Can Silicon Valley save these chicks?

Millions of male chicks are killed, needlessly, every year. The tech sector is ready to act, but is the egg sector ready to change?

Let’s start with some grim news: Every year in America, approximately 300 million male chicks are gassed, ground up, and disposed of, simply because they don’t lay eggs.

America’s poultry industry is divided by production type. Egg producers raise egg-laying hens and meat producers raise meat birds, also called broilers. In the broiler cycle, both male and female birds are used for meat production. Yet, in the egg-laying cycle, only female birds are required.

Male chickens are considered an egg-industry byproduct; egg producers currently don’t have the resources, or infrastructure, to grow and slaughter for meat. Thus, male chicks are culled en masse, often only a few hours after birth.

It’s a controversial practice that pulls the heartstrings of consumers who know of it. However, according to a new survey by Silicon Valley think-tank Innovate Animal Ag, most Americans have no idea this is going on.

Run by former Google engineer Robert Yaman, with a communications arm headed by former political pollster Sean McElwee, Innovate Animal Ag found that only 11 percent of U.S. consumers know that male chicks are culled immediately after hatching. Another 48 percent believe that male chicks are raised for meat, a practice uncommon in the U.S. — at least when they are hatched from laying hens.

The numbers suggest a serious disconnect between consumer beliefs and industry practices — one Silicon Valley is looking to fix. The hope is that male chick culling can be reduced or eliminated by adopting new technologies, such as in ovo sexing.

Looking to in-ovo sexing

In-ovo sexing is a process in which the sex of the chicken embryo can be determined while still inside the egg. This enables producers to identify and sort eggs before incubating, eliminating the need for culling altogether.

The technology is already being used in Europe, a response to countries like Germany, France, and Italy banning chick culling in recent years. In-ovo sexing has also been adopted by the largest hatchery in Norway, Steinsland & Co, independent of any government mandate.

Unsurprisingly, America is still dragging its feet. Though the United Egg Producers (UEP) called for the elimination of male chick culling in 2016, US egg suppliers have yet to discard the practice. UEP said in a 2021 press release that its members have been committed to research and development in the field.

Still, in-ovo sexing technology has not been adopted in the US; price and scalability remain the biggest barriers to adoption. According to UEP, the US produced 92.6-billion eggs in 2022. By contrast, Steinsland. has only sexed 10-million eggs collectively, in Norway and Germany.

The lack of progress is concerning, especially for groups vying for change. Innovate Animal Ag’s survey found that consumer sentiment largely favours a shift towards more humane egg-production practices, with 61 percent of buyers uncomfortable with male chick culling and 73 percent agreeing that the egg industry should find an alternative.

Yaman and McElwee are looking to use the Silicon Valley ethos of innovation and scale to encourage the US to follow Europe’s lead. They want the industry to see the business incentive in adopting in ovo sexing technology. This includes increased profits, as consumers demand more “humane” eggs.

“I think oftentimes the conversation when it comes to animal welfare can be very zero-sum,” Yaman, who previously worked in the cultivated meat sector, said. “It can be, either we make more money, or we do this welfare intervention. And, as a result, those conversations can be very antagonistic.”

“In the US, there’s such a robust consumer base of folks that are willing to pay a premium for better welfare practices,” he continued. “That sort of strategy, I think, is possible for a number of agricultural technologies, including in ovo sexing.”

Innovation in the field does seem to be picking up pace. This year, researchers at the University of California published a study claiming to be able to tell the sex of an egg through a mass spectrometry sniff test.

Agri-AT, an ag-tech company based in Germany, also invented a machine that uses non-invasive imaging to look inside the egg. The machine can determine the sex by day 13. Agri-AT’s technology is currently in use in hatcheries across Europe.

See more in the video below….

Yet, in April of this year, the $6-million Egg-Tech prize — aimed at advancing technology related to egg sexing technology — went unclaimed. Yaman said the prize was focused on “non-invasive solutions, and non-gene editing solutions,” that “worked early in incubation, before day seven.”

“Since then the science around chicken embryos has advanced, and [that criteria] is no longer the right threshold, in my opinion,” said Yaman.

Still, in-ovo sexing isn’t the only way to stop the practice of male chick culling. There’s also the possibility of integrating the egg and broiler industries — at least on a smaller scale — and raising male chicks for meat……

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