Report on WPSA Think-Tank Meeting on Poultry Production Systems

A 'think-tank' meeting was held in Freising, near Munich, on 19 June 2009 to discuss social equity and sustainability issues relating to the present systems employed globally in the production of poultry meat and eggs. Participation at the meeting was by invitation and included representatives from the poultry industry, the poultry research community, FAO and WPSA.
calendar icon 31 December 2009
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Organiser-participants of the meeting were Professor John Hodges (joint convener and author on genetics and sustainability) and Professor Dietmar Flock (joint convener and poultry breeder/researcher) with facilitator, Professor Prabhu Guptara (executive director of Wolfsberg). The particpants included Dr Jim McKay (poultry breeder, Aviagen); Dr Gerard Albers (poultry breeder, Hendrix Genetics); Dr Matthias Schmutz (poultry breeder, Lohmann Tierzucht); Dr Irene Hoffmann (Chief of Animal Production Service, FAO); Dr Badi Besbes (Animal Production officer, FAO); Dr Bob Pym (Poultry researcher and WPSA president), Dr Roel Mulder (poultry researcher and WPSA secretary) and Dr Piet Simons (poultry researcher and ex-secretary of WPSA).


The meeting arose from an invitation issued by Dr John Hodges, an agricultural researcher and author on genetics and sustainability, during the presentation of his keynote address 'Emerging boundaries for poultry production: Challenges, opportunities and dangers' at the 23rd World's Poultry Congress in Brisbane on 30 June 2008. He challenged the industry to examine its practices from social equity and sustainability perspectives. Dr Dietmar Flock, poultry breeder and past president of the European Federation of WPSA, subsequently initiated discussions with Dr Hodges, which led to the organisation of the think tank meeting in Freising, Germany. The meeting was facilitated by Professor Prabhu Guptara, Executive Director of Wolfsberg, the UBS Platform for Executive and Business Development, Switzerland.

The 'think-tank' approach was adopted because of its use as a medium for considering an area of activity suggested as being in need of change due to lack of sustainability or other negative features. The approach allows an opportunity for everyone present to contribute under the guidance of the facilitator, whose task was not to define what is permissible but to enable all ideas to be presented, debated and discussed profitably.


Following a brief introduction from Dr Hodges in which he stated the broad objective of the think tank approach was to "turn knowledge into wisdom", he suggested that the impact of the present global poultry production system on such factors as the environment, human health, and bird health and welfare was under serious question by society in developed as well as developing countries. He called attention to the loss of historical values, exemplified by foreign capital buying up land as a modern kind of 'colonialism'. He challenged participants to look at problems with present practices and to consider options and consequences of change likely to impact positively on the future sustainability of poultry production and on the well-being of humans and poultry alike.

Perceptions about Poultry Production Practices

Participants were then asked to list their own and perceived societal 'concerns' about poultry production. The main focus of societal concerns appears to be on large-scale poultry production systems in both developed and developing countries, as these are seen as the main contributors to production of poultry meat and eggs globally and as the models adopted by the industry in developing countries. There is good evidence for societal concern about the impact of replacement of existing production systems in developing countries and about practices in all production systems.

The following specific concerns were listed: (1) diseases and food safety, (2) welfare of animals, (3) environment, (4) loss of biodiversity, (5) IPR/patents, (6) small producers, (7) 'churn', i.e. concentration of ownership. This was followed by an in depth discussion of the reasons for the concerns expressed by society. It was accepted that, irrespective of the objectivity of the reasoning behind such expressions of concern, the industry needs to deal with these issues.

It was noted and acknowledged that significant improvements have been made over the years and continue to be made by the industry in many of the areas, e.g. in bird health and welfare, environmental impact and in product safety, but these are still areas of considerable ongoing societal concern.

Participants were asked to priorities the areas that require to be addressed by industry. From the discussion, concerns in the order of priority were:

  1. food safety (issues: government's actions to reduce zoonotic diseases, consumer requirement for safe food from healthy animals)
  2. food quality (issues: traceability of products, regional origin, minimal treatment of animals and products – but also the need for 'convenient' and low-priced foods)
  3. welfare of animals (issues: the practice of killing day-old male chicks of egg-type chickens; cage versus floor production; is welfare compromised by breeding for efficient production of meat and eggs?)
  4. environment (issues: impact in relation to regional concentration of people and animals, increased productivity of animals)
  5. loss of employment opportunities in rural societies (issues: urbanisation and industrial production of cheaper food; import of subsidised or surplus products, and
  6. loss of biodiversity (issues: how to avoid mixing adapted local populations with 'exotic' imported strains?)

A range of issues related to the above concerns was discussed. These included:

  • The need to establish a dialogue with WTO decision makers to emphasise the negative social implications of 'free trade' of agricultural products. The need for greater transparency on who benefits from free trade and trade restrictions.
  • The critical role of micro-loans in improving the efficiency of small-scale (commercial) poultry farming in developing countries.
  • Highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) in developing countries: the marked differential impact of HPAI on the different production sectors in most countries.
  • Risks and benefits of vertical integration in developing countries, and
  • To counter the loss of public support for the industry: the role that industry, FAO and/or WPSA can play in educating the public, de-bunking misinformation and establishing a more direct dialogue between producers and consumers.

Following a discussion of the perceived problems and concerns, the group spent some time listing areas of success achieved by the commercial poultry industry globally. These were:

  1. Improved feed utilisation efficiency: less land needed to produce poultry meat and eggs and reduced impact on the environment due to improved feed efficiency.
  2. Improved food safety and quality: strict regulations and QS monitoring systems
  3. Food security: world-wide distribution and availability
  4. Release of capital for other goods: education, environment, infrastructure, and
  5. Employment: specialized jobs in production, further processing, distribution etc.

It was considered regrettable that these very considerable successes have been overshadowed by the perceived areas of concern, many of which have been exaggerated.

Poultry Production in Developing Countries

Since one of the main focuses of the think tank was on the impact of present poultry production practices on social equity issues in the developing world, it was seen as important to define the poultry production systems in use in the developing countries of the world, the impact of these on the people, the sustainability of the systems and the nature and drivers of transition from one system to another. For purposes of discussion, the FAO classification that was originally developed for categorizing the different biosecurity systems (and later lost importance for this purpose) was adapted.

Applying a similar classification on the husbandry and feeding aspects rather than biosecurity:

  • sector 1: large-scale commercial production ('improved' genotypes, large scale, sophisticated facilities and equipment with automated systems and feeding with compounded diets)
  • sector 2: medium-scale commercial (similar to sector 1 but smaller and somewhat less sophisticated, less automation)
  • sector 3: small-scale commercial (small flocks of 'improved' genotypes mostly local materials in facilities, no automation but provision of compounded diets often formulated from local materials), and
  • sector 4: (small semi-scavenging flocks of indigenous birds, typically given household scraps and a small amount of grain daily).

Members agreed that the structure of the poultry industry with regard to sector proportion varied widely between the different developing countries and also that there was variation between the drivers for transition from one sector to the other. In the poorer developing countries, many families in rural regions have a household flock of indigenous scavenging chickens (sector 4 production system) which are kept to improve their nutrition and livelihoods. These are the only poultry meat and eggs that the majority of these families ever eat. As they are not dependent upon supplies of poultry feedstuffs or improved genotypes from outside, they are essentially unaffected by changes in the other sectors of production. Very few of them aspire to becoming larger scale commercial producers, and indeed there are limited opportunities to do so. The system is very low input and output but because the food supplied to the birds is essentially 'free', it can be an economically efficient production system, particularly with small cost-effective inputs into management and disease control which reduce chick attrition and bird mortality generally. Because of the perceived role of scavenging poultry in the transmission of HPAI, however, many countries are looking at regulations relating to the control and restriction of small-scale scavenging production, with potentially profound impact upon this large but mostly very poor sector of the country. In view of HPAI and similar risks, the group considered it mandatory that governments, commercial companies and family poultry organisations work closely together to minimise risks of disease transmission and also minimise the detrimental impact of disease 'stamping out' procedures on the very poorest members of society.

It was recognised that the provision of affordable and good quality poultry meat and eggs for the urban dwellers in developing countries, was dependent upon efficient production systems. In terms of domestic production, it was acknowledged that this essentially involves the use of 'improved' meat or egg genotypes and the provision of compound feeds. Given that feed accounts for about 70 per cent of the cost of production, a critical element in this is a ready access to affordable and high quality feedstuff ingredients, whether they be locally produced or imported. The group discussed the factors involved in defining the scale and type of production that might best meet the requirements for the sustainable supply of affordable and safe poultry meat and eggs and preferably where the farming community was able to make a meaningful and profitable contribution. The group recognised that the issue was exceedingly complex and that the optimum balance was likely to differ considerably from country to country.

The role of small-scale commercial production (sector 3) was considered. It was recognised that this has the potential to impact positively upon local involvement in production and social equity issues but in practice, there are often problems with competition with larger scale sector 1 and 2 production in terms of access to and price of feedstuffs, stock and pharmaceuticals, and access to processing facilities and the larger markets. Such systems can operate effectively where there are niche markets but they are often squeezed and find it very difficult to compete on price with the larger units without completely devaluing their own labour costs.

Against this impression that many small scale commercial producers are being squeezed out by large companies who 'colonise' the markets in big cities, the representatives of the poultry breeding industry participating in the discussion suggested that the industry has no reason to oppose programmes designed to support small-scale production. They expect that the industry will benefit from increasing purchasing power and corresponding demand for poultry meat and eggs in the urban areas of developing countries. Availability of food at low price will free available income for other goods, including education.

The group considered the impact of imported poultry products in developing countries – on the population generally and on incentives to develop a domestic poultry industry. In developing countries such imports often retail at below the cost of local production of the equivalent product, and the development of a competitive local industry requires proper planning and considerable human and material resource inputs. A critical element in this is the country's capacity to produce suitable feedstuff ingredients at competitive prices which are either not used for human nutrition or which are surplus to those needs.

Loss of Biodiversity and Genetic Conservation

Participants acknowledged the concern that the global commercial poultry industry was based on relatively few highly selected lines and that there was a danger of these lines being lost either due to genetic susceptibility to new disease organisms or simply to infection of flocks with existing notifiable diseases (e.g. HPAI) requiring destruction of the flocks in question. The group was reassured that the manner in which the global breeding companies are structured with broad geographical distribution of flocks, means that impact from the latter risk was minimal. Breeders also keep a number of back-up lines which mitigates the former risk.

None-the-less it was recognised that there is justifiable concern that crosses of modern commercial lines are not necessarily well suited to production in sub-optimal conditions (in terms of physical, nutritional and disease challenges) in developing countries and that efforts need to be made by breeders to provide stock which perform well in these environments. The chief factor here would appear to be heat tolerance.

In developed countries, the group recognised that the very large number of poultry pure breed fanciers is a valuable source of considerable genetic variation that might be used to meet specific future demands. The same applies to the many breeds of indigenous chickens in use in small-scale semi-scavenging production systems throughout the developing countries of the world. One should note, however, that many of these so-called 'breeds' are subject to indiscriminate crossbreeding, the extent of which varies between regions and countries.

Broadening Input from Other Stakeholders

It was recognised that the assembled group had only a small fraction of the expertise and experience required for a fully comprehensive evaluation of the global poultry industry as it presently is, and what the impact of proposed changes might be on the long-term efficiency and sustainability of the industry. Input from the following stakeholders was considered desirable:

  • regulatory bodies like World Trade Organization and the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE)
  • civil society and research organisations: non-governmental organisations (NGOs); economists, bankers, systems thinkers, consumer organisations; human and poultry nutritionists
  • industry representatives: large and small producers, integrators; co-operatives, retailers
  • down- and up-stream suppliers: veterinarians, the pharmaceutical and feed industries

FAO representatives proposed the organisation of a follow-up meeting with a wider range of stakeholders. Potential role of industry, FAO, WPSA and others: The group considered the role that industry, FAO, WPSA and others might play in improving the long-term sustainability of the global poultry industry, particularly through its contacts in the developing countries of the world. Possible areas of influence were:

  • Technical input from the large international breeding companies in disease control, nutrition and the adaptation of buildings and equipment to local conditions for the development of regional poultry production.

  • Linking with international funding bodies and NGOs to provide guidance on poultry development projects. For example, FAO has recently been involved in discussions with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation on the potential role of animal breeding to improve food security and reduce poverty in sub-Saharan Africa, and WPSA was also recently involved in similar discussions specifically focused on small-scale poultry production in the same region.

  • In similar vein, make better use of the technical expertise in WPSA, FAO and industry as advisers to NGO projects involving poultry in developing countries. Frequently, poultry form part of village-focussed agricultural development projects but there is often limited poultry production expertise in NGO teams and poor advice is common, not only from smaller NGOs. There needs to be proactive establishment of links with NGOs globally.

  • Establish better linkages between all groups in support of small-scale poultry production in developing countries. A proposal to establish an over-arching group Poulet Sans Frontieres linking these bodies (FAO, INFPD, WPSA, IPRC, DNSPD etc) was discussed at WPC 2008 in Brisbane in July 2008 (WPSJ. 2009. 65: 298-305).

  • Establish greater links between commercial and small-scale family poultry production in developing countries, e.g. moves are underway to form a (sub-Saharan) African Network, the aim of which is to address the constraints to poultry research capability and the development of the poultry industry in Africa. The inaugural meeting of the network will be held at a workshop to follow the European Poultry Conference in Tours, France in August 2010.

Further Action

FAO has undertaken to develop a concept note on how sectors 1 and 2 can assist in the development and efficiency of sector 3 production in developing countries. They will liaise with the poultry industry and WPSA to establish a list of senior experts (including retirees) in the different fields of poultry production and prepare proposals for the secondment of these experts by their organisations.

WPSA is in discussion with experts on animal production systems in developing countries with a view to provide an overview of success stories on sustainable and profitable poultry production using largely local resources. The aim is to define the elements of successful, sustainable and profitable production in the different situations.

WPSA and FAO are jointly involved in support for sustainable development of the poultry industry in developing countries though the organisation of sessions on 'Guidance for the poultry sector – issues and options' and 'Family Poultry Production' at the 13th European Poultry Conference (EPC) in Tours, France in August 2010.

The two organisations are also involved specifically in support for the development of the poultry industry and of poultry research capability in sub-Saharan Africa through the establishment of the African Poultry Network at a workshop in Tours immediately following EPC2010.

It is proposed that the next Poultry Think Tank meeting involving a wider range of stakeholders will be held in conjunction with VIV Europe in Utrecht in the Netherlands in April 2010.

December 2009

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