Ruling the roost
COLCHESTER AND GREENWOOD
How chicken became the rich world’s most popular meat
In a shed on a poultry farm just outside Colchester, in south-east England, thousands of chickens sit on piles of their own excrement. The facilities will not be cleaned until after the birds are killed, meaning they suffer from ammonia burns and struggle to grow feathers. Ants and maggots crawl over the bodies of those that have not made it to slaughter. The chicken industry is a dirty business, but it is also a profitable one. In the OECD, a club of mostly rich countries, pork and beef consumption has remained unchanged since 1990. Chicken consumption has grown by 70%.
Humans gobble so many chickens that the birds now count for 23bn of the 30bn land animals living on farms. According to a recent paper by Carys Bennett at the University of Leicester and colleagues, the total mass of farmed chickens exceeds that of all other birds on the planet combined. In London, some 50 miles west of Colchester, fried-chicken shops are ubiquitous. Many are named after American states (including Kansas and Montana, not to mention Kentucky). But schoolchildren and latenight partiers are unfazed by the strange names. Nor do they worry much about where their meal came from.
And why should they? Chicken is cheap and delicious. A pound of poultry in America now costs $1.92, a fall of $1.71 since 1960 (after adjusting for inflation). Meanwhile the price of beef has fallen by $1.17 a pound to $5.80.
Fans of cheap chicken have selective breeding to thank. In the 1940s America launched a series of “Chicken of Tomorrow” competitions for farmers. The aim, as described by a newspaper at the time, was to produce “one bird chunky enough for the whole family—a chicken with breast meat so thick you can carve it into steaks, with drumsticks that contain a minimum of bone buried in layers of juicy dark meat, all costing less instead of more.” The result was something along the lines of the modern broiler chicken.
Since then chickens have continued to get bigger. A study by Martin Zuidhof of the University of Alberta and colleagues documented this shift by comparing chickens that were selectively bred in 1957, 1978 and 2005. The authors found that at 56 days old the three birds had average weights of 0.9kg, 1.8kg and 4.2kg. As raising a single big bird is more efficient than raising two smaller ones, it now takes farmers just 1.3kg of grain to produce 1kg of chicken, down from 2.5kg of grain in 1985.