Climate change and the egg: new thinking for a planet in crisis

Climate change is real, but it's also actionable. To make an impact, we must find new ways of thinking and working together—now.
A woman in a courtyard looks over at three chickens.
Around the world, chickens leave a small footprint while making a large impact on nutrition, health, and community empowerment. Photo: Tom Furtwangler.

As the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21) talks continue in Paris, PATH connected with leaders in nutrition and agriculture to discuss how to build momentum for positive change through cross-sector, holistic thinking.

Conversations coming out of Paris reflect an increasing sense of global urgency around climate change—an urgency we all share. There are myriad examples of how a changing climate will have, and already is having, a negative impact on the world’s most vulnerable populations. Dramatically changing weather patterns make it harder to meet the most basic of human needs by stressing limited food and water resources. A warming planet makes it easier for infectious diseases like malaria and dengue fever to gain a foothold.

The United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals reinforce the need for us to shift our thinking now about how to approach health, environment, and poverty challenges. We can no longer afford to serve one sector at the cost of another. By pooling our collective knowledge, we can deliver on environmental sustainability, development, and health outcomes all at once.

A chicken walks past a woman washing rice at an outdoor spigot.
Chickens require little arable land, and their waste can be used as a highly valuable natural fertilizer in place of expensive, greenhouse gas–producing artificial fertilizer. Photo: PATH/PATH/Bui Ngoc Thanh.

A surprising solution

The environmental impact of the production and consumption of meat is one of the biggest climate agenda debates. Let’s look at how holistic thinking comes into play around the environment and livestock—more specifically, the chicken and the egg.

The chicken egg is viewed as a “miracle food”: an inexpensive, high-quality animal protein that’s relatively easy to produce. Eggs are an excellent source of several micronutrients often lacking in diets in the developing world (vitamin A, vitamin B-12, calcium, iron, riboflavin, and zinc)—deficiencies of which can cause anemia, blindness, and impaired cognitive and physical development.

Chickens also require little arable land, and their waste can be used as a highly valuable natural fertilizer in place of expensive, greenhouse gas–producing artificial fertilizer. As an added benefit, this practice stores carbon in the soil.

And eggs are already a known and loved component of most world cuisines. Because eggs are generally a “backyard commodity,” they can also help put income into the hands of women—money they can spend on the nutritional and health care needs of their children.

Two women carrying trays with dozens of eggs on their heads and babies on their backs.
Heifer International’s novel “backyard poultry” model promotes chickens from an occasional meal to an engine for family health. Photo: PATH/Molly Mort.

Applying innovation to the egg value chain

In smallholder farms and rural households the world over, poultry roam freely as they forage for their own sustenance. But this “zero input” model leads to disease and predation, which makes chickens both a risky investment and an unreliable food source.

To make chickens a viable option for poorer farmers, and to increase the quality and quantity of egg production, we would benefit from integrating ideas and methods from across the health, nutrition, and agriculture sectors.

For example, an award-winning innovation developed at PATH has the potential to combat one of the biggest global threats to rural poultry—Newcastle disease—by reformulating the standard vaccine as a low-cost, heat-stable tablet. Imagine family and community farmers being able to vaccinate a flock of up to 50 birds against the deadly contagion by dropping a single tablet into the birds’ drinking water.

And Heifer International’s novel “backyard poultry” model promotes chickens from an occasional meal to an engine for family health by protecting birds in simple housing; vaccinating against common diseases, including the Newcastle virus; conducting periodic deworming; and using local feed.

By constructing shared approaches from our most compelling applications, the various development sectors become more effective and bold—two necessary components in racing the clock against climate change.

Positive change requires healthy people

A holistic approach serves another purpose, too: building sustainability and resilience on the ground, and engaging local ingenuity and will. This will only become more critical as the effects of climate change are more deeply felt.

In communities that have faced generations of hunger and poverty, improvements in health and economic status are essentially stifled. And as climate change worsens, those communities will be unable to adapt, let alone become healthy enough to engage in protecting the environment.

There are 600 million smallholder farmers and herders in the world, 95 percent of them living in extreme hunger and poverty, according to United Nations data. This group holds immense potential for positive change. If holistic thinking can help them cultivate a reliable source of high-quality animal protein, with a small environmental footprint, it would go a long way toward mitigating the effects of climate change—and addressing undernutrition and poverty—for the world’s most vulnerable.

A call to the global community

We must act quickly. Global predictions suggest that up to 2 billion people could live in chronic hunger by 2030. How much will that worsen as the climate continues to shift? Hunger is connected to poverty—which is connected to health—which is connected to the environment—and around it goes. The development community can no longer afford to look at solving the world’s most pressing challenges in isolation.

Climate change is real, but it is also actionable. We can effect positive change by recognizing and drawing on the interconnectedness of the key components of climate, agriculture, nutrition, health, and women’s empowerment. The short-term success and long-term sustainability of our work—and our world—depend on it.

Hen and chicks standing on brown tiles.
We need smart thinking and best practices from across the health, nutrition, and agriculture sectors to make chickens a viable option for farmers. Photo: PATH/Eric Becker.
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  • Amie Batson is the chief strategy officer and vice president of Strategy and learning at PATH.
  • Jessica Fanzo PhD, is Bloomberg Distinguished Associate Professor of Ethics and Global Food & Agriculture at Johns Hopkins University.
  • Katharine Kreis is the director of Strategic Initiatives, International Development, International Program Management at PATH.
  • Pierre Ferrari is the president and CEO of Heifer International.