Imagining a World Without Chickens
Many billions of farmed animals are killed for food each year, virtually all having been bred for that sole purpose. Chickens account for the largest number of these animals, with an estimated 20 billion slaughtered annually. There are almost triple the number of chickens as there are humans in the world, and a huge number of people eat chicken most days, or even several times a day. For animal advocates it is clear that if the breeding of animals for food significantly slowed down or stopped, less animals would suffer the terrible lives and deaths they are currently forced to endure, and eventually animals wouldn’t be bred just to be killed — what a wonderful thought!
This article, published in New Scientist, presents a different angle on that line of thinking, and acts as a thought experiment in what would happen if the 20 billion or so chickens on the planet disappeared overnight. It is, of course, a far-fetched idea, but it illustrates how species like chickens have made their way “into almost every corner of human existence.” Our relationship with chickens stretches back thousands of years, and the birds have been used for everything from food, medicine, “sport” (fighting), and much more. Now, of course, chickens are primarily raised for their flesh and eggs. Humans consume some 100 million tonnes of chicken meat and over 1 trillion eggs annually. Over the last several decades they have been bred to grow big, very fast. The chickens of today bear little resemblance to their wild kin.
Underlining the importance of chickens in today’s world, the authors of this article give some real examples of what happens when the supply of chicken meat or eggs is restricted or interrupted, or if its consumption is perceived as a sign of wealth:
When egg prices shot up in Mexico City in 2012 following the culling of millions of sick birds, demonstrators took to the streets in what was dubbed “The Great Egg Crisis”. During the 2011 uprising in Egypt, angry protesters rallied to the cry: “They are eating pigeons and chicken, but we eat beans every day!” When poultry prices tripled in Iran recently, the nation’s police chief warned television producers not to broadcast images of people eating chicken to avoid inciting violence.
Part of the reason for the popularity of farming chickens is that it’s cheaper and less resource intensive than raising cows. Pound for pound, it takes about 1000 times more land to rear a cow than a chicken, and proportionally, cows also produce a much larger amount of greenhouse gasses. In short, “satisfying the world’s insatiable demand for meat without chickens would slam down the gas pedal on global warming.” If beef and other forms of animal meat would not be suitable or sustainable “replacements” for chicken meat, the authors speculate that insects might be the most sensible choice, rather than another species of bird.
The article changes topic at this point and moves away from discussing food. The authors note that chickens and their eggs are used extensively in another industry: vaccine production. To make vaccines, cultured flu strains are injected into fertilized eggs, which is a nutrient-filled and sterile environment where the virus can quickly multiply. This virus-laden fluid is harvested, and the virus is killed or weakened, with one egg equaling approximately one vaccine. That being said, even major pharmaceutical companies are looking into various kinds of alternatives for growing vaccines in eggs, for fear that a pandemic such as H5N1 (bird flu) will decimate supplies.
For advocates, this article presents an interesting point of view, though few of us are likely to be swayed by its oddly human-focused slant. While the article presents some interesting possible conclusions about what the disappearance of chickens would mean for people, it doesn’t delve deeply into what it means for animals. In a particularly human-focused passage towards the end of the piece, the authors discuss how the disappearance of eggs would “change pastry as we know it,” and then lament how certain dishes like souffle are simply “impossible” without eggs. Fortunately, the authors end their article by noting that “anyone concerned about animal welfare would surely cheer the fact that billions of chickens […] would finally be freed from servitude, even at the cost of extinction.” And therein lies the rub. If animal advocates want to see an end to the consumption of chickens, this article suggests that this also means the extinction of domestic chickens as we know them.