Beyond free-range: is soy-free the future of sustainable chicken?

When it comes to chicken, you’re probably already on board with the idea of free-range and/or organic for both quality and ethics. But, chicken farmers are now taking ethical farming one step further by introducing 100% soy-free chicken.

Not sure what ‘soy-free chicken’ means? Or how chickens and soy are even connected? Well, neither are most people. Soy is a ‘hidden food‘ – and it is reported we consume up to 1kg a week of it without knowing. Here’s what else you need to know and why soy-free chickens may become the bird of choice for your next Sunday roast…

How are chickens and soy connected?

First up – some stats:

Every year the UK imports what equates to around 3.5 million tonnes of soybean – 75% of which is used for animal feed.

A staggering one billion chickens are reared for their meat in the UK, every year. The vast majority of these are intensively farmed indoors and less than 5% are free-range or organic, according to the British Poultry Council.

Regardless of how they are farmed, almost all of these birds will be fed a diet containing soy.

That’s a lot of chickens and a lot of soy.

The reason soy is so commonly used for poultry feed is that it is easily digestible, has a high protein content and contains amino acids crucial in expediting the early stages of growth to produce larger birds. All sounds pretty harmless, right?

Read on…

“It seems a madness that we’ve created chickens that need their feed to come from thousands of miles away.”

What’s the issue with soy?

This really means soy is a catalyst for the unnatural growth of livestock – it can lead them to grow unnaturally big, unnaturally fast. This, inevitably, can create health issues for the chickens.

The other problem is that most of the soy in the UK is imported from South America. So, the destruction of the rainforest we read so much about? That’s linked to our farms and our food choices.

And let’s not even mention the use of large amounts of chemical fertilisers and pesticides in the process. Yum.

Yet, soy remains part of the chicken feed even in the most sustainable farming systems in the UK.

“Very few farmers believe poultry can be reared without soy. They think there is no cost-effective replacement and are unwilling to take the economic risk of birds not growing properly,” says Fosse Meadows free-range chicken farm owner, Nick Ball.

“It seems a madness that we’ve created chickens that need their feed to come from thousands of miles away.”

And he’s not the only one who thinks this way.

Fosse Meadows Chicken

Ethical soy-free chicken

The Ethical Butcher has also been questioning the use of soy in chicken feed. Last year, they started working with one of their farmers, Mark Chapple, to see if it was possible to rear soy-free chickens. Their motivation was a mix of environmental and health concerns. They were particularly concerned about GMO crops and the use of glyphosate in soy production.

“To produce truly ethical meat you have to think about what the food you’re producing eats,” explains co-founder, Glen Burrows. “It’s not just the end product we’re eating, we’re part of a food chain. We want our chicken to eat as naturally as possible – and be farmed as in line with nature as possible.”

Their early trials with soy-free birds were very successful – almost too successful, in fact.

“At 75 days old the chickens had grown bigger than we wanted. They were weighing up to 4kg! They were like ostriches. Clearly they can grow quite well, too well, without soy.”

Considering that most people want a chicken that’s about half that size, they had to make some adjustments. These included changing the breed of chicken to a more slow-growing bird and reducing their feed.

“Soy-free chicken tends to have a richer, more intense flavour. It’s not so lean, so makes an incredible broth.”

What’s the difference with soy-free chicken?

When Fosse Meadows were ready to try rearing their free-range chickens on a soy-free diet earlier this year, they set up a trial with 150 birds. It was a success from a farming perspective and, importantly, a customer one.

When it comes to taste and texture, early feedback from all trials was incredibly positive. Soy-free chicken tends to have a richer, more intense flavour. It’s not so lean, so makes an incredible broth.

As such, Fosse Meadows recently upped their soy-free chicken production, and now rear 500 a week.

This means they are able to offer its first 100% soy-free chicken – also totally free-range, fed with no GMOs (genetically modified organisms) and slow-grown to 81 Days – to its customers from this month.

How Fosse Meadows rear their soy-free chickens

For now, Fosse Meadows are rearing their soy-free chickens alongside their free-range chickens, which they still feed soy.

They are yet to see how their soy-free birds will fare throughout the winter months on a lesser crude protein diet. The (very) early signs look promising – the birds look healthy and and aren’t any different in size, reports Ball.

He says:

“Essentially, Fosse Meadows is able to make the transition to soy-free simply because, unlike factory farms, our objective isn’t to grow meat as quickly as possible. Our ‘backyard chicken’ is grown for a longer period, so the birds have the time they need to naturally grow and develop.”

They source their feed from a UK family run business specialising in high-quality compound livestock feeds. It contains wheat, pulses, barley, wheat feed and naked-oats that are balanced to help promote good chicken gut health, and supply the correct levels of vitamins and minerals.

Importantly, the feed is also corn-free.

Corn is another common poultry feed ingredient. It is high in calories, so on the surface, seems like the obvious soy substitute. But, some argue it’s not as healthy for the chicken – it has little nutritional value compared to many other grains and seeds. Corn is also one of the most genetically modified crops in the world and is widely imported from North and South America.

But, more on corn another time…

The future of soy-free chicken: demand and supply

For now, soy-free chicken remains a specialist item coveted by those interested in food, health and sustainability.

It is slightly more expensive per bird, you’re looking at paying upwards of £17 for a Fosse Meadows soy-free bird. But, Ball is confident that if there is enough consumer demand for soy-free chicken, economies of scale will help to bring the price in-line with their other free-range chicken.

Ball hopes that in the years to come Fosse Meadows will be able to offer exclusively free-range chickens reared on a soy-free diet.

They also want to expand the soy-free feed to their free-range seasonal birds including Norfolk geese, Aylesbury Cross ducks and Bronze turkeys – but you’ll have to wait until next Christmas for that.

Try Fosse Meadows Soy-Free Chicken

About the author

Francesca Carpani

Francesca Carpani

Francesca Carpani has a First-Class Joint Honours Degree in English and American Studies. Particular areas of interest are socio-political topics including feminism, racism, multiculturalism, immigration, and media representation. She cares strongly about creating a fairer, more sustainable world and is passionate about spreading positivity.


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