By Karen Davis, PhD, President of United Poultry Concerns
Chicken “Welfare” vs. Environmental Welfare
Would raising chickens more slowly – keeping them alive for seven or eight weeks, say, instead of five or six weeks – be a welfare improvement that would inflict more harm on the environment than the industry already causes?
The industry says yes. A recently published study cited by the National Chicken Council in a January 11, 2017 media release claims that if only one-third of U.S. chicken producers switched to slower growing birds, “nearly 1.5 billion more birds would be needed annually to produce the same amount of meat currently produced – requiring a tremendous increase in water, land and fuel consumption.”
The study the National Chicken Council cited, The Sustainability Impacts of Slow-Growing Broiler Production in the U.S., conducted by the pharmaceutical company Elanco, is designed to show that raising chickens more slowly in the United States would be an economic and environmental calamity.
Specifically, 7.6 million more acres of land would be needed each year to grow the soybeans and corn to feed the longer-living chickens; 1 billion gallons more water would be needed for them to drink, and more water still would be needed to grow the additional crops to feed them.
Slower growing chickens, says the National Chicken Council, would produce 28.5 billion more pounds of manure each year, creating “a pile on a football field that is 27 times higher than a typical NFL stadium.”
Healthy as ever?
So there it is: industry calculations argue that any effort to reduce the suffering of the birds by extending their lifespan a week or two would increase the environmental damage already caused, and for what? After all, the National Chicken Council says that “the national broiler flock is as healthy as it has ever been.”
However, the “broiler” flock – a class of birds that by definition has been bred specifically for abnormal breast sizes and growth rates – has never been naturally “healthy,” but is rather, in the words of animal scientist John Webster in A Cool Eye Towards Eden, “the single most severe, systematic example of man’s inhumanity to another sentient animal.”
Although poultry industry researchers have studied growth-induced diseases for decades, the National Chicken Council insists that the industry will continue to raise birds to heavier weights and larger birds. Currently, average bird weights are “just over six pounds.,” an industry spokesman told a seminar in 2016, “but the big-bird segment is seeing average weights of nine to 10 pounds.”
Thus on the one hand, we have the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s boast in 1982 that if human beings grew at the same rate as chickens raised for meat, “an 8-week-old baby would weigh 349 pounds.”
On the other is the reality that these chickens now grow so rapidly that their hearts and lungs are not developed well enough to support their weight, resulting in congestive heart failure and tremendous death rates.
Also studied for decades by poultry industry scientists are the painful skeletal deformities caused by the forced rapid growth of chickens bred for human consumption.
Explains John Webster, “Genetic selection of broiler chickens for rapid growth and gross hypertrophy of the breast muscle has created serious problems of ‘leg weakness’ in the heavy, fastest-growing strains. ‘Leg weakness’ is a euphemism,” he says, “used to describe but not diagnose a long and depressing list of pathological conditions” of bones, tendons, and skin in birds bred for meat.
More than 50 years of activism
Along with waging campaigns to replace battery cages with cage-free confinement for egg-industry hens, animal welfare groups have tried for more than half a century to get the chicken meat industry to improve the birds’ living conditions, and reduce the suffering they endure as a result of genetic manipulation for fast rapid growth.
Clare Druce’s book Chickens’ Lib: The Story of a Campaign chronicles the campaigns that she and others have waged on behalf of birds bred for meat and eggs in Great Britain and the European Union since the early 1970s, and in Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs: An Inside Look at the Modern Poultry Industry, I focus particular attention on the U.S. industry.
Science & data vs. emotional rhetoric
Like all businesses that exploit animals, the chicken industry offers reassurances of “humane treatment,” “welfare” and other euphemisms to silence opposition. The National Chicken Council, which represents the U.S. industry, brandishes “science and data” versus “activists’ emotional rhetoric.” Yet the very science it cites supports and motivates our emotional rhetoric.
Consider that a normal chicken weighs barely a pound at six weeks old. By contrast, genetically manipulated “broiler” chickens weigh an average of six pounds at that age. The drive to produce ever larger, heavier chickens in ever shorter amounts of time has produced a bird caged in a body that poultry scientists have described for decades as biologically unfit and unhealthy.
“Trends in developmental anomalies in contemporary broiler chickens, ” an article published in International Hatchery Practice (Volume 28, #1) explains that chickens with extra legs and wings, missing eyes and beak deformities, “can be found in practically every broiler flock.”
On almost every U.S. “broiler” chicken farm, the article explains, “a variety of health problems involving muscular, digestive, cardiovascular, integumentary, skeletal, and immune systems” form a constellation of debilitating diseases.
Author Andrew A. Olkowski, DVM, presents “solid evidence that anatomical anomalies have become deep-rooted in the phenotype of contemporary broiler chickens.”
“Can I get a witness?”
This glimpse of chickens bred for meat production is something I have witnessed firsthand since the mid-1980s, when I started rescuing and caring for chickens previously owned by Perdue, Tyson, and other companies in the southeastern United States.
On the tiny strip of land called Delmarva, comprising Delaware and the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Virginia, billions of chickens hidden away in thousands of sheds appear in the open only when they are trucked to the slaughter plants.
“Factory Farming” vs. “Free-Range”
My purpose in this article is not to challenge the National Chicken Council calculations, nor to argue for or against raising factory-farmed chickens more slowly by adding days to their bleak lives. Nor is the issue at hand about raising chickens in some sort of “free range” setting. It is about extending the lifespan of birds raised on factory farms to the same size and weight as they are currently being raised.
Some say, simply, get rid of factory farming! However, eliminating factory farming and raising billions of chickens on range is not going to happen. At any given time, 1.5 billion “broiler” chickens are alive in the U.S. alone. As Hope Bohanec writes in Factory Farming vs. Alternative Farming: The Humane Hoax:
“To give all farmed animals the space they need to have even a semblance of a natural life, we would have to destroy millions more acres of forests, prairies and wetlands than we are already ruining. There is not enough land on the planet, or even two planets, to free-range hundreds of billions of pigs, cows, sheep, goats, turkeys, ducks, and chickens to feed millions of human beings. We would need closer to five planet Earths. Free-ranging animals for food can never be more than a specialty market for a few elite buyers.”
Slaughtering Animals vs. Saving the Planet
“Do we really need to slaughter another living thing in order for us to eat? Or, sadly, is it because we want to?” – Richard Oppenlander, Comfortably Unaware , pp. 138-140
Hard as it may be to hold the thought when we are in the presence of what we have been taught to regard as food, our answer to this question is crucial for the fate of animals and the earth. So I conclude this discussion, not by forgetting the question of slow-growing chickens versus the environment, but by stressing the root cause of the problem and its solution.
In Saving the Planet, One Meal at a Time, Chris Hedges explains that he became vegan once he understood clearly how his food choices affect the planet for better or worse. It took some doing, he says, “But with animal agriculture as the leading cause of species extinction, water pollution, ocean dead zones and habitat destruction, and with the death spiral of the ecosystem ever more pronounced, becoming vegan is the most important and direct change we can immediately make to save the planet and its species. It is one that my wife . . . and I have made.”
Becoming vegan – choosing animal-free food and rejecting the slaughter – is a change that we, too, can and should make for the sake of the animals and the planet we share. I hope that we will.
Karen Davis Ph.D. is the president and founder of United Poultry Concerns, a nonprofit organization that promotes the compassionate and respectful treatment of domestic fowl, including operating a sanctuary for chickens in Virginia. Davis is the author of Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs: An Inside Look at the Modern Poultry Industry and many other books and articles examining these issues.