As the University whose research helped spawn the invention of the chicken nugget decades ago, Cornell has had a long history in hatching poultry innovations. That long legacy stands to continue as Cornell was selected to help take the lead on a five-year, $10 million grant that aims to transform the poultry industry by improving its environmental impact and nutrition.
Awarded by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture earlier this year, the grant, which will also be co-led by the University of Arkansas, is one of the largest ever given by the United States Department of Agriculture.
“The purpose is to try and make U.S. poultry production more sustainable and more profitable for the producers,” said Prof. Xingen Lei, animal science, one of the co-principal investigators on the project, explaining that the project stands to disrupt one of America’s largest and most ubiquitous consumer markets.
U.S. poultry production amounts to over 9 billion chickens raised annually, last year yielding $20 billion kilograms of meat and $45 billion in revenues. Only five years ago, chicken surpassed beef to become America’s most popular meat product for the first time in over a century, according to the USDA.
But such a behemoth market comes with equally sizable environmental impacts, leaving “large room for improvement” as researchers explore ways to improve the industry’s sustainability, Lei said.
For instance, according to Lei, each year poultry production consumes about 54 billion kilograms of feed and 108 billion tons of water, while creating, as a byproduct, 55 billion tons of poultry manure and more than 1 billion tons of chicken feathers. Forty-four percent of all soybean meal produced is used to raised chickens.
“That’s a huge amount of resources being used to support production,” Lei told The Sun, who pointed out that current farming processes leave sizable inefficiencies in how water and feed are used.
As a result, the vast, multi-year project, which will enlist the help of at least four other Cornell faculty, has its sights set on improving on deploying a variety of novel techniques to lessen the industry’s environmental impacts.
“Firstly, we want to improve the feed water use efficiency and find alternatives to soybean chicken feed, in order to reduce the competition between feed and food,” Lei said, who explained that the team hopes to replace soybeans with microalgae as an alternative feed protein to raise chickens.
In comparison to soybeans, which are dominant in the poultry industry, microalgae can capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, making production “greener,” while also serving as effective targets for innovative bioengineering.
“Microalgae can not only produce biofuel, but we’re also going to engineer the microalgae to provide the protein and all the other nutrients and enzymes to improve the general efficiency of the feed and water,” Lei said.
For instance, according to Lei, in order to improve the nutritional profile of chicken meat, the team plans to work with researchers from the Biomolecular Engineering department to “engineer” microalgae by introducing enzymes that favor unsaturated fatty acids and vitamin D, which, collectively, will have the effect of making poultry “better for human health health.”
Finally, waste constitutes one of the poultry industry’s biggest barriers to sustainability, continued Lei — a problem that he hopes can be combated by making use of a product that, up until now, has been destined for the landfill.
Feathers, almost always treated as waste products by farmers, contain up to 85 percent of the protein meat provides. To take advantage of this underutilized protein source, Lei and his colleagues are aiming to use a combination of enzymes to try and break down feathers for animal feed, drastically cutting down on the amount of unused debris created in the poultry production process if successful.
But while producing research that will ultimately have practical implications for how the poultry industry functions is a priority for the team, the project also more broadly hopes to educate and provide outreach programs for consumers and producers alike.
That goal comes as academic poultry research and programs have slowly withered over the years, leaving key industry stakeholders in the dark about best practices, even as poultry production swells to its highest historical heights.
With over 40 percent of chicken producers having attained only a high school education or less, and the number of poultry science departments having decreased for the past 20 years, there is a “shortage in the future workforce and education in the industry [that is] is unsustainable for the current level of production,” remarked Lei.
To counter that trend, Lei is working to have Cornell offer minors, and eventually a master’s program, in sustainable agriculture and animal subsistence. He also currently teaches the animal science course Global Food, Energy, and Water Nexus for a Sustainable Future, which aims to engage students in the US, China and India to collaborate on more sustainable agricultural practices.
“Teaching means that we first have to teach our undergraduates here at Cornell and Arkansas and other places to be aware of the need and importance of agricultural sustainability,” Lei said. “How to make our system more efficient, more environmentally-friendly and more economically sustainable.”