The Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR) officially launched March 20 the Egg-Tech Prize. FFAR and the Open Philanthropy Project are offering up to $6 million in prizes to the firm, group or individual who successfully develops a technology that can accurately and rapidly determine a chick’s sex as early as possible in the egg production process.
FFAR previously announced the prize in conjunction with the United Egg Producers (UEP).
Egg industry workers are currently only able to identify a chick’s sex after it hatches. For the 6 billion laying hens hatched each year worldwide, a similar number of male chicks are produced that never make it to market, FFAR said. The male chicks are unsuitable for consumption due to poor growth performance and meat quality, so there is no need for the male chicks, and they are culled, FFAR noted.
According to the FFAR announcement, this practice not only creates major challenges for animal welfare but also results in lost-opportunity costs that hinder farm profitability. Currently, producers devote time and resources to incubating eggs that turn out to be males, only to cull the male chicks upon hatching.
“Accelerating this technology will allow egg producers to prevent the deaths of billions of chicks per year,” said Lewis Bollard, program officer for farm animal welfare for the Open Philanthropy Project. “Combined with the transition to cage-free housing, this has the potential to greatly improve the welfare of layer hens.”
If egg hatcheries had a technology to determine the chick’s sex on the day it is laid, more than 6 billion male eggs could be used for food, animal feed or vaccine production, FFAR said. It would also reduce the cost and carbon footprint of incubating layer eggs. This technology would save the egg industry $1.5-2.5 billion each year.
“This prize is an opportunity to revolutionize the egg industry,” FFAR executive director Sally Rockey said. “Eliminating male chick culling — a practice opposed by industry and animal advocacy organizations alike — would greatly improve animal welfare and add billions of eggs to the food supply. This prize is a win-win for egg producers and consumers.”
The Egg-Tech Prize brings together industry and advocates to jointly work toward ending male chick culling. FFAR has the support of both Open Philanthropy Project, a co-funder of the prize, and UEP, a cooperative representing U.S. egg farmers.
“UEP farmer-members are committed to high standards for animal welfare and continuous improvement in all aspects of egg production, and addressing male chick culling is a leading priority,” UEP president and chief executive officer Chad Gregory said. “The issue of identifying sex in ovo is scientifically complex, with millions of dollars already spent by stakeholders to develop a solution. UEP appreciates FFAR’s support of this critical research, and we are hopeful it will bring much-needed progress toward meaningful outcomes.”
Current approaches to solving this challenge range from gene editing to measuring an egg’s hormone levels to determine its sex, FFAR said. However, these proposed solutions have drawbacks that prevent global adoption. An ideal solution would determine a chick’s sex early in development, before hatcheries invest in incubation and without genetically modifying the poultry genome.
According to FFAR, recent advancements in sensor technologies, engineering and biological sciences suggest that it is possible to develop a technology that both successfully determines an egg’s sex before it hatches and can be integrated into existing production systems.