Producers who use intensive methods are not financially responsible for the damage they cause. Clearly, the low price of industrial chickens does not include costs associated with pollution, destruction of natural capital, greenhouse gas emissions, or damage to public health as a result of the system. It turns out that cheap chicken isn’t cheap at all.
In contrast, organic grazing chickens are now considered a specialty market, and their prices more than triple. These chickens spend most of their life outside. Your food is grown without chemical fertilizers and synthetic pesticides. And because they are healthy, happy, and insufficient supply to ensure birds get a significant percentage of their nutritional needs for grass, worms, and insects, they don’t need insurance or antibiotics to stop getting sick.
Despite the fact that sustainable poultry production systems bring tremendous environmental and public health benefits, producers using these methods have no choice but to compete on an unequal basis. Worse still, we are quietly paying for the damage caused by industrial food production through taxes, in the form of misguided subsidies of common agricultural policies, through the costs of cleaning up water pollution, and through the costs of national food processing.
When the real price of factory birds is added to the price, they can be higher than that of organic grazing birds.
So who is to blame for this crazy condition? It is tempting to blame the farmers and food companies, but we farmers are trapped in an economic system that primarily rewards those who produce food at the lowest price so that only those selling in high-end specialty markets can do the right thing.
It’s actually an inexpensive, built-in food system that has two prices: what you pay now and what we all pay later. This is a story repeated with carrots, apples, and peas, meat, milk, and cheese. Even whole grains. At some point, we have to ask why we maintain such a destructive food system.
The good news is we have the power to change that. We must insist that in the future payments under common agricultural policies can only be made to farmers whose practices are environmentally friendly and improve public health. We can tax chemical fertilizers and pesticides (like sugar) and use the money to encourage farmers to adopt more carbon-friendly land management. We must insist that all food for schools, hospitals, and nursing homes is delivered locally and sustainably. We can offer tax breaks to investors who fund sustainable food businesses. Finally, we need to ensure that food workers receive a living wage and safer working conditions.
By making these decisions, we will help create a fairer, more sustainable, and healthier food system that we want to see for ourselves, our families, and our communities. We can also spread it by sharing our four-minute animated film, A Tale of Two Chickens, for example. These are just a few of the many ways we can change our future food system.
In 1957, the average growth period for a chicken to eat to achieve slaughter weight was 63 days. In the 1990s, the number of growing days was reduced to 38 and the amount of food needed was halved.
However, genetic selection to produce poultry to work as a production unit in factories poses serious health problems. Your bones, heart, and lungs can’t handle it. Most broilers suffer from foot problems. You can see burns on the ankles – dark red spots – on the feet around the knee joints in sheds caused by squatting in dirty beds because their feet are sore or deformed. Inequality is not just a matter of welfare. Birds that sit on dirty beds suffer more from skin diseases. Death from a heart attack or an enlarged heart that does not provide adequate oxygen for the large chest muscles is also common. Because broilers grow abnormally fast, chickens that are kept for breeding – and therefore not slaughtered after six weeks, but allowed to reach sexual maturity after 15 to 18 weeks – should be left to starve, otherwise, they will also mate in large numbers.
Intensively produced broilers are usually kept in artificial lighting warehouses with about 20,000 to 30,000 birds. Computers control heating and ventilation systems and the quantities of food and water. Water and feed are treated with anti-parasitic drugs or large doses of antibiotics as needed. The device isn’t cleaned until the end of each cycle, so after two to three weeks, the warehouse floor is completely covered in dirt and the air usually smells of ammonia.
Raising animals in crowded environments can allow the disease to spread quickly. Although the industry claims to have drastically reduced the use of antibiotics since 2012 and now produces nearly half of the country’s meat, while only 22% of all antibiotics are used on farm animals in the UK, there are serious concerns that drug overuse remains. Contributes to antibiotic resistance in animals. Experts have warned that we are approaching the point where human medicine can be without effective life-saving drugs.
In the UK, stocking density is typically 38 kg of poultry per square meter – an area smaller than an A4 sheet of paper for each adult hen. Free livestock and organic production take up more space, but our signature roast chicken has more oven space at death than it should live on a farm. To maximize yields, farmers often overload their coop at the start of the cycle and then thin out a few birds for slaughter, otherwise, the chickens will not have enough room to grow. Depletion – when workers kill several chickens by grabbing their feet – is stressful and when illnesses often enter the coop. This practice contributes significantly to the spread of Campylobacter in the herd. Potentially fatal to humans, Campylobacter is the leading cause of human foodborne illness in the UK, affecting more than 250,000 people each year.
Chicken neck skin is often the most contaminated part of birds. Processors have already started cutting it at the factory, adding to costs but taking some of the bacterial load off – good news for consumers. However, since this was the part the FSA put together for testing, program development also failed. The FSA says it remains committed to tackling Campylobacter as a priority.
Animal welfare tends to be marginalized in austerity measures and turned into a luxury in the face of the need for cheap food. But if the government finds people too difficult to care about, they are wrong.
When it became known that the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) was planning to submit guidelines for industrial animal welfare, starting with the poultry sector later this month, nearly 150,000 people signed an appeal. Defra quickly abandoned the British Bird Council horror plans. “We are deeply disappointed by the decision to update the guidelines to modern standards,” said Policy Director Richard Griffiths. “Defra is running out of resources to verify code.”
A Defra spokesperson said: “We have the highest animal welfare standards in the world and no legislative changes have been proposed. We want to use the agribusiness experience more closely to ensure that our welfare code reflects the latest scientific and veterinary developments.
“We believe we can do this by maintaining the existing legal requirements. Agribusiness work is priceless and we will continue to work with them to ensure our policies are updated so that they best meet our welfare standards. “
The social assistance code has not been updated since 2002. (About a quarter of Defra’s budget was cut under the previous coalition government and the department will see an additional 15% cut later in this Parliament.)
Ironically, when the state ignores standards, big business that responds to the concerns of its customers takes the lead in several areas.
For Philip Lamberry, CEO of Compassion for World Agriculture, the argument that intensive farming is justified because poorer people need cheap meat or eggs is offensive to those on lower incomes. Chickens that are reared heavily have three times the fat content, one-third lower protein content, and lower levels of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids than they were in the 1970s.
“Raising chickens in difficult conditions produces a worse product,” he said. “Why do we think it is acceptable to expect low-income people to feed their children worse processed foods?”