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Sustainability in the poultry business

May 25, 2023
brown eggs

Graham Atkinson leads Noble Foods agriculture management team in the areas of contract producer performance, legislative compliance, company farm production, rearing and agricultural sustainability.

Can egg production be both sustainable and profitable? Graham Atkinson, agricultural sustainability manager at Noble Foods, joins the Ag Future podcast to explore this fascinating question. Discover how Noble Foods is leading the way in sustainable practices by reducing food loss, transitioning to cage-free production and enhancing water quality — all while maintaining profitability. Explore the pivotal role of Noble Foods' partnership with Alltech's Planet of Plenty™ program in driving these innovative practices and the transformative power of collaboration.

The following is an edited transcript of the Ag Future podcast episode with Graham Atkinson hosted by Tom Martin. Click below to hear the full audio or listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Google Podcasts.

Tom:                      I'm Tom Martin, and joining us is Graham Atkinson, agriculture director for Noble Foods, a Planet of PlentyTM partner producing about 60 million eggs annually. Graham, we want to talk with you about the word "sustainability" and actually putting sustainability into practice. And we would also like to get your insights about British poultry business strategies. But first, though, some background for our listeners who might not be aware of Noble Foods' history in the egg business. What can you tell us about that?


Graham:                  Well, hi, Tom. Firstly, thanks for inviting me along. Noble Foods has a fair heritage across here in the U.K., in the egg industry. It started back in the 1920s, so (we have) over 100 years of pedigree. (It’s) a family-owned business (and is) still owned by the same family who started that all that time ago.


                               We are focused on eggs. We are a vertically integrated business. So, we go right from the day-old chick on our company-owned rearing farms through to company-owned or contracted producer farms — some 240 contractor producer farms across the U.K. We have a milling business unit supplying feed into both of those facets. And then we have two egg-packing centers across here in the U.K. as well.


                               We have a dedicated logistics business from the perspective of both the collection and delivery of eggs to our retail partners. And we also have a hen processing facility. And equally, we deal with both shell egg — so, in part, on the retail shelf — but also, we deal with egg from a liquid and boiled perspective as well.


Tom:                      Okay. The term "sustainability" — we hear it so much these days, but take us back to basics, if you would, Graham. How do you define it? 


Graham:                  Oh, where to begin on that one? That's a great question, Tom. I think, for me, personally, there are three pillars to it. And I think, also, I would reiterate (that) you're quite correct. We hear the word "sustainability" so often nowadays, and rightly so, but I do worry sometimes whether that's a little bit misinterpreted or treated quite lightly.


                               For me, (there are) three pillars to that one. One is the planet, because clearly, sustainability means everything towards the welfare, the future and the prosperity of our planet. But to enable us to get anywhere with this sustainability journey that we must collectively go on, I feel that the people are (also) a huge part of this. If we just look at our business here at Noble Foods through that supply chain — this is about engaging people into this sustainability project, if you like, right the way through that supply chain. So, getting everybody energized around the good that we can do.


                               But equally, we can't walk away from the fact that we have to think about this being profitable as well. So, again, within our supply chain, we must consider that when we're working with what is predominantly a contracted producer base — so, independent, predominantly family-owned farms and businesses — we do need to consider that any of the practices that we're trying to explore or put in place must retain profitability for their business.


                               So, they would be the three main facets of it for me: planet, people, and profit. 


Tom:                      You've set some pretty ambitious sustainability goals there at Noble Foods. I think making efforts to meet those challenges is the main company driver. And you've been tasked, Graham, with making that happen. Tell us about those goals.


Graham:                  We're certainly trying to do the right things within the agricultural facet. And look, it's much wider than that. It's at a group level, but at a group level for our business. If we look at carbon reduction, it has been one of those areas that we're focused on. But two of the things that really touch, from an agricultural perspective, (at the core of our business are) sustainable agriculture and operations and raw material sustainability.


                               So, we've embarked on a number of projects, really, to look at that.  And I suppose, to highlight a couple, if we look at encompassing two of those areas — so, agriculturally and raw material supply — soya is obviously a rather large and somewhat contentious issue. So, we've embarked down the route of development of soya-free rations, and we've trialed that. So, we've done that firsthand with our contract producer base.


                               We took that on as a full flock trial, so (we were) taking those birds right through to end of life at 76 weeks. And we had a trial and control flock running. Our thrust of that, really, was replacement protein through sunflower and, then, extruded field beans. (It was) quite a successful trial. That was version one of the ration, if you like. And we wanted to look at that from all aspects and, obviously, get to, at the end, what that meant from a sustainability perspective.


But obviously, if we go back to the people and the profit side of things, as well as the planet, then we needed to make sure that our change of ration — and that's a, you know, that's a huge step, to remove soya from poultry rations that have always included good volumes of soya. We wanted to check, both from a performance and a profitability perspective and, equally, from a bird welfare perspective, that there were no negative impacts.


I'm delighted to say that we, overall, were really, really pleased with how that flock came out at the end of the test. Certainly, from a productivity perspective, all was good. Egg weights, etc. Egg numbers. From a welfare perspective, the mortalities, etc., all came out really well. And what we saw there was a reduction in terms of the carbon footprint per kilograms of egg, which was absolutely fantastic. And we used E-CO2 to develop all the (analyses) and crunch all the data in that as well. So, we are really encouraged by the fact that we got that one off the ground and running.


So that was one. And I think, from one of the other main headlines of where we're going and what we're looking at, as you might be aware, across (the pond) in the U.K., the brown bird and brown egg is the thing that resonates with our consumers over here.


                               So, we have been a predominantly brown layer flock in the U.K. for a good number of years now. Obviously, just across the water in Europe, in the Netherlands and in Germany, historically, they've used a much larger percentage of white birds. There are a great deal of benefits to that white bird — so, longer laying cycles, improved performance. From a manageability perspective, the birds are more docile. But overall, when you look at that longer laying cycle from the same kind of feed inputs, etc., you are looking at a much lower environmental impact. So, again, we've done those on trial, fairly substantial trials, and looked at the outputs from that, again, using E-CO2 to run through the data with us. And once again, we've seen successes there in the footprint reduction per kilogram of eggs.


                               So that's just two of the projects, agriculturally, that we've been working on of late. And yeah, (I’m) delighted to say that we've had some positive outcomes from both.


Tom:                      Just as an aside here, I'm kind of curious: Has there been any research into why consumers prefer brown eggs over white? And is there any difference?


Graham:                  Materially, no, there's no difference. There has been some research done and some consumer reviews done on that. There are varying different reasons, Tom. One of the reasons is consumers perceive — in the U.K., specifically, I think — (that) because of the nature of the fact that they've been used to the brown egg, they have a perception of that wholesome, rural kind of feel around a brown egg. The sudden shock of a white egg on the shelf — (there are) all sorts of different reactions on there around the method of production that may be used, whether the eggs have been cleaned or washed, or (whether) they're a cheaper version of the quality egg that they've been buying.


                               So, there's a huge education piece to do here with the consumer around white eggs. What we have found — and it was actually through the COVID pandemic, where there was a huge spike in egg sales (as) an essential and popular protein, and that gave us an opportunity to put a little bit more white egg on the shelf in retail, and it got a positive reaction that that white egg sold. And that's led us on a little bit. So, it's growing in its momentum, but no doubt, there is an ongoing education from a consumer perspective around white eggs.


Tom:                      Okay. Well, back to what you're doing there. I know that you've tightened your focus to four main areas. And you touched on carbon footprint, but also food loss, land use and animal welfare. And I thought we would look at each of these, beginning with moves to reduce the industry's carbon emissions. How is this being accomplished, and what have been the results so far?


Graham:                  Oh, again, Tom, another really great question. From an industries carbon-emissions perspective, again, I would go back to (one question): Where is our industry putting its focus first? And I think that's definitely around soya use in diets. If you look at the sourcing of soya and the huge footprint that that leaves, it's essential that we try to tackle that problem first. So, I think that's definitely the first cab off the rank.


                               The rest, I suppose — well, not the rest; (that) is a strong statement — but what we've done from our perspective is to measure our emissions and look at where that sits and where the split is. And if we look at that from a Scope 1 and 2 emissions perspective, (it’s) no great shock that that's not the huge contributor, but certainly, the Scope 3 — so our bought-in goods, if you like — and again, you come back to that raw material portfolio and the highlight of that being soya. But anything that's a bought-in good is where we see our highest impact. So, our areas of focus are maintained around there, but then that's drilled down.


                               For us as a business, we have what we call the ESP, Environmental Sustainability Program, and that's involved across the whole of our group. It's on every site that we own within the U.K. Each of our sites has an ESP (or) Environmental Sustainability Program lead. And all the projects across the group are completed under that banner. The projects then are developed and reviewed on an annual basis, and then the deliveries (are) tracked again through an ESP committee. So, we do have a really strong focus on it.


                               As I say, you can't avoid or get away from the fact that our bought-in goods and raw-material sourcing is a strong area of focus. So that's huge. We've also done an awful lot of work, as I guess you would expect, around our sites on renewables. So, there's an awful lot of solar going in around the sites, and that's both from (us as) a company and, also, our aligned contract producer base. (We have) lots of renewable energy projects going on out there. Our own electricity within the company is 100% sourced from green electricity tariffs now.


                               And then, we're trying, as I say, the low-carbon alternatives within animal feed projects, such as the moves to LED lighting and submetering, efficient boilers, etc. So, it's a long, long list of different things we're doing and also working (on). If you look at our logistics business, we cover just shy, I think, of 13 million kilometers a year in moving eggs around the U.K. So, (we are) mapping the emissions that we're causing there, using the right technology to make the most efficient route, and also looking at our vehicles and ever increasing the efficiency of that fleet.


Tom:                      Another of your concentrations is on food loss. What is meant by “food loss,” and how are you addressing that? 


Graham:                  Well, that leads us in — specifically, the food loss part of that came from a really exciting partnership with Alltech and the development of what we call the EnviroPak.


                               So that's a project that’s spanned almost three years now, from conception through to practice. What we found through trialing that product — we did extensive trials over time with this product. But what we found there was that we were losing an awful lot of, if we focus on shell eggs and getting a class-A egg out of those birds — so the egg that we're going to put into packs and sell to the consumer — what we found through the use of EnviroPak was that we were retaining an awful lot of egg out of second-quality. So, (those are) the eggs that you couldn't put in packs, moving that quality into first class. So, therefore, we were retaining more usable egg in a shell-egg form from the same amount of inputs. Thereby, we saw a food-loss reduction, which was a fantastic result. 


Tom:                      And what exactly is the EnviroPak? 


Graham:                  So, the EnviroPak is a mix of Alltech's Gut Health platform products. And what we were looking for there was — we set some slightly ambitious targets or challenges to Alltech, the business, and that was to look at food loss. That was to look at a reduction in carbon footprint, to look at increased bird welfare (and a) reduction in land use. We also came out of that with a reduction in mineral leaching, as well, from the bird. So, there were some fairly punchy pillars for Alltech to aim at. But using their products from their Gut Health platform, that's specifically what we've added into the rations, and (we have) called that EnviroPak. So, that's where the focus was, and that's what led us to it.


Tom:                      And you mentioned animal welfare (as) another goal. And I know that Noble has committed to (achieving) 100% cage-free production very soon, by 2025. What are the business sustainability challenges of such a transition? 


Graham:                  Well, I think the difficulty there — and again, I mean, this is a huge, huge subject. So, we've got a lot of areas to focus on there. And I think that this is about partnerships. So this, again, is where we go back to that “people” thing. And the “people” thing here is around working with our producers, obviously, but also working with the breed companies, the global breed companies, in their advancements into providing the bird (that is) capable of working efficiently within these commercial production units non-trimmed. And that is a huge step.


                               However, I'd link that back into the work that we're doing with the white bird, where we know, from the performance data and the welfare data that we get out of those trials — what we see across in Europe, what we see from producers who have been using the white bird for a while now — is that (it) does seem to be a much more docile breed (and is), perhaps, more adept at being able to cope in a commercial environment non-trimmed. So that's another route of exploration as well.


                               But we've certainly got some fairly big steps to take. Now, the 2025 piece that you referenced, I think, is probably more akin to the cage-free 2025 (goal), which all of our retail partners in the U.K. signed up to as well. So, there's another challenge for us as we transition from the enriched-colony cage production and through and into barn production, predominantly, as a means for providing value eggs.


Tom:                      Noble also has committed to help protect and enhance water quality. You've signed on to comply with something called the Water Roadmap. Tell us more about that. 


Graham:                  Yeah, that's correct. Across in the U.K., certainly, the protection of our waterways is a huge national subject. And one specific area of the U.K., for ourselves, that is an intense area of focus involves the Rivers Usk and Wye catchment, which runs through Wales and down into Herefordshire on the west of the country. So, there's been a huge focus on the pollution of that river, (which is) multifactorial, without a shadow of a doubt. And it would be easy for me to sit here and say that agriculture — and specifically poultry, and drill that down even further to egg production — had a very small impact upon that, but that would be remiss.


                               So, we feel that everyone — whether it's ourselves, whether it's the wider agricultural sphere, whether it's industry, etc. — all has a responsibility to look after that waterway. So rather than sit and say, "Well, we're not in any way, shape or form the biggest contributor," we felt (that) being proactive and signing up with a Water Roadmap in that area — specifically, the Wye Agri-Food Partnership, which has a poultry subgroup, the roundtable for Wye Agri-Food Partnership, the wealth roundtable — we've joined up with all of these people, specifically, to focus on what we can do in that area. And again, you can reference that back to various different projects that we're working on there from a biodiversity perspective — so whether that be buffer zones, whether that be reed bed catchments. And indeed, what we found, through the use of EnviroPak through our trials, (is that) there was a reduction within, specifically, phosphates, which is a huge area of focus within the pollution of the waterway.


                               So, (that’s) something we're very much engaged with. And I think that what we will see is, whilst that's a very specific area of focus, currently, in the U.K., it's most definitely going to spread to a far, far wider audience in different areas. So, being proactive and trying to be — not ahead of the game, but be, absolutely, at the forefront, both in terms of what we're trying to do but also, most importantly, knowledge-sharing with other businesses and other industries to scope out what their solutions and their ideas may be, I think, will lead us, collectively, to be able to cope with these issues and rectify the problems going forward in a far, far speedier response, if you like.


Tom:                      I'm wondering what sorts of challenges or obstacles that you have identified or encountered that you're now striving to overcome to achieve that greater sustainability in the company's practices in production. Can you elaborate on that for us a little bit? 


Graham:                  For me, I think it starts with education. So, whilst you may have specific levels of expertise within your business or out there in the wider industry — which is always a great starting place, but we know full well that you've got to get everybody involved in this. And I'd say there's a distinct difference between being involved and being engaged. So, for me, education is a huge part. So, we take that very seriously within our own agricultural sphere.


                               To rewind back, I guess, from a group perspective, the Environmental Sustainability Program launched in 2018, (and) that's obviously filtered down and through the business from our own agricultural perspective. We've just recruited an agricultural sustainability manager. And again, from there, we've gone, really (to saying), “Let's start with a blank page. Let's go out there and look at what we are doing, what our contract producers are doing. Let's take those learnings, let's pull that together, and then we can start to look at (the question): What are the best ways to move that forward?”


                               So, we've got lots that is happening along the way through bits that I've been describing, with trials on soya-free diets, etc. And then we've taken that forward — specifically, if you look at one of our brands, which is an organic brand called Purely. We've got that one in partnership with the Carbon Trust now. So that's a project that we've moved on at pace. But again, throughout the whole of that process, (there have been) an awful lot of learnings there that we've taken and, then, we can apply to further things that we do.


                               So, I think that we've got good progress. There'll be many a hurdle. Those hurdles will be probably born out of the fact that we don't have the answers, collectively. And therefore, it's back to that education and everybody coming on this journey with us. 


Tom:                      I am imagining, Graham, that in the pursuit of long-term, consistent sustainability, you can't cut corners — and yet, Noble Foods has made the practice of sustainability profitable. How do you do that? 


Graham:                  Well, back to your first point, Tom: You don't cut corners. I think, if you go down the route of looking for speedy solutions with, perhaps, the ability of or the want for us to hit the headlines, that's probably the wrong path to go down. We've certainly taken the stance that we will do it once, but do it right. So, you have to look at the end goal of profitability. That sounds rather single-tracked or single-minded, but that has to be an outcome of whatever sustainability project that you're taking on.


                               From there, I think, you build backwards, and you build the blocks from there. So definitely, having the patience to realize that you will set out your store correctly, you'll gather all of the relevant information in, and then you'll throw that in the mixing pot to come out with your solutions — and if that takes time, yes, there will be people along the way, myself included, who may get frustrated by the length of time that it's taking, but when you get the results at the end of it and you know that you can stand behind it and it's substantiated, that's very rewarding.


Tom:                      In the introduction, I mentioned the Noble Foods partnership with the Alltech Planet of Plenty program. And I'm wondering: How does that partnership turn challenges into opportunities for you?


Graham:                  I think that comes through a few of the things that I've mentioned. One's the education piece, and the other is knowledge-sharing. And I think that to be able to sign up as a Planet of Plenty partner with Alltech has been a fantastic opportunity. And for myself, if I go back to October 2020, when the concept of what turned out to be our EnviroPak trial started — and along that journey, we signed as a Planet of Plenty partner — but if I go back then to my own knowledge, obviously, I had a knowledge of Alltech at that point, but it was only then, really, and opening that door that I got a sense of the global scale and the knowledge base that that business contains.


                               So, for me, it's a prime example of — that may sound like a bit of a one-sided affair, in some ways, but I guess, for Alltech, that's also been an ability to partner with a sizable egg business within the U.K. and also, hopefully, (gain) some learnings, from their perspective, as to how that business operates (and) some of the hurdles that we've encountered along the way. But at every turn, we've been able to sit down collectively as a group, pull in the right people to provide us with the knowledge that we may have been lacking within that group, and then overcome the problem.


                               So, it's been an incredibly enjoyable journey. It's certainly been a journey, if you look at what we've just discussed, right back to October 2020. So, this has been about patience and getting there and doing the right things and making sure that we've got everything behind it. But (it is) absolutely rewarding to be able to then substantiate all of that data, (which is) science-backed, and be able to stand up and say that this does what it says on the tin. (It) brings me — and us, I think — to the beginnings of a really exciting partnership.


Tom:                      Well, I also mentioned in the introduction that we hope to get your views on British poultry business strategies. What can you tell us about it?


Graham:                  I think, when we look at the poultry industry — and perhaps this resonates for many other industries as well — I would say that within the last three to four years (or), possibly, five years, the focus on sustainability (and) the regularity with which we discuss sustainability has come to the forefront, whereas prior to that, I would say that it was a subject that was touched upon and then, possibly, not dismissed, but parked.


                               Now, I think every poultry business within the U.K. has a focus on sustainability. They will all be at varying different levels of intensity as to where that focus is, but what we're starting to see now is different businesses coming out with their sustainability strategies. And again, I would go back to (the fact that) the poultry industry in the U.K. is, on the one side, a big industry and, on the other side, seems quite small in that lots of people know lots of people within that industry.


                               So, the ability to knowledge-share across species (and) across businesses is actually quite encouraging. So, I think everyone has their different roots, because there are different methodologies and different poultry productions, etc., but there's definitely a thrust within the British poultry industry to develop, grow and drive sustainability aims, for sure, which is encouraging.


Tom:                      What do you think it is that has managed to bring everybody aboard (and) onto the same page?


Graham:                  Oh, that really is a big question, Tom, isn't it? I think that, now, we, as an industry — I don't think there's just been a sudden epiphany where, collectively, everybody has seen the light. What I think is that this has gathered momentum over a period of time. It's certainly become a very hot topic at every turn. So, I suppose it's hitting every age group, whether that be through the news, whether that be through specific programs that they're watching, whether that be for a younger generation than myself. I hasten to add the use of social media, etc.


                               But I think that thrust has come through. And what I've seen — I mean, I've been with Noble Foods for 13 years. And if I look at that, the younger generation that are starting to come into this business, and if I look at my own section of it, my own function of it (in terms of) agriculture — there's a real drive, thrust and passion around sustainability there as well. And I think that propagates and that permeates up through the system and amongst everyone else. I think there's a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy within that piece.


                               But I think, overall, as an industry, it is the fact that, at every turn, at every headline, at every article you read, somewhere, there is a reminder that we need to take this subject seriously. And collectively, it's everyone's responsibility to work towards a better vision of sustainability going forward.


Tom:                      All right, that's Graham Atkinson. He's agriculture director for Noble Foods, talking to us from near York in the north of England. And we thank you so much, Graham.


Graham:                  Thank you, Tom. Thank you very much.