Power Lunch: Chickens Are More Sustainable Than Cows

Feb. 24, 2020
Sanderson Farms offers considerations – and key projects – from its sustainability report.

In today’s global society, consumers and businesses alike are constantly being challenged to examine the impacts their actions have on the planet. Food production alone accounts for about a quarter of total greenhouse gas emissions globally.

While mass production of food is necessary to feed a growing world population, companies can reduce their impact on the planet and its natural resources through sustainability initiatives, and consumers can reward responsible environmental stewardship with their choices at the grocery store.

Research published in June 2019 by a team at Tulane University’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine revealed Americans can reduce their dietary carbon footprint by half with just one change: eating chicken instead of beef. The study, which asked what Americans are eating and then examined the carbon emissions of their choices, shows that consumers don’t have to give up animal protein to improve their carbon footprint.

Chickens are more efficient than other food animals in converting feed into meat protein, requiring only two pounds of feed, on average, to produce a pound of meat. By comparison, it takes eight pounds of feed to produce a pound of beef. Consumers who substitute chicken for beef in their diet reduce the amount of natural resources, land, water and energy required to produce their diet and, therefore, they reduce their carbon footprint.

No other animal protein source can compete with chickens, which yield 10,000 pounds of salable meat for every 2.3 acres of harvested soybeans and 1.6 acres of harvested corn. Additionally, poultry has an additional leg up on beef and lamb, which both have especially high carbon footprints caused by the methane gas cows and sheep release.

Since the late 1950s, the U.S. poultry industry has reduced by half the amount of grain necessary to produce a salable pound of poultry. At Sanderson Farms, the company tracks the performance and efficiency of its live chickens, as well as the daily usage of electricity, gas and water at each of its poultry complexes. The company sets aggressive goals every year to reduce the environmental impact of its operations even more.

Across the board, Sanderson Farms has made significant gains in conservation over the years. Compared to baseline values established in 2008, the company has achieved a 24 percent reduction in electricity usage, 43 percent reduction in natural gas usage, and 44 percent reduction in water.

“Sanderson Farms’ growth over the past two decades is the result of many years of research, planning, hard work and determination,” said Pic Billingsley, director of development and engineering for Sanderson Farms. “We strategically select sites in order to build the most innovative and environmentally sustainable facilities in the poultry industry.”

Sanderson Farms utilizes several methods to treat wastewater, so it can be discharged directly to streams or applied to land application systems. This advanced process allows the company to replenish natural water sources, support stream flow, organically fertilize farmland, and irrigate crops. Since Sanderson Farms began these efforts in 2008, the company has won 13 awards for water conservation and wastewater treatment.

“At Sanderson Farms’ wastewater treatment facilities, we aim to minimize the company’s impact on surrounding natural resources by preserving and returning to the environment what the company has utilized throughout our operations,” said Mike Yawn, Sanderson Farms Collins Processing Environmental Supervisor. “I believe we should be good stewards of all the natural resources we have been blessed with, for the benefit of ourselves and future generations to come.”

Wastewater processing also allows Sanderson Farms to utilize another valuable resource – renewable energy. Biogas generated during wastewater treatment is captured and treated in the company’s pressure swing adsorption system, resulting in pipeline quality gas that can be used across Sanderson Farms poultry operations. In 2018 alone, the amount of biogas generated could supply the company’s Moultrie, Ga., poultry complex with gas for over a year and a half.

To deal with technology waste, Sanderson Farms has developed an e-waste recycling program. The company has partnered with companies who specialize in disposing of and recycling outdated technology and equipment. Sanderson Farms has also implemented initiatives to reduce packaging waste.

“Sustainability and compliance are not efforts led by the contributions of one or even a few qualified individuals,” said Stephanie Shoemaker, Sanderson Farms manager of environmental services for regulatory and permitting. “It takes the concerted efforts of each and every person within the company and a corporate culture that creates our expectation of innovation and strict compliance with environmental rules and regulations to make an impact.”

Just as sustainability efforts within a company require all the employees to work together, it will take both food companies and consumers across the world to work together to ensure a sustainable future. Whether it’s a company implementing operating policies to ensure efficient use of natural resources or consumers carefully considering what they eat and making food choices that reduce their individual carbon footprint, both groups can make choices that will contribute to the long term sustainability of the planet and the prudent use of its resources.

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