Organic poultry feeds suffer the consequences of historic errors

The absence of amino acids from the list of permitted organic feedstuffs in Europe, due to historical error, poses a serious threat to poultry nutrition and welfare.

Photo by Paul Poornan

Early in the European organic movement, a single list of permitted feeding stuffs in organic feeds was determined from lists of available raw materials, ultimately banning the use of all others. While everyone recognized the importance of minerals and vitamins, without input from nutritionists, amino acids were excluded from the list. 

This illustrates the chasm of knowledge separating legislators from scientific experts. Scientists determined that certain diseases could be prevented by adding tiny amounts of vitamins (vital amines), but the amines, which join up to form proteins, were classified as amino acids; although, some are no less essential than vitamins. The early obsession with classification systems is partly to blame, but the lack of a single nomenclature for all essential nutrients is another.

Nutrition and welfare

Conventional diets are formulated to provide a healthy, balanced and nutritious diet. In scientific terms, this means providing the correct levels of energy, amino acids and minerals to meet the animal’s maintenance, growth and reproductive requirements by using a large range of raw materials, i.e. cereals, cereal byproducts, oilseeds and oilseed byproducts, minerals, vitamins and amino acids. 

Conventional formulations without extra amino acids result in a nutritionally imbalanced diet and more protein being fed than is actually required, resulting in unused protein being excreted by the bird. In raw material terms, this is not sustainable; in greenhouse gas terms, this is not desirable. 

The organic raw materials in organic diets contain much lower protein levels than their conventional equivalents, which makes meeting the amino acid requirement of the organic bird more difficult and exaggerates the undesirable aspects. The animal feed industry realized that organic poultry diets would be nutritionally compromised without the essential amino acids.

In 2002, the UK, France and Ireland requested that the essential amino acids, methionine, lysine and threonine, should be permitted in a synthetic form for poultry. Permission was refused. However, 12 years ago, the lack of added amino acids was only a dull ache because high-protein conventional raw materials containing higher levels of amino acids could be formulated into the non-organic fraction of the diet.

Today’s amino acid problem

A sensible, phased approach to producing 100 percent organic poultry feeds had been implemented: 80 percent organic until August 2005; 85 percent from August 2005 to December 2007; 90 percent from January 2008 to December 2009; and 95 percent from January 2010 to December 2011. However, as the non-organic fraction reduced, the dull ache turned into acute pain as the amino acid requirements are on the cusp of being compromised at 95 percent organic, and at 100 percent will be extremely detrimental to poultry – impinging negatively on livestock welfare. 

Diets were expected to be 100 percent organic by January 2012; however, in recognition of the acute difficulties, the deadline was postponed to January 2015.

To illustrate the problem, Table 1 highlights the scientifically-determined methionine requirement of laying poultry, compared to the levels of methionine achievable in 95 percent and 100 percent diets. In 100 percent diets, the methionine levels that can be achieved are seriously sub-optimal, and in-house (unpublished) trials on adult birds show impaired production, reduced feather cover, and aggressive and stressed birds, with feather pecking and higher levels of mortality. Feeding organic pullets with nutritionally deficient diets will produce smaller birds, more of which will fail to thrive due to underdeveloped organs.

The fate of the turkey is so much worse, e.g. a turkey chick requires 0.62 percent methionine, which is unachievable in 100 percent organic diets.

The search for a solution

In November 2010, the Eco Amino Conference was held in Denmark, which attempted to quantify the problems of achieving 100 percent organic diets and tried to point to potential solutions. In 95 percent organic diets, most formulations contain special, high-protein materials in the 5 percent non-organic fraction, such as potato protein (80 percent protein) and maize gluten (60 percent protein). 

These raw materials are not available in an organic form so new alternatives were suggested, e.g. hemp, algae, larvae, snails, mussels and earthworms. Unfortunately, some of these raw materials are currently illegal to use in animal feeds and none are available in the quantities required to satisfy the whole of the EU’s organic monogastric sector.

A recent report suggests that the principle of “adequate nutrition” should be adopted for organic poultry rather than the current “optimal nutrition,” which to all intents and purposes means that it is not possible to provide all the nutrients that poultry require within 100 percent organic diets.

Additional difficulties

Leaving the problem of amino acids to one side for a moment, there are at least three other difficulties which arise with 100 percent organic diets. Some of the B vitamins are no longer available in an organic form. It might be possible to add cobalt to the feed and allow the bird to benefit from bacterial synthesis of Vitamin B12 in the intestine, except that in the EU cobalt has been banned from poultry diets. 

Around the world, egg yolk pigments are added to feeds to provide the egg yolk color that consumers demand. However, there are no organic egg yolk pigments. Although green forage is available from the summer range, in winter, the eggs would be pale and unsaleable. Dried organic grass could be added to the feed to provide pigments, but this only reduces the methionine levels.

Finally, the legislators did not realize that layers’ feed contains 10 percent limestone (for the egg shell). Consequently, feeds made for organic layers cannot be called organic.

The Organic Principles and a solution

In 2005, the International Federation of Organic Agriculture (IFOAM) laid down the four “Principles of Organic Agriculture,” which are meant to enshrine the virtues of “wholeness, integrity and well-being” – but perhaps we have lost sight of these guiding principles. We are meant to operate in an ecologically sound manner and provide livestock with all the nutrition and care that their physiology demands; however, we are slavishly following the letter of the law, and our organic birds are suffering from the consequences of historical errors. 

Is it not time to question the ill-informed decision to exclude amino acids from organic diets? It is not time to question moving organic diets from being 95 percent organic to the proposed 100 percent at the end of this year?

If the EU authorities would allow the use of vitamins, amino acids and yolk colorants (in all less than 1 percent of the diet), and recognized that laying birds need limestone to produce eggs, then the production of 100 percent organic poultry diets would be solved. It would also help to address the current and pressing issues of sustainability and greenhouse gas emissions, and complies with the scope and intent of the Organic Principles.

References available upon request.

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