry by 2–3 percent per year. In the United States, growth rates and breast meat yields continue to improve by 0.74 days and 0.5 percent per year for a broiler grown to 5 lbs, respectively, whereas the feed-conversion ratio (FCR, lb of feed required to obtain one lb of growth) is decreasing by 0.025 per year. At the same time, the livability (survival expectancy) of broilers is improving 0.22 percent per year, and condemnation rates have decreased 0.7 percent per year.


So by using balanced selection objectives that consider not only efficiency but also the health and fitness of birds, breeders have been able to improve the feed conversion ratio, decrease condemnation rates and increase the survival expectancy of broilers. This would seem to align with most people’s values of decreasing the environmental footprint of food production by improving efficiency, and also improving the livability (decreasing mortality) of the birds. Is this a rare example of a win:win situation?


Entering the “alternative fact” zone ...


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