The story of the chicken is one which is intimately linked to story of industrial farming. From the shy, red jungle fowl which once roamed the vast tropical forests of South East Asia 2,000 years ago, to the ubiquitous food of the modern era, the domestication and commodification of the chicken, is a story that reflects our changing food production and consumption patterns. Chicken tikka masala is now classed as the British national dish. Globally, chicken consumption is growing much faster than beef or pork. Every year we consume 69 billion chickens – that is just over 8.5 chickens for every person on this planet. This huge growth has driven the deforestation of the Amazon, contributing to climate change and habitat loss. More than 90% of chickens today are raised in intensive broiler sheds with little opportunity perform their natural behaviours. Whilst much attention has been given to the sustainability of beef, have we dropped the ball on chicken sustainability? Our feathered friends deserve much better and now is the time to focus on a regenerative rather than destructive future for the chicken that celebrates our relationship with the national dish.
The Chicken: A brief history
It was Charles Darwin who first posited the theory that today’s chicken’s wild progenitor was the red junglefowl – one that has more recently been confirmed by DNA analysis (the complete chicken genome was mapped in 2004). These birds, which still roam in the more fragmented rainforests of South East Asia today, are naturally shy birds that often forage in large groups. They are omnivorous by nature, with a staple diet that comprises insects, invertebrates, and seeds. It is thought that the domestication of chickens first occurred in SE Asia some 2,000 years ago. Their descendants have now spread throughout the world. For over 1,900 years, chickens were a common part of mixed farming systems throughout the world – free range, independent, and scratching around the farmyard/home for insects, pests, and food scraps. It was only in the early 20th century, and particularly following the end of the second world war, that chicken meat and eggs become mass-production commodities and global consumption rose dramatically.
Chicken Production Today
Today, over 69 billion chickens are consumed in the world each year with total global chicken meat production of 100 million metric tonnes per annum.Global meat production has increased rapidly over the past 50 years – as the graph below shows, total production or meats more than quadrupled since 1961, with poultry production showing 12-fold growth rates over the same period. Although production of all major meat types has been increasing in absolute terms, in relative terms the share of global meat types has changed significantly over the last 50 years. In 1961, poultry meat accounted for only 12 percent of global meat production; by 2013 its share had approximately tripled to around 35 percent and this upward trend continues today.
Chicken: The Environmental Impacts
I often see chicken marketed as a ‘sustainable meat’, as compared to beef, lamb, and pork, for example. Pound for pound the carbon, land and water footprint of chicken is better than these other meats (whose hoofprints are in turn very dependent on the type production system used – extensive, grass-fed regenerative livestock systems are far better sustainably than intensive feedlot systems for example). However, it is a nonsense to think just because chicken has less impact than other meats, that it can be called ‘sustainable’. The impacts it does have can be multiplied many times due to the shear quantities of chicken the world now consumes.
For far too long we have been told that we need to move from beef to chicken – with little concern or attention over the broader sustainability implications of replacing beef with chicken. Many of the most influential global reports over the last few years have reinforced this perception. Whilst a strong supporter of the work of the EAT-Lancet commission and the need to move towards more sustainable healthy diets, their recent report focussed on a need to reduce consumption of red meats and underplayed the need for equivalent reductions in white meats (poultry and pork).
Producing soya to feed the billions of chickens eaten every year has led to forest clearance on an enormous scale and accelerating pace – contributing to climate change and pushing wildlife into the 6th greatest mass extinction the planet has ever seen. Much of this soya is grown in the Amazon or the Cerrado (one of the world most biodiverse savannahs) contributing the devastating fires the region has been experiencing over the last few years. 78% of global soya production goes into soymeal for the animal feed industry and 60% goes into the poultry industry. There is some movement towards requiring higher standards for soy, as led by the Roundtable for Responsible Soy, a trade group setting higher-than-market standards to produce soy. However, this effort only covers a minute fraction of Brazil’s total production.
Modern chicken production also comes at significant animal welfare costs. According to Compassion in World Farming, over 70% of chickens raised for meat globally are raised in intensive industrial farming systems. This includes many chickens in the UK, Europe, the US, and China, as well as rapidly increasing numbers in developing countries, such as Thailand. Over-crowded sheds can cause lameness, heat stress and foul litter.
Sustainable chicken: Circular and Regenerative systems
How we produce and consume a chicken is key to a sustainable planet. For far too long citizens (consumers), producers, processors, food retailers and food service have ignored the sustainability impacts of a bird which has been so embedded in the story of modern farming. Whilst there has been significant attention and debate on beef and the need for less but better, regenerative beef systems, we need to focus the spotlight on the poultry sector, in equal measure.
What would this look like in practice? Simply put, it would be a focus on less but better chicken production and consumption systems. There is no doubt that increasing poultry consumption levels are unsustainable in the long term – so we need to reduce chicken consumption and increase the proportion of protein we consume from plants. We also need to recognise that poultry will have a role to play in ensuring access to healthy, nutritious foods in the future. We must focus on doing this much, much better – focussing on circular and regenerative production systems. I believe chicken production systems should be focussing on:
- Sustainable Feed – This must be the number one priority, with the need to reduce the dependency on soya for animal feed. As omnivorous animals, insects hold huge potential as an animal feed for chickens. There are some promising early signs of insect feed innovation. Enterra Feed, one of an emerging crop of insect growers, process insects into protein-rich food for fish and poultry. There are also some early signs that some of the biggest companies involved in livestock production, are starting to explore these insect-based feed options. McDonald’s for example, is exploring the use of insects for chicken feed to reduce reliance on soy protein.
- Poultry Welfare Standards – Different countries have different regulations for farming chickens, and some countries have no regulations at all. There are higher welfare standards out there including those certified by a third party organisations such as RSPCA Assured or Certified Humane. Generally free range or pasture raised options are the best, although chickens from these systems generally come at a price, which more fairly reflect the true cost of chicken production.
- Reconnecting with the chicken – With the coronavirus pandemic continuing to cause havoc across the world, many people, particularly in Europe and N America, are looking at purchasing food more locally and/or are exploring options for greater self-sufficiency. In the UK chicken sales have skyrocketed in recent months. What better way to learn and appreciate where our food comes, reconnect with the natural world, and improve our mental well-being than by owning a chicken or two. Not only that, but they keep pests at bay and eat the food scraps we humans leave behind.
- A new sector wide vision for chicken – A new vision by organisations working across the chicken sector is required as a basis for improved sustainability standards. I would argue there is a need and urgency to pivot this vision to focus on regenerative chicken production systems, that support healthy, sustainable diets. This vision needs to be backed up by industry wide commitments and targets.
Its about time we put our feathered friends on a sustainable footing.