A more sustainable poultry production

W.L. Bryden - School of Agriculture & Food Science, The University of Queensland


Researchers must find other approaches to food production and processing using new technologies in conjunction with appropriate social policies that are more sustainable.

Biotechnology with its evolving “omics” tools (genomics, proteomics, metabolomics), will allow the development of new approaches to counter some of the complex problems we now face. With these approaches it will be possible to fast track current crop plants with agronomic traits such as yield and tolerance to environmental stress using the same or diminished inputs and be able to withstand pathogen attack and potential contamination with mycotoxins. The coming generation of crop plants may have value-added outputs such as improved nutrient and food functionality and be sources for biomass for biofuel production and human therapeutics.
Another important area that will undergo a major renaissance is microbial ecology with the application of molecular biology techniques. While microbial ecology is not a new concept, it is pivotal to understanding the presence and functioning of microbes in complex and dynamic food environments, both outside and inside the gastrointestinal tract. As we understand more about the complex and dynamic microbial ecology of foods, we will be in a better position to manipulate those biotic and abiotic factors that enhance food quality and human health. Similar improvements will be made to animal health.
The other platform that should permit a major leap forward is nanotechnology. It holds promise for responding to the need for more precise management of resources such as water and fertilizers, improving crop and livestock production, controlling pests, diseases, and weeds, monitoring plant disease and environmental stresses, improving postharvest technology, including waste management and food safety. It will allow the application of precision agriculture in both developed and developing economies.

Social policy
New technologies will only succeed with consumer acceptance. The reluctance by some to accept genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or vaccination, are examples, which highlight the importance of having a “conversation”. This will require education and communication of the benefits that will accrue from the application of new and appropriately tested technologies. This will need to be achieved with a back-drop of increased consumer interest in foods produced locally and organic agriculture. These “feel-good” approaches to agriculture will not overcome the food demands of the future but the more useful aspects of these practices must be part of food production in the future.
The increasing urbanisation of the global community exacerbates this situation as more and more people become isolated from the land and farming. Moreover, urban populations are more vulnerable to disruptions in the food supply chain. Those in cities need to understand where their food comes from. This will require education to explain the importance that adequate nutrition has for human health. To maintain a viable food supply we must be prepared to pay realistic prices and reduce waste throughout the food supply chain. All of the required changes must be underpinned by inclusive national and international government policies.

Future of food and poultry production
Awareness of the implications of an ever-increasing human population is not a recent phenomenon. It is a concern that has been voiced throughout human history. Population concerns in the past have been overcome by breakthroughs in science that have facilitated continued population growth, for example, the Green revolution and our ability to combat most infectious diseases of plants and animals. This has secured our food supply and when coupled with improvements in human disease prevention has allowed the human population to increase virtually unchecked. How many more people can be accommodated on the earth with increased rates of depletion of finite resources (fossil fuel, arable land, phosphates, water) is a legitimate concern. Moreover, as all those involved in poultry production appreciate, there is an optimum stocking density and beyond that production declines or in the case of the human animal, lifestyle diminishes or for those less fortunate, famine and pestilence consume them.

Feed production
As the demand for food grows, how will it be met? Following an in-depth, global and regional analysis, Keyzer et al. (2005) have made projections which show that the greatest demand will be for poultry meat, eggs, pork and dairy as Asia and Africa, the regions from where the largest demand is expected, have limited scope for expanded grazing. On the basis of their analysis, Keyzer et al. (2005) concluded that the world demand for cereal feed grain would be significantly higher over the next 30 years than currently estimated. Given this scenario, any factor that limits or reduces crop yields has the potential to significantly impact on the supply of human food of both plant and animal origin. Climate change and plant fungal diseases and associated mycotoxins have that capacity.
The increased demand for animal products is accompanied by an increased utilisation of resources and as Thornton (2010) has intimated, future patterns of animal product demand will be modified by competition for resources, climate change, socio-cultural factors, ethical concerns and technological developments. Notwithstanding these drivers of change there is increasing concern about the competition between man and animals for the global supplies of grain which has been exacerbated by the use of cereal grains, especially maize, for biofuel production. Likewise the global capacity to meet the increasing demand for cereal grains that will require both increased yields and cropping intensity has been the subject of numerous reviews.

Poultry production
Poultry products, especially meat and to a lesser degree eggs, have been major leaders as the global demand for animal sourced products has increased. The environmental impact generated by the poultry industry is primarily from feed production, the utilization of fossil fuels, and manure management. While the industry has limited control over the production of the feed that is used on farm, other GHG emissions occur on farms that are under its control. These emissions may be in the form of purchased electricity, propane used for heat and incineration of dead birds, diesel used in farm equipment (including generators), and emissions from manure management.

Global accord
In the future our food will need to be produced more efficiently with increased agricultural productivity coming from a reduced land area and resource base. Maintaining global food security will become much more difficult as the population increases. We must double food production in a sustainable manner. Greater quantities of food will need to be produced with reduced inputs of water, energy and nutrients on the same or reduced area of arable land in a changing environment. To do otherwise will court significant human conflict.
The application of contemporary food production and processing practices, along with scientific advances combined with appropriate social policies, can underpin sustainable global food production systems. Clearly, the solution to the challenge of meeting future food demands lies in increased agricultural productivity. Priority should be given to policies that target sustainable intensive production by the use of carefully managed inputs of fertilizer, water, and feed to minimize waste and environmental impact, supported by improved access to markets, new varieties, and technologies. The attainment of water, food and energy security will permit our food systems to evolve in a sustainable manner. To achieve this, a number of areas must be addressed urgently:

Science and research: There has been a global decline in agricultural R&D in the past four decades. There is now an urgent need to redouble the agricultural research effort. The new food producing system has to be science-based with low resource input. To ensure this occurs there must be definable career paths to encourage the next generation to enter agriculture and food research.

Economics and education: Increased economic development is required in developing countries hand-in-hand with education. These improvements will ultimately decrease the birth rate. In many economies, women manage the food cycle and their recognition and education should be a priority. In developed economies, education will be equally important as consumer attitudes will be very important to the eventual acceptance of new technologies and adoption of different patterns of food consumption. Part of the economic equation must be to pay farmers more for their products.

Sustainable diet: Part of the solution to feeding the planet is the development of consumption patterns that meet requirements in a safe, nutritious and affordable manner. In developed countries this will mean learning to eat sustainably with less reliance on meat. Through the application of the tools of molecular biotechnology, future nutrition will be personalised to account for individual variation and to improve health and well-being.

Waste: Postharvest losses of plant foods can be substantial in developing countries and amount to 30 to 50% of production due to a lack of storage infrastructure. In developed countries we throw away a similar proportion of all food produced. The combined loss would feed about 3 billion people. Reducing wastage will provide breathing space to allow the development and adoption of new food production technologies.

Governance: Addressing these complex issues will take commitment and collaborative efforts at both an international and national government levels. It must also involve government agencies, private enterprise, and nongovernmental organizations. An atmosphere of collective good will ensure that research investment is appropriate and will enable the development of policy to allow integrated implementation of new food production systems.

References are available on request.

From the Australian Poultry Science Symposium