Peering through a sunlit barn in rural Kansas, fourth-generation poultry farmer Frank Reese rattles off names of chicken breeds that were once common – Barred Rock, Dark Brahma, Ancona, Rhode Island Red, Dark Cornish. He points to an elegant-looking bird perching on some nest boxes. The bird, a Rose Comb Leghorn, flies down and runs under a wooden pallet to get some privacy. “There are only 50 left of that one,” Reese laments. We don’t think of chickens in the same way we think about the panda or the Bengal tiger, but Reese argues that we should. Without these breeds, he explains, we may not be able to find our way back to a more humane way of farming. As a result of intensive breeding techniques aimed at profitability, virtually all chickens today suffer simply because they exist. The old bird breeds farmers like Reese preserve can provide the genetic material needed to correct these excesses. Unlike the notoriously lethargic modern “broiler” chickens, Reese’s birds don’t sit still for long. These birds, known as standard-bred, are agile and constantly moving about. The contrast between a standard-bred chicken and an industrial breed could not be more dramatic, yet these athletic chickens are the ancestors of our modern dinner chicken. What went wrong and why? By now, we are familiar with the story of farmers being prevented by Monsanto from saving seeds from one crop for a subsequent crop. It is viewed as piracy by Monsanto, and they have won a number of court cases affirming their position. Like genetically modified corn or soy, our table chickens today have been redesigned from the genetics up to serve the purposes of industrial agriculture. As with GM crops, chicken genetics are controlled by a few companies. Significantly, the farmers who raise these chickens do not keep a few of the best for breeding for the next flock, as farmers had previously done. They can’t because today’s chickens are “dead-end” birds who do not produce commercially viable offspring. Instead, farmers return, flock after flock, to the same few companies that provided the day-old chicks to them. Farmers don’t have much choice about where to get their birds. Eighty percent of all chicken produced globally — some 44 billion birds — come from one of three companies: Cobb-Vantress, Hubbard, and Ross. While these companies are fiercely competitive, the birds they market are almost identical in outcome, and all of them can suffer from profound welfare problems, most of them caused by fast growth. Compared with standard-bred birds who take around 120 days to reach market weight, our table birds today reach the same weight (while eating less) in around 42 days. The industrial breeds of chicken have been selectively bred to grow so large so quickly that they can collapse under their own weight, have difficulty walking in the final weeks of their life, and have musculoskeletal, heart and lung problems. They are obese infants at slaughter age. Even worse, the special “broiler breeders” who produce the billions of birds are so distorted that the birds are essentially incapable of feeling full. As a result, these birds must be put on restricted feeding regimes. This violates a basic tenant of good animal husbandry: giving an animal sufficient food. It not only produces great suffering — a state of chronic hunger — but its legality is questionable because the law requires that animals be provided with adequate food. For these reasons, Compassion in World Farming, the leading international nonprofit addressing farmed animal welfare, has argued that the use of fast-growing broiler genotypes should be brought to an end. Newer farm animal groups such as Farm Forward are advocating for reinventing the poultry industry from the genetics up. Even animal groups such as the ASPCA that previously focused on companion animals have sounded the alarm. At the end of this month, the global chicken industry will gather in Atlanta, GA, at the annual International Poultry Expo to discuss its future. Frank Reese will not attend. Yet it is birds like the ones he conserves that contain the genetic instructions for what good welfare once looked like and could look like again. Although the choices are few, the three industry giants do maintain a menu of genetics that includes improved, slower-growing breeds that results in less suffering. Replacing fast-growth industrial birds with these intermediate birds is a sensible first step forward. As the industry gathers in Atlanta this month, their roadmap of the future must include a way back to a breed that does not inherently cause suffering.

  • BB

    Excellent article. I agree with everything you said. Something should be done. Tyson and the like only care about the bottom line…not animal welfare. I used to be a USDA inspector in a Tyson plant so I have witnessed the welfare/disease conditions resulting from the broiler gentics and industrial agriculture model. Very sad.

  • anne sauter

    Thank you for this perspective on what is so wrong about industrial food. Most of us still eating meat need to understand our role as consumer in allowing the practices you describe.

  • susanrudnicki

    My family and I just returned from a 2 week trip to Burma to visit my older son, a teacher at the International School in Yangon. I noticed a unexpected abundance of meat consumption in a country where the average GDP is 345 USD a year. Every restaurant we visited was difficult to order a strictly vegetarian meal, my preferred diet. We also noted local slaughter of chickens was a imitation of the Cornish-Cross so prevalent in the US. For a country just two years out from under a military dictatorship, they are sure catching up in terms of mirroring our slaughter animal breeds.
    Now, we had a limited view of the types of poultry slaughtered and also saw lots of long-legged, Jungle Fowl type free ranging birds in many villages. And the average poor person is certainly not eating meat very often. But the wealthy and the restaurant trade are predictive of the direction even a poor country like Burma is heading. Multinational corporations are pouring into Myanmar to be first in line for the wealth of extractive industry—timber, oil, gas, minerals, metals.
    Interestingly, though we shared all meals, everyone in our party became sick with vomiting/food poisoning syndrome at some point, except for me, as I ate none of the meat dishes.

  • Jane Peters

    No wonder they taste terrible. The old ways were better.

  • BablingB

    Your article/opinion makes it obvious that you know absolutely nothing about the poultry industry. What you’re suggesting would ultimately result in people around the world going hungry. What you have to realize is that the population is no longer the same size as it was prior to the fast-growing broilers. Maybe you should spend your time researching how long it actually took for a chicken to grow-out prior to “industrial agriculture”. How do you suggest feeding the world without fast-growing broilers? According to what you’ve written, you don’t care if people starve to death as long as we no longer produce “fast growing broilers”.

    • Robin Toon

      Really? People would go hungry? Because chicken is the only thing out there to feed us all? What you have to realize is the way this world is going with genetic modification of all of every damn thing we consume, is we will soon have nothing REAL to eat and we might as well go hungry.

  • westernkansan

    Eric – I’ve seen modern broilers and how they’re grown and it’s not pretty. If people could actually peek into a modern broiler barn they would never eat chicken again. Feeding the world isn’t the goal of these industrial companies – making money is. They are turning animals into machines and using selection to squeeze another penny profit from them. And let’s not go into the way they treat the farmers who are raising their chickens. Cruelty abounds.

    • Coclesmary

      The logic ends when you consider how many gallons of water and how many pounds of grain go into producing a pound of meat. Eating meat is a choice, not a necessity as millions of vegetarians prove every day, and it’s production is hugely detrimental environmentally. If you are worried about feeding the world, less meat makes more sense.

  • glebec

    Makes me want to raise some standard-bred chickens just to preserve the gene pool.

  • tallen2007

    I have raised Cornish X chickens for my own use a couple of times over the last 20 years. Every time I lost at least 2-3 birds (out of 25) to sudden death (heart attack?) and broken legs due to their obese weight on free feed. The last batch 3 years ago was the worst ever. Even on restricted feed they easily broke bones, slipped joints and just dropped dead and I will NEVER raise them again even if I can butcher them at 5# in 5 weeks!! Besides which they are tasteless next to my Dominque heritage birds. The heritage breeds so take longer to reach butcher size but forage, eat ticks, fleas and bad bugs and are higher in nutritive value for their eggs and meat. They are happy and healthy until they give their lives for mine.

  • farmber

    Maybe Eric is from a different country: D- Nile is De Ribber that flows through Egypt….

  • Oginikwe

    If FSN is part of the “lunatic fringe,” why are you here?