Editor: Dr. John Summers
It seems that every decade a new concern, thrust or "buzz word" comes to the fore to emphasize or direct the
future of agriculture. In the seventies, it was plant versus animal agriculture as the proper approach to take in
order to feed an expanding world population. In the eighties, "Environment" was the "In thing" and
agriculture had to justify its long term existence based on being environmentally friendly. Vast sums of
money were diverted into studies and surveys in an attempt to define what was meant by a "Good
Environment". In the nineties, the emphasis is on "Sustainable Agriculture" and as in the past, vast amounts
of academics' time and government money are being spent trying to define what is meant by "Sustainable
A recent article by two faculty members at the University of Guelph, gives a good description of sustainable
agriculture and where and how the poultry industry is doing its bit to contribute to a sustainable agriculture
(G. A. Surgeoner and S. Leeson, 1993. Improving efficiency in chicken production 1951-1991, Agri-food
research in Ontario, vol. 16, No 4).
Surgeoner, in a previous article in the same journal, presented the rationale that sustainable agriculture was
unlikely to be a "Heaven on Earth" with happy consumers, inexpensive high quality food, happy farmers and
wildlife abounding around rural Ontario. Instead he believes that in reality, sustainable agriculture will mean
tough trade-offs for all of society and that economic, social and environmental costs and benefits, of various
agricultural practices, will be carefully weighed and priorities determined.
As Surgeoner points out, sustainable agriculture is of immediate concern as the population in Ontario is
forecast to double in the next 40 years. Thus, economical ways of increasing food production must be
balanced against sound environmental considerations. Surgeoner feels that of several options available for
increasing food production, the most sustainable alternative is to increase efficiency of food production. Proof
of the potential for agriculture to improve its efficiency has been demonstrated during the past 40 years and
current research suggests similar rates of improvement can be achieved in the future, if this is the approach
society wants to take in increasing the output of food.
The present article points out the marked increase in poultry meat and egg production that has taken place,
from 1951 to 1991, without increasing the land base in Ontario for the production of poultry feed. Hence, the
authors demonstrate it is possible for agriculture to markedly increase the Ontario food supply without
eroding the non-agricultural land base, if it is permitted to utilize new technology and thus enhance the
efficiency of production.
In 1951 the population of Ontario was 4.6M people and, per capita, each consumed 280 eggs and 9.8 kg of
poultry meat per year. This would be a total of 107M dozen eggs and 45M kg of poultry meat annually. By
1991 the population of Ontario was 10.1M people. The egg consumption per person had dropped to 214 while
poultry meat consumption had increased to 29.6 kg. This would translate into a total of 179.2M dozen eggs
and 299M kg of meat per year.
How was this increased demand satisfied and what were some of the trade-offs?
COST TO THE CONSUMER:
In 1951, a dozen eggs cost 71 and a kg of chicken $1.37. A similar comparison for 1991 was $1.52 per dozen
eggs and $4.20 per kg of chicken.
Between 1951 and 1991, the consumer price index increased 498% (in 1991 $5.98 bought what $1.00 bought
Based on 1991 dollars the consumer of 1951 paid the equivalent of $4.30 per dozen for eggs and $8.10 per kg
In 1951 there were 103,348 farms in Ontario that produced eggs and/or chickens. Today there are 595 egg
producers and 970 broiler producers listed as commercial operations.
LAND REQUIRED FOR EGG PRODUCTION:
In 1951 the chicken required 3.4 kg of feed to produce a dozen eggs and in a year produced 160 eggs. By
1991 the egg production hen required 1.6 kg of feed to produce one dozen eggs and laid 290 eggs per year.
As shown in table 1 it required 327,420 tonnes of corn plus soybean meal (constituting about 90% of a laying
diet) to meet the needs of the layer population in 1951. In 1951 average yield of corn was 3.4 tonnes /ha and
for soybeans 1.67 tonnes/ha. This meant it took 64,200 ha of land to produce the corn and 64,300 ha of land
to produce the soybeans for the laying hens in Ontario in 1951. In table 1 it can be noted that with the
improvement in feed utilization of the hen, and the increased yield of corn and soybeans/ha, less than half the
amount of agriculture land was required to supply eggs and poultry meat to an Ontario population that was
more than double what it was in 1951.
The advances in agriculture technology are even more apparent if we were trying to meet the 1991 demand
for poultry meat and eggs with 1951 technology. Rather than requiring 128,500 ha of land, as in 1951, we
would have required 215,200 ha of land or over 3 times that required with 1991 technology.
LAND REQUIRED FOR BROILER BIRDS:
In 1951 the broiler industry was in its infancy and it took around 6 kg of feed to produce 1 kg of poultry meat
(table 2). With 9.8 kg of chicken consumed per capita in 1951 a total of 45M kg of feed was produced per
year. Calculating the hectares required to produce the amount of corn and soybeans required to feed these
birds, similar to that described in table 1, works out to 96,150 ha.
In 1991 with a modern broiler industry, and birds selected for rapid gain, it only required 1.85 kg of feed to
produce 1 kg of chicken. In 1991, with modern crop yields, only 117,226 ha of land were required to produce
enough feed (1.2 times more than in 1951) to produce 6.6 times more chicken meat than in 1951.
To meet the 1991 demand for poultry meat, with 1951 technology, would have required 638,800 ha of crop
land to supply feed for the birds. Hence, 521,574 ha of land had been saved, for uses other than agricultural
production, by using modern day technology to improve the efficiency of production.
To put this into perspective, Metro Toronto covers 63,000 ha of land. Hence the land saved by employing
1991 technology, as compared to 1951 technology, to produce poultry products has saved a land area 8.3
times the size of Toronto.
Are there additional costs?
Society has benefited from less expensive poultry products and more land has been saved for non-agricultural
purposes. However, modern chickens do not have the freedom to move about as did their counterparts in
1951. This has created concerns among animal welfare and rights advocates. However, with the confined
birds of today, mortality has been reduced to less than half of what it was in 1951, suggesting that the animals
are not under as much stress as they were in the past. Also it should be pointed out that with free range birds,
assuming 1991 production level could be attained, 50,000 ha of land would be required to rear the stock today
estimating 1000 broilers per ha and 500 layers. However, weather conditions in Ontario would not permit
year round range rearing of poultry.
While the problem of manure disposal may not be completely satisfactory, the manure generated with today's
birds is far less than that produced with 1951 technology (table 3).
With the potential use of enzymes and other products to enhance the efficiency of feed utilization, and the
modern-day methods for handling animal wastes, problems with nitrogen and phosphorus leaking into ground
water is materially reduced from what used to be the case.
As in the past 40 years, the Ontario population will continue to increase. Society has a choice, eat less poultry
products, increase the land base to produce feed for these animals or continue, through agriculture research, to
improve the efficiency of production so that 40 years hence, with double the population of today, double the
amount of poultry products can be produced with no increase in land base to produce the feed required for
Surely this is what "sustainable agriculture" is all about; that is, to sustain a constant flow of high quality food
to an expanding population without significantly altering the land mass used to produce that food, while at the
same time maintaining the quality of non-agricultural land that is left for recreation, parks, wildlife, woodlots
I believe Dr. Surgeoner and his colleagues, who have generated these articles, are to be complimented on their
simple but very realistic explanation and demonstration of what is really meant by sustainable agriculture.
And the interesting thing is that this was done with a minimum of academic time and little or no special
Table 1. Land required to produce eggs
Egg nos. 107 M doz. 179.2 M doz.
Feed efficiency 3.4 kg/doz. 1.6 kg/doz.
Tonnes - corn 218,280 172,020
- soybean 109,140 86,016
Yield - corn 3.4 T/ha 6.9 T/ha
- soybean 1.67 T/ha 2.4 T/ha
Hectares - corn 64,200 24,930
- soybean 64,300 35,840
Total 128,500 60,770
Table 2. Land required to produce chicken
kg of chicken 45 M kg 299 M kg
Feed efficiency 6:1 1.85:1
Tonnes - corn 162,000 332,000
- soybean 81,000 166,000
Yield - corn 3.4 T/ha 6.9 T/ha
- soybean 1.67 T/ha 2.4 T/ha
Hectares - corn 47,650 69,125
- soybean 48,500 48,101
Total 96,150 117,226
Table 3. Manure Generated
1951 7.14 kg
1 dozen eggs
1991 3.36 kg
1951 12.60 kg
1 kg of chicken
1991 3.88 kg