Farmers today face ever-present challenges: technical, environmental, and reputational. The need to produce more food with fewer resources is one of the defining challenges of our time. It will take folks from all walks of life steering the boat in the same direction to get to where we need to be. From global warming to animal care to the never ending quarrels over GMOs, farmers are often, for some reason, imagined as the villains in a drama where high moral standards are reserved for a select few. Innovations that will make agriculture even more productive and ‘industrial’ are attracting investment into agriculture, but are also calling into question why it is that farmers do the things they do, and if they should be doing so in the first place.
Here is a ’did you know?’ that might make you stop and think: a chicken is not just a chicken. Depending on what they are bred for, modern chickens are either “layers” or “broilers.” Bred, of course, to lay eggs, layers can lay more than 250 eggs per year, while their ancestors laid about two dozen eggs annually. The current population in Alberta is over 4 million people. Can you imagine trying to provide enough eggs for 4 million people without that genetic improvement? You would probably need somewhere in the neighbourhood of 30 million birds! There are currently about 2 million layers in Alberta that are meeting the demand for fresh, high quality, local eggs.
In June, Egg Farmers of Canada (EFC) released an independent study conducted by Global Ecologic Environmental Consulting and Management Services, which found that the environmental footprint of Canada’s egg production supply chain declined by almost 50% during the period from 1962 to 2012. We should be celebrating! Among its findings, the study concluded that the egg production supply chain’s life cycle energy, land and water use decreased by 41%, 81% and 69%, respectively. According to the report’s findings, increased environmental sustainability within the egg industry can be attributed to several factors, including changing the feed composition, which is an important contributor to reducing the supple chain’s carbon footprint, fertilizers, improved animal health, and higher productivity in pullet and egg production (ie: the aforementioned genetic improvement from breeding).
There is a caveat to this genetic shift though, which is that layers do not grow big enough or fast enough to be used for meat. The same selective breeding process that produced laying hens capable of such efficiency has resulted in broiler growth increasing by over 400% from 1957 to 2005, with a 50% reduction in the feed required per kg of meat. Simply put, meat birds aren’t good layers, layer birds aren’t good meat, and dual-purpose birds aren’t too great at either.
As an aside, that isn’t to say there isn’t inherent value in some of the dual-purpose breeds of the past, typically dubbed Heritage Hens. In fact, Egg Farmers of Alberta (EFA) is a proud supporter of the Heritage Hen program of the Poultry Research Centre at the University of Alberta. Through that program, eggs from Heritage Hens are sold to help support genetic conservation of the rare breeds housed at the university. Genetic diversity to select for hardiness, heat tolerance, and resistance to disease may all be critical in the future, as climate change, feed availability and failing food security could all lead to shortages of current optimal dietary ingredients for feeding livestock. Poultry with more genetic diversity could prove more competitive and adaptable to lesser quality feed ingredients, water shortages or climate issues in the future.
Brace yourself, here comes another ’did you know?’. For the above genetic reasons, all of the non-egg-producing males of the layer breeds are euthanized soon after hatching. Although it’s obvious why, the question remains; ethically, do we find it acceptable?
I think it is absolutely critical that when contemplating these matters, we look at the alternatives. My husband is always keen to point out when I, as a perfectionist, have fallen into the trap of something called the Nirvana Fallacy. The Nirvana Fallacy is the tendency to assume that there is a perfect solution to a problem and compare actual situations with idealized alternatives. Under this fallacy, the choice is not between real world solutions; it is a choice between one realistically achievable possibility and another unrealistic solution that could in some way be ‘better’.
I always like to ask people who criticize, in any situation, how they want to do it so that it is better? Then we walk through the proposed alternatives and determine if they are realistic. It is easy to say that farmers should simply rear the male birds, but at what environmental cost? Are we willing to give back those environmental gains that are so critical to being able to feed our growing population? Should the egg industry strive to do better? Absolutely, but ‘better’ rarely means perfect, and rarely looks like the idealized version we imagined.
Sometimes, knowing we need to do better is more important than answering why we do what we do. The ‘why’, however, should serve to illustrate the fact that farmers aren’t villains putting aside the needs of animals and the ethics of society for personal profit; they are simply people trying to do the best they can, with the tools they have available, factoring in the myriad of trade-offs and decisions they need to make along the way. So here it is: the egg industry is not perfect, but we know where we need to improve, and we’re working on it.
So what are the alternatives to euthanizing day-old chicks? I love it when science plays along and helps us out. Here is the next ‘did you know?’. The sex of the egg is actually determined in the hen before it is even laid! So, wouldn’t it be great if we could separate the ‘male’ and ‘female’ eggs before incubation, when eggs are still just eggs? No differentiated embryo. Eggs that would develop to be male can be used for egg products, while the female eggs can be incubated to give female chicks.
Research funded by Egg Farmers of Ontario (EFO) and conducted at the University of McGill, has created a non-invasive technology that can determine whether an egg is fertile and whether the developing chick inside is a male or female. This determination is undertaken on the day the egg is laid, using the magic of hyperspectral imaging. Hyperspectral imaging helps us see wavelengths we wouldn’t otherwise be able to see, to identify small bits of the egg that differ between eggs that will develop to be male, and those that will develop to be female. So, in a way, it’s like superhero egg-sorting x-ray vision, which is very industrial and high-tech, but that’s ok! I’m confident that one day soon, this technology will be taken up by hatcheries around the world, but it is still very much exploratory. As an example of just one of the challenges, current feather gender identification post-hatch is 99% accurate. If that accuracy drops to 95%, thousands of male chicks will be sent to pullet growers, who will ultimately have to euthanize them, or rear and misallocate feed toward birds that will ultimately not be productive or consumed. So really, without that accuracy, the hatchery would be passing off the problem to someone else to deal with. I know of one hatchery that has put their expansion plans on hold, waiting for the availability of this technology.
Sometimes the technical, environmental, and reputational challenges in agriculture can feel like a game of whack-a-mole. Farmers want to know more about best practices and want access to workable strategies to improve, but for every challenge knocked down, a new one pops up. It can be easy to feel frustrated and wish for the idealized scenario, but we have to remember that the effort to improve certainly isn’t futile; as an industry, we have, and continue to make progress!