Planet Earth III: How UK chicken production is destroying climate and nature.

Planet Earth III: How intensive UK chicken production is destroying climate and nature.

Planet Earth brings amazing tales of wonderful wildlife to our screens. 

It’s less common these days to have to wait for a new episode of our favourite TV series (risking us staying up all night to binge watch something that grabs our attention) and I’m really enjoying that wait each week, for Sunday, 6.20pm, to come around again so I can see what natural wonders the BBC will bring to our screens in its current incredible Planet Earth III series, narrated as ever by the amazing Sir David Attenborough.  

It's certainly an emotional rollercoaster this one, though. Amongst the heart-warming joy of being able to watch an elderly spirit bear catching salmon in a river she’s fished for 20 years (all thanks to the recycling of nutrients in the soils of the Great Bear Rainforest in Canada), treehoppers in Ecuador protecting their babies in an incredible alliance with bees and lily-trotter chicks learning to ‘walk on water’, there are the heart-breaking stories of sealions drowning in fishing nets, vital turtle nesting sites going underwater as sea waters rise and of the plight of the maned wolf in the world’s most biodiverse grassland, the Cerrado in Brazil, devastatingly threatened by soya production for livestock feed.  

The impact of humans is clear, and this only makes for more uncomfortable viewing. But perhaps that feeling is useful if it motivates us to act. And act we must. With our expertise in farming, forestry and food systems at the Soil Association, we hope we can inspire change, end the status quo, and provide a pathway to a more balanced relationship with the natural world.  

What changes to our food and farming system are needed to address the environmental crisis we face? 

While it’s becoming more widely recognised that food and farming need to change in response to the climate, nature, and health crises we face, one of the most effective ways we can do this is to stop competing with livestock for land and food. Roughly 50% of UK arable land is used to grow feed crops for livestock, with an area the size of Wales used overseas, primarily to grow soya for chickens and pigs in intensive systems. This has enormous impacts on climate and biodiversity.  

Red meat is often portrayed as the ‘villain’ of the piece, understood to be bad for our health and for the climate, with cows producing methane – a powerful but short-lived greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. But it’s not only red meat that has an environmental impact. Intensive chicken farms, for example, scattered across the UK countryside, often in sensitive environments such as rivers, rely on imported feed, they create a lot of waste, and often have lower levels of animal welfare than agroecological systems. In the UK, more than 100 million chickens are raised for meat at any one time. With several ‘crops’ raised within an annual average, that amounts to more 850 million meat chickens a year, with 95% raised in so-called ‘intensive poultry units’ holding more than 40,000 birds each. Chicken consumption levels have continued to rise in recent years and similar trends are seen in countries across the world.  

Soya fed to chickens is grown using highly hazardous pesticides 

The Soil Association is campaigning to raise awareness of the impact of intensive chicken production on natural environments here and overseas. Our Stop Poison Poultry campaign highlighted the use of highly hazardous pesticides (many banned for use in the UK and EU) on soya crops grown for chicken feed imported to the UK. These pesticides are having devastating impacts on sensitive natural ecosystems, wildlife and people in Latin America, where the soya is grown on deforested or converted land such as the Cerrado in Brazil  

Putting the Cerrado at risk 

In recent decades the Cerrado has been at the leading edge of agricultural expansion, with vast areas of native vegetation cleared for cattle ranching and soya. The Cerrado’s Matopiba region is at the forefront of this expansion, the soybean area increasing by 253% between 2000 and 2014. This has, in turn, fuelled a high level of pesticide use, with an estimated 400 million litres of pesticide product applied annually in the region. This increasing toxic load has been associated with increasing impacts on people’s health. The national average rate of pesticide poisoning in Brazil in 2017 was 6.8 cases per 100,000, a figure that rises to 8.5 per 100,000 in the Cerrado. There is a higher rate of child cancer in the region compared to the rest of Brazil, and environmental pesticide pollution is placing pressure on the remaining native vegetation. The UK imports 100,000 tonnes of soya beans from the Cerrado every year, mostly as animal feed 

Wildlife is also exposed to these pesticides through contaminated food and water. This exposure can lead to important changes in behaviour, disrupt biological and reproductive cycles, and sometimes contribute to increased mortality. Such evidence of potential harm has been found in relation to diverse species in Brazil, the primary exporter of the soya we feed our fast-growing UK broiler chickens.  

Now is the time for ‘peak poultry’ 

We must recognise the impact our reliance on cheap, industrially produced chicken is having across the globe and implement ‘peak poultry, with the UK and devolved governments taking action to ensure UK consumption and production of poultry peaks within the next 12 months and declines thereafter, including by:

  • Phasing out industrial chicken meat from the menu in schools and hospitals,  
  • Introducing an immediate ban on new intensive poultry units and 
  • Supporting producers to transition to agroecological and higher welfare production systems.  

We need to farm the right animals in the right way 

Livestock can play a key role in resolving the climate, nature, and health crises – the contribution of animals to our farming system can be socially and environmentally ‘net positive’ – but only if we farm the right animals, in the right way, and ensure both we and they are consuming an appropriate diet. This will mean shifting diets to ‘less and better’ meat (phasing out intensive meat and dairy) and ‘more and better’ plants.  

We need to clean up supply chains 

Planet Earth III has opened our eyes to the impact of the fundamentally unsustainable and environmentally damaging systems we rely on for food and farming. We need to clean up UK supply chains, improve support for home-grown, sustainable food production and end environmentally destructive practices such as the intensive rearing of livestock in factory farms, in which animals are raised in systems which hugely compromise their health and welfare, there is increased disease risk and the resultant use of antibiotics, which is impacting on the efficiency of these medicines to save human lives 

How you can help 

The Soil Association has long advocated for food system solutions – not tweaks to the status quo, but transformative change. That systemic approach is needed now more than ever.  

Read more about our vision for food system solutions in an age of environmental breakdown in our new report The Time is Now and support our work to bring about a better future for all of us