The advent of the personal computer and search engines of varying degrees of sophistication enable computer troglodytes, such as I am, to amass data for re-gurgitation. This enables one to give a quantitative picture of an industry. What is more important are the qualitative aspects of an industry; its contribution to our well being.
So, what are the characteristics of the poultry industry that mark it out as outstanding? Farmers, as with many if not most groupings in our society, resist change. There is always comfort in known certainties and they die hard. The poultry industry is one of adaptation, competition and change.
Industries in Australian live within regulated environments. To gain policy change, to adapt to new technologies and to adjust to the times we are in, nationally and internationally, requires a change in the regulatory map- imposed by either the private or public sector or both.
I lived on and worked on a poultry farm until I was 33, leaving it in 1971. When I left school in 1952 there were 34,000 registered egg producers in NSW. These were registered with the NSW Egg Marketing Board, when the egg producers and major political parties had a belief in 'organised marketing'. To be registered one had to have over 19 laying hens, so one assumes that number of commercial farms was in the mid thousands, say 5-6000. In the village I grew up in, there were 7 commercial farms and some part time producers; today there are none. In NSW today, there would be only a few over 200 commercial farms. All States had similar arrangements and Queensland, the home of rural socialism, at one stage had three egg producing zones. It was prohibited to trade in eggs between the zones. The organic, barn laid etc move has meant that numbers of egg producers is rising again and I understand that, Australia wide, we now have about 2,000 producers but with the largest three producing over 50% of total egg production. The industry is both scaling up and down! In the post WW2 agricultural commodity exporting boom years, we exported eggs at a lower than the domestic price to England. The British and Europeans were starving. We poultry farmers were buying wheat at a higher price than what it was being sold for on the export market under an International Wheat Agreement, which did not expire until the early 1970s. From the late 1950s and into the 1960s we started to enter a period of over-production and an end to any notion of an export bonanza. There was sense in the overall policy because Australia needed export income so as to afford imports and to enhance our standard of living and to gain foreign exchange for investment. The Commonwealth Government's policy was 'protection all round' until at least 1969.
Although difficult, the egg industry became a model for, near autonomous, structural adjustment. It went through profound change, not the gradual change that occurs in broadscale farming. It adapted. How did this come about?
The broiler industry commenced as a vertically integrated industry in the 1960s. Grower associations came into being but the dominant hatchery and processing firms were the main drivers of the industry. There are about 800 chicken producers in Australia but Baiada and Inghams produce more than 70% of all production. Scaling up continues; the market at work. Again, the poultry industry became a model for structural adjustment with fierce competition, at all levels. It adapted. How did this come about?
Australians mainly live in cities. We are a highly urbanised society. Diets and lifestyles in our cities have changed. We now do not all go to work 'on an egg', but our consumption is relatively high. We are more likely to eat at a quick food outlet, with over fried chicken, than cook one at home, but our consumption is high. Again the industry has adapted to changing life-styles. Unlike some industries, we don't think we have to prove to kids that eggs come from chooks. The industry adapts to the new situation. Because we are comparatively rich, a large proportion of our population is able to pay for eggs from hens not raised in the most commercially based conditions. The industry has adapted to the market. The industry adapts.
As a generalisation, farmers readily adopt new technologies but are reticent to embrace institutional change. The time taken to adopt research results is typically long term due to a range of understandable factors but also resistance to new ideas is common. The poultry industry is one which is an 'early adopter'. Vaccines, husbandry types and feed formulation all represent quick adoption within a sophisticated industry. It adopts and adapts. As a lapsed economist I fully understand that one should presume that there will always be oil, phosphates, land, water and all production inputs and that a world population of 10b will present no problems in guaranteeing world food security or in preventing 'food price spikes'. As a lapsed 'bush scientist', I have now been convinced that Global Warming and Climate Change are myths or in any case, if they do exist, they have nothing to do with anthropogenic causes. A former Commonwealth Treasury Secretary and macro-economist has told me so. He would know.
Despite these misgivings, there is a case to propose that the demand for animal protein will rise, that the real price of agricultural inputs will rise and that chicken and eggs will continue to be the cheapest form of animal protein. What evidence is there for this? Can we market poultry products on the basis of being Greenhouse Gas friendly; 'Green Chicken'? We are lectured by all the Pharisees that Australia is now living in the Asian Century and that the "'The Tyranny of Distance' has disappeared. Well, that is pretty good. Another of the great important contributions of the poultry industry may also just be that we are in a position to consider the sale of our services, based on our research and extension into our own industry, and which is applicable to the fast developing world- remember the work by our scientists via ACIAR on Newcastle Disease in Cambodia. Zoonoses are on the rise. We need to continue to adapt.
The importance of the poultry industry goes beyond the stats - but they are important too!