By Tom Woolman, poultry industry consultant
I was listening to a discussion recently on climate change, when a contributor commented that as well as the threat of global warming, the threat to our food system though loss in biodiversity is equally alarming.
In 2021 the UK government published ‘The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review’. The review identified food production as the most significant driver of terrestrial biodiversity loss. Biodiversity loss, it starkly concluded, is a risk to the world economy in general and to food security specifically.
Now I don’t think that it is a generalisation to say that poultry farmers take a pretty dim view of biodiversity on their units. In order to keep our chickens healthy it is important that there are no other birds, mammals or insects which could harbour or spread disease.
The farm ought to be clean and tidy. Grass and weeds must be kept short. Any areas which could be used by visiting birds should be netted. Concrete makes us happy.
However, there is a catch. I haven’t yet come across a chicken that doesn’t eat grain of some variety. Where this grain comes from and what happens in the arable field to feed our poultry is a consequence of our production system, however tenuous you want to argue that is.
It is fair to say that carbon benchmarking and ‘Net Zero’ are well and truly on the industry’s radar. But given that around 75% of broiler emissions are related to feed, farmers need to have an awareness of where those raw materials come from.
The policy within the bio-secure boundary of our farms is clear, but we need to make room in our thinking for what is appropriate within the wider food system.
If we only focus on carbon reduction and ignore biodiversity, we risk undermining food security and the ability of our farming systems to cope with a changing climate.
There are some innovative things happening on arable farms all over the UK, building drought resilience and reducing the reliance on nitrogen fertiliser through improving soil biology. Schemes like agroforestry are being adopted to provide benefits both to nature and to the farmed landscape.
Poultry farmers are well placed businesses to be part of this movement with their ability to cycle organic matter and nutrients to land. But we also ought to be recognising the economic value of biodiversity, outside the bio-secure boundary.