Winging it: how the UK’s chicken habit is fuelling the climate and nature emergency

Chicken is the most popular meat in the UK. But the soya used as feed is responsible for deforestation in South America, accelerating climate change and biodiversity loss.

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The fires that raged through the Amazon in late 2019 – many started by farmers and cattle ranchers – have brought into stark relief the link between food production and the ongoing climate and nature emergency.

Of all the things we eat, meat and dairy products have the most damaging effects on our environment. Animal agriculture – livestock and animal feed – is responsible for approximately 60% of food-related climate emissions and is the most significant driver of deforestation. Most of the deforestation attributed to animal agriculture occurs in South America: in the Amazon, dry woodland biomes such as the Gran Chaco – South America’s second-largest forest – and the Brazilian Cerrado. Soya – which is widely traded and used mainly for animal feed – is a significant component of many countries’ deforestation footprint.

An estimated 90% of soybeans produced globally are used as a protein source in animal feed for meat and dairy production. Globally, just under half of all animal feed made from soybeans and other oilseed crops is consumed by chicken and other poultry.

The UK imports roughly 3.2 million tonnes of soya each year, with a further 600,000 tonnes already embedded in imported meat and other products. Approximately 68% of UK soya imports come from countries in South America, where soya is driving deforestation.

Chicken is by far the most popular meat in the UK – and the biggest driver of our soya consumption. The UK is the third largest producer of chicken in Europe, slaughtering over one billion chickens annually. People in the UK eat more than twice as much chicken as beef or lamb. Over the past 20 years, overall demand for beef, lamb and pork has fallen sharply, but this drop has been offset by a 20% increase in consumption of chicken – partly as a result of a switch from red meat driven by health and environmental concerns.

The rise in poultry consumption is being fuelled by companies competing to sell the cheapest chicken. Industry reports indicate a strong correlation between marketing and special offers and increases in chicken sales. Given the clear links between chicken, soya and deforestation, companies have a responsibility to prove that the chicken they are selling us is not destroying the world’s forests.

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