When we opened for business in February we started with just beef and lamb as from an ethics perspective these meats were the easiest to certify, much of the hard work has been done by the Pasture Fed Livestock association or PFLA who ensure that farmers they certify are only feeding their animals pasture with no routine use of antibiotics or hormones, these farms were our starting point for business.
Obviously as an online butcher we wanted to be able to sell poultry and pork but this is harder to source ethically as there is no PFLA equivalent for these animals. We had a conversation with a very forward thinking farmer called Mark Chapple last year at Groundswell festival which is an annual meeting of minds and celebration of regenerative agriculture and talked to him about how to farm chicken in a way that can be considered regenerative asking him what he knew about it, we were particularly keen to eliminate soy from the animals feed.
The main reason for wanting to eliminate soy is that it does not grow in the UK in any significant amounts, most soy comes from the Americas, north and South and a large amount comes from Brazil, the growing of which is linked to deforestation of the Amazon.
Organic soy can be grown in a way that is no more harmful to the environment than any other organic mono crops but is still means that is is imported from the Americas using fossil fuels but the majority of soy grown is GMO and had been modified to be resistant to weedkillers such as Roundup which contains Glyphosate.
Glyphosate is a very controversial chemical, it is essentially quite a simple and small molecule that inhibits an enzyme involved in the synthesis of three amino acids in growing plants causing death of the invasive plant and not of the crop which has been genetically engineered to be resistant.
Glyphosate is everywhere, it is in our water, in our food and the air and the effects on human health and the environment are contested with many claiming it is completely safe and other people are very concerned about the detrimental effects claiming it disrupts the human gut flora and has even been linked to come forms of cancer but as we see it the main problem with it’s use is that it creates a desert, with only one plant growing, no diversity, no ecosystem, a system that is dependent on chemical inputs.
So regardless of the Roundup issue what about the soy its self? Soy is one of the most complete proteins from a plant based source and contains all essential amino acids meaning that it is a relatively cheap way to grow farmed animals. Soy has a very good level of the amino acid lysine which is used in the bio-synthesis of proteins, that is to say growth in animals.
The use of Roundup type compounds are a mixture of glyphosate and surfactants which speed up the absorption into plants, this mixture has an effect on the microbiology of the soil which is the foundation of an ecosystem, the killing of rhizosphere microbes.
Examining the effects of pesticides, such as glyphosate, on soil and rhizosphere microbial communities is important due to the critical role of microorganisms in driving biogeochemical processes, controlling pathogens, and ultimately enabling ecosystems to function and provide services to humanity. The soil microbial community, especially the rhizosphere microbial community, impacts soil quality through its involvement in biogeochemical and nutrient cycling, long-term soil sustainability, and resistance to perturbations (Prashar et al., 2014, Topp, 2003).
Within the rhizosphere, microorganisms positively affect plant health through a variety of mechanisms, including mineralization of nutrients, suppression of disease, improving plant stress tolerance, and production of phytohormones (Berendsen et al., 2012, Figueiredo et al., 2011, Gupta et al., 2000).
This means that the use of these chemicals are reported to grow plants that are less nutritious.
So what about chicken?
Modern chicken (Gallus gallus domesticus) is a type of domesticated fowl, a sub species of red junglefowl. Originally kept for special ceremonies chickens were not kept for food until the Hellenistic period of about 4th-2nd centuries BC.
Genetic studies have shown that today’s chickens can trace lineage back to South Asia, Southeast Asia as well as the Indian Subcontinent.
Foul had been in Egypt since the mid 15th century BC and Greece since the 5th century BC.
The modern chicken has been bred over time to grow well on what we like to feed them and in many cases that is a diet that contains soy meal.
In the UK now we eat in excess of 900,000,000 chicken a year and all but a fraction of a percent of these will have soy in their diet which originated in the Americas.
When we first started asking around on online farmers forums for a UK sourced soy free chicken feed we were met with many farmers telling us it can’t be done, we were told that there are crucial stages of growth and development that need the amino acids in soy and there is no cost effective replacement.
A few farmers thought it could possibly be done but were worried about the results and not willing to take the chance of the animals not growing properly and the economic implication of this
Then out of the blue, Mark Chapple got in touch, reminded us of the conversation at Groundswell and said he had been doing research and was willing to try as a partnership with us, naturally we said yes!
Image: The chickens live in the barn until they are 3 weeks old before being moved outside.
Mark is a primarily a sheep and cattle farmer in Devon who is using a rotational grazing system with his cattle on a diverse pasture and had been researching a farmer in USA called Joel Salatin who has developed a system where chickens in coops follow the cattle through a rotational system.
After the cattle have been on a small area of pasture for a day they eat the tops of the plants and their dung and urine fertilise the land ready for vigorous regrowth, at this stage the chicken coops are moved onto this land.
This image shows the rotational grazing paddocks for the cattle and how the chickens are following.
After his research Mark being Mark decided to design his own version of the mobile chicken coop called a ’tractor’ to give his birds more head room than Joel’s version and has even managed to construct them entirely from recycled roofing struts of wood from his own farm further cutting the carbon footprint.
The chickens get to feast on the insects and worms living in the cow dung as well as eating grass, herbs and seeds, further scratching their own dung into the soil adding even more natural phosphate rich fertiliser. After just one day the chickens are moved and the land then rests another 60-90 days while the pasture grows rich strong and high, taking carbon out of the atmosphere and locking it into the ground.
These chickens can get about 25% of their diet from this method which is also having a beneficial effect on the land but still require supplemental feed.
Mark has sourced a feed from a local feed mill that is primarily composed of locally grown wheat supplemented with some other seed meals but no soy and the chickens are growing well.
This is just the start of the story however. We as The Ethical Butcher continue to liaise with Mark to further refine and improve the process.
Regular factory farmed chickens are grown to weight at just 5 weeks, to have the label of 'free range’ the birds need to be kept a minimum of 8 weeks and Marks chickens are reaching a hefty 2.5kg in 10 weeks on this diet.
So what happens from here?
Proof of concept is done, now we refine the process. The next stage is to look carefully into the grain portion of the chickens feed and to find farmers as close to the feed mill who are growing organic wheat using a no-till or drilling method to reduce damage to the soil. Mark is also in touch with a British rapeseed oil producer who is growing a high omega 3 crop in a system that is carbon negative, the cold pressed meal could potentially make a very high quality chicken feed and is currently a carbon neutral waste product.
One of the possibilities we have discussed is breeding insects such as meal worms and crickets to provide the chickens with the nutrition they need in a very carbon friendly system but there are some legal problems with this in the UK that need to be challenged first concerning growing insects with the intention of feeding them to other animals.
Obviously anything brought into a farm as an external input has environmental considerations, firstly the provenance of the product needs to be considered as does the carbon footprint of transporting it which uses fossil fuels, for this reason the next stage for Mark is looking to growing his own cover crops to feed the chickens with so that nothing external is required.
Mark has planted some of his land with a very diverse mixture of plants which provide seeds for wild birds, this pasture will be grazed by cattle who will leave much of the seeds in tact then be followed by chickens who can feast, the aim is to provide enough nutrition for the chickens to grow with no external inputs, this will almost certainly take longer, the estimates re that they will be 100 days + but the lack of feed bought will more than make up for the extended time they have.
Is this the most ethical commercial chicken in the uk? Possibly, but we’re working hard to make it even better.
We recorded a podcast with Mark where you can hear about our collaboration in more detail.