The multi-billion dollar chicken industry seems to be eyeing a climate-crisis-sized opportunity. At this summer’s 2023 Chicken Marketing Summit run by WATT Global Media, a new crop of sessions will teach the poultry industry how to target a particular kind of eater — “climavores.”
“Climavores” are what we now call people who choose foods based solely on greenhouse gas emissions impact. Beef is out then — it’s one of the most polluting foods you can eat — but other meats and fish are in, depending on their carbon emissions cost. While chicken is higher in emissions than plant-based options like lentils, it’s still much lower than beef. That’s why the poultry industry wants to reach these climavore consumers, by making the misleading case that eating chicken is the more sustainable option.
A representative for WATT Global Media acknowledged the trend. “A growing number of retail and foodservice providers have made net zero and other sustainability pledges to meet the needs of climavores and other climate-conscious consumers,” says Elizabeth Doughman, Managing Editor of Poultry Future. “These pledges impact how chicken is fed, raised, processed, distributed and marketed.”
The problem with this new push for poultry, however, is that chicken is only climate-friendly — that is, lower in emissions than beef or pork — at the expense of the health and welfare of the billions of birds raised and slaughtered each year in industrial poultry facilities. It’s only more sustainable if you ignore air and water pollution, labor rights and animal welfare.
The True Cost of “Climate-Friendly” Chicken
In a survey published in 2022, researchers found 75 percent of U.S. shoppers are worried about the environmental impact of what they buy. A promising sign — except that a similar share of consumers are unable to identify which companies are indeed climate-friendly — a trend made worse by greenwashing with “carbon-neutral” labels.
What consumers opting out of beef in favor of chicken might not realize is that often, these two industries are effectively one and the same. It’s impossible to separate the world’s industrial poultry production from more polluting meats like pork and beef.
For instance, JBS, one of the leading poultry producers in the world, slaughtered 4.9 billion “climate-friendly” chickens in 2021 — the same year it emitted 421.6 metric tons of carbon emissions, or what DeSmog reported as a company-wide “increase of 51 percent over five years.”
The Brazil-based conglomerate has pledged to achieve net-zero emissions by 2040 — a claim that has since been successfully challenged before a national advertising body. Meanwhile, the company continues to slaughter millions of cattle, leading to more global emissions and deforestation each year.
Another leading chicken brand, Tyson Foods, also touts “climate-smart beef” and net-zero plans. The company failed to meet initial emissions goals — slaughtering billions of chickens but also millions of methane-spewing hogs and cattle each year.
“‘Net-zero’ claims confuse people into thinking that emissions are actually going down, when in reality the opposite is true — and this is especially the case for the poultry industry,” says Tyler Lobdell, Staff Attorney for Food & Water Watch, a nonprofit focused on government and corporate accountability. Lobdell points to biogas projects like one led by Bioenergy DevCo in Delaware. The plant Lobdell mentions, which has been the subject of a complaint filed by local residents, would turn mass amounts of poultry waste into biogas, a method that critics say is a false climate solution.
And chicken, even with its relatively low emissions, comes with plenty of harmful tradeoffs.
Why Poultry Is Worse For Birds, Workers and Water Pollution
Chickens are farmed on a nearly incomprehensible scale. The estimated 60-70 billion chickens raised globally account for 71 percent of the total biomass of birds. Poultry is the world’s second-most widely consumed protein, behind only pork.
“The vast majority of poultry produced in the U.S. is on factory farms, which relies on industrial-scale crop production and leads to unmanageable amounts of manure and other waste that is dumped into communities’ water, air and soil,” says Lobdell. “And now we see poultry industry giants like Perdue trying to monetize that pollution through so-called biogas production.”
These large-scale farms crowd as many as tens of thousands of birds into small facilities, and produce tons of waste that has to go somewhere — typically sprayed onto crops as fertilizer. When farmers apply too much manure or apply it in the wrong way, the excess causes what’s called “runoff.” That runoff ends up polluting waterways with high levels of nutrients that can lead to toxic algal blooms, mass fish die-offs and “dead zones” in waters that are depleted of life.
Chickens also need to be fed with soy and corn, crops that have an environmental cost of their own. A 2022 study found that Tyson Foods alone uses 9-10 million acres of farmland to grow corn and soybeans for its U.S. chickens, using up enormous amounts of land and water.
“Anything that requires feed is going to have a higher environmental footprint than things that are not fed,” researcher Caitie Kuempel told the Guardian. And the process is inefficient. It requires 9 calories of chicken feed to produce just one calorie for human consumption.
There are other impacts too. The U.S. meat and poultry industry, whose workforce includes many undocumented immigrants, prisoners and even some children, is one of the most dangerous in the nation. According to OSHA, risks faced by its workers include “high noise levels, dangerous equipment, slippery floors, musculoskeletal disorders and hazardous chemicals.” OSHA data compiled by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reveals two amputations per week among U.S. meat plant workers, counted among an average of 17 severe injuries monthly.
Future of Sustainable Eating
Poultry industry efforts to downplay its footprint do not only extend to consumers, but to officials as well. In March, poultry industry representatives hosted a tour of a massive industrial Oregon chicken farm for legislators, as the state considered a bill that would establish a moratorium on new factory farms and require environmental impact assessments for existing facilities that could lead to stricter regulations.
The operation, touted as an ambassador for the industry, raises 4 million birds each year for Foster Farms, a major poultry producer that has been accused of illegal water usage and fined for the discharge of untreated wastewater.
The bottom line — climavores concerned with the environment would do better to favor a plant-rich diet. Poultry’s emissions are still higher than the majority of plant-based foods such as nuts and legumes — crops that feed humans directly, rather than crops used to fatten chickens for slaughter.
According to Our World in Data, poultry produces 6 kilograms of greenhouse gasses per kilogram of protein — compared to just 1.4 and 1 kilograms emitted by wheat and corn, respectively. For peas and nuts, the emissions drop to just 0.9 and 0.3. By shifting to a plant-rich diet, climavores can lower the emissions associated with their diets — and curb other impacts too.
With poultry production’s harmful effects on water supply, animals and workers, it’s clear that framing chicken as a sustainable food choice is simply false advertising.
Jennifer is a writer and editor based near Washington, DC. Her background is in communications in the animal protection movement. She is also a contributing writer with Sentient Media.