Chickens trashed outside a Perdue chicken house in Maryland. Photo by Garett Seivold.
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Chicken "Welfare" vs. Environmental Welfare
Would raising chickens more slowly -- keeping them alive for 7 or 8 weeks, say, instead of 5 or 6 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."
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.
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.
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