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Chicken’s Green Credentials Give It The Edge

Chicken’s Green Credentials Give It The Edge

Chicken meat, together with other poultry meats, is experiencing tremendous growth both in Australia and overseas.  Consumption in Australia is currently 43.9 kilograms per person and this is projected to rise to 46.4 kilograms per person by 2016–17, making chicken the preferred meat protein for Australian consumers.

But what are the impacts on the environment associated with this growth in the chicken meat industry and is this growth environmentally sustainable?

Research conducted in Australia and internationally demonstrates the environmental impacts of chicken meat production is low, and, when compared to other terrestrial meat protein sources is one of the most environmentally sustainable meat production systems.

A recent Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC) funded study entitled ‘Using Life Cycle Assessment to Quantify the Environmental Impact of Chicken Meat Production’ shows that chicken meat production uses less energy, less water and emits less Green House Gases (GHG) than beef, sheep and pork meat production systems.

This is largely attributed to the efficiency with which chicken meat converts feed, principally grain, into meat protein.  Just 1.7kg of feed is required to produce 1kg of chicken meat. Compare this to pork which requires 3.6 kg of feed and beef which requires 5kg or more of feed, depending on whether grain or pasture fed.

In terms of energy use, free range and organic chicken meat production are the most efficient ‘users’ of energy, requiring just 17 and 13 MJ/kg of energy respectively to produce 1 kg of chicken meat.  Energy use in conventional chicken meat production compares favourably with other meat protein production systems.  Conventional chicken meat production requires between 15 and 20MJ/kg chicken meat compared to 20-24 MJ/kg for both beef and pork.  Sheep meat requires approximately 23 MJ/kg to produce 1kg of sheep meat.

In terms of Green House Gas emissions and water usage, chicken meat is way ahead of the pack.  This is shown in Table 1.

Species

Green House Gas emissions

Water usage

Chicken 1.9 – 2.4 kg CO2-e / kg 20 – 22 L/kg
Pork 3.1 – 5.5 kg CO2-e / kg 41 – 49 L/kg
Beef 9.9 – 12 kg CO2-e / kg 209 – 540 L/kg

Note: these figures represent whole of supply chain data, that is, from cradle to grave (including feeding, growing and processing the products).

From Table 1 it is clear that chicken meat far outstrips both pork and beef in terms of its environmental impact of production.  Chicken production has a significantly lower carbon footprint (1.9 -2.4 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent per kg of meat grown) and uses less water (20-22 litres per kilogram of meat grown) to produce than its two main rivals, pork and beef.

‘This is interesting but probably useless information’ I hear you say.  I disagree, for the following reasons:

  1. The smaller Green House Gas, energy and water use footprint of the poultry meat industry makes it an attractive product for environmentally conscious consumers.  This trend is likely to rise potentially increasing the competitive advantage of chicken over other meat choices.
  2. Chicken is likely to be less impacted in a carbon constrained economy.
  3. The next time a grower lodges a DA with their local council and/or EPA, it certainly wouldn’t hurt pointing out the environmental credentials of the poultry meat industry.  With chicken meat production suffering from sometimes adverse public and community perceptions, it may be useful to provide a counter argument with some hard facts and scientifically validated data.

At current human population growth rates it is projected that we will need to double global food production by 2050.  We will need to do this on less land, using fewer resources, less energy and less plant based feed and we will need to do it without adding more Green House Gases to the planet.  Chicken meat is well placed to achieve this.

For more in-depth information about the environmental impact of chicken meat production visit the RIRDC website and download the recently released report entitled Using Life Cycle Assessment to Quantify the Environmental Impact of Chicken Meat Production

Byron Stein, Editor
The Drumstick | Autumn–Winter 2012 | Vol 30 No 1
The Drumstick is produced by officers of NSW Department of Primary Industries for people involved in the Poultry Meat Industry

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