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Climate•7 min read
Despite the industry's best efforts to hide behind labels that make chicken farming appear more eco-friendly, it still has devastating consequences for animals and the environment.
Words by Nimisha Agarwal
It is being increasingly acknowledged that animal agriculture is a major contributor to climate change. Not only that, but it is also destroying forests, polluting rivers, and displacing communities across species. The United Nations has taken note of this crisis in their Sustainable Development Goals, aiming to advance agriculture that yields environmental gains. Chicken farming is necessarily a large part of these aims given its huge role in the food industry. However, thanks to chicken farming’s devastating consequences for the environment, as well as the cruel treatment of animals on farms, it is imperative to ask if chicken farming can ever be sustainable.
Chicken farms can operate differently, often depending on their marketing goals. Most chickens are farmed under the intensive farming system, while a small group is farmed in alternative ways, which then make it to the market under the labels “free-range,” “grass-fed,” and the like.
As the name suggests, this is an intense form of chicken farming in which hundreds of chickens live in cramped conditions. In the “cage” system birds are kept in small battery cages. This form of farming aims to keep as many birds as possible in a limited area, hence guaranteeing maximum profits. Given the proximity of the birds and unsanitary conditions, they are often fed large quantities of antibiotics to fight diseases. But there are certain weaknesses that even antibiotics cannot prevent. Because of being stationed in one cage for their entire lives, they experience serious leg deformities and cage fatigue.
Another form of intensive chicken farming is the “deep litter” system. Birds remain inside the house for their entire lives, while some litter material is provided. This saves the farm the cost of frequently cleaning fecal matter. Yet it has serious detrimental effects on the chickens because they have to inhale the toxic air that is full of their waste. Parasitic diseases are also more likely to spread because of the proximity of the birds. Given how stressful the entire experience is, many chickens also end up attacking and killing each other.
Alternatives to intensive chicken farming primarily involve free-range farming. According to the USDA, free-range chickens are those who have had continuous access to outdoor space. However, there is no exact directive on how much time should be spent outside to qualify for this criteria, hence even under this system many chickens spend most of their lives inside cages while being allowed access to the sun and the earth for only a few minutes.
Chickens are mainly farmed for their eggs and meat.
Chickens farmed for their eggs are called “layer hens.” These are female chickens who are bred to spend their entire lives giving birth to eggs. In their natural settings, they have a proper diet and lay just 10-12 eggs a year. But under the chicken farming system, they are unnaturally bred and conditioned to lay more than 300 eggs a year. They are placed in battery cages, each cage holding six or seven hens, where they lay eggs for the rest of their lives. Imagine not being able to attend to a simple itch for a day.
Chickens farmed for eggs cannot attend to their essential grooming or spread their wings for their entire lives. These stressed-out birds often aggressively pluck their feathers or harm other birds around them. But the industry has found a solution to this: cut off a major part of their beaks just hours after their birth.
After about two years of slavery to the industry, their bodies cannot lay eggs anymore. That is when they are sent to be slaughtered for meat.
Here is a lesser-known fact about chickens: they can spread their wings and fly. But not the ones bred by the chicken farming industry. Chickens raised for meat are known as “broiler” chickens, and their sole purpose is to be fattened up for meat. Thousands of chickens are packed together in cramped locations, with just some wood-shaving material here and there on the concrete floor.
The industry aims to maximize profits with minimal inputs. One of the ways of doing this is to cut down the number of days it takes to fatten up the chickens. They achieve this by maintaining 24-hour artificial lighting, thus not letting the chickens sleep. Because they don’t sleep, they spend that time eating way more than their bodies need. About four to six weeks after their birth, they are taken to the slaughterhouse, shackled by their feet, and killed.
Tyson Foods, the popular chicken source for companies like McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC, and Taco Bell, kills 37 million chickens a week. They are the top meat producer in the United States and have been regularly accused of various instances of animal cruelty. In 2019, they recorded revenue of 42 billion dollars. To earn these sales, they had to minimize both the welfare of chickens and checks on their environmental impact.
Each chicken needs three to four square feet of space according to industry standards. This means that about 25 to 33 chickens can fit in one coop. However, in reality, that seldom happens. Chickens are given a space of roughly 0.46 square feet, the size of a mouse pad.
Wild fowls lay eggs throughout almost their entire lifespan of ten years, generally in spring and summer. However, hens bred for commercial use lay over 300 eggs every year, which causes significant stress to their bodies. Eggs need nutrients like calcium to form properly, which they take from the hen’s bones. But given the intensity of production in chicken farms, hens deplete this reservoir of calcium and other nutrients in just one to two years. After this, they either give eggs at a slower rate before they are sent to slaughter, or they are killed right away.
Given that chickens are stacked on farms in crowded conditions with no personal space, one can start a chicken farm with two acres of land. In reality, though, chickens need land rich in nutrients and insects for their natural growth and well-being.
Firstly, chickens do feel pain. They experience happiness and sadness, joy and suffering. Laying eggs is also a labor-intensive process for a hen, and they can experience a lot of pain laying eggs over and over on a chicken farm.
Many hens are territorial about their eggs and will snap at you if you try to take them. Hens have also been shown to search for their eggs hours after they have been taken. Hence, taking eggs from a brooding hen can be a painful experience. Also, given that many hens like to eat the eggs that they lay to replenish themselves nutritionally, it seems reasonable to say that chickens do most probably feel sad when their eggs are taken away.
No one likes being owned. The same goes for chickens. In a factory farm, stacked with hundreds of other chickens and deprived of the most basic necessities of adequate grass, sunlight, and grooming space, chickens hardly feel anything towards their owners. Of course, like anyone else, chickens love to be loved and petted. This does happen in a backyard farming system with very few hens, but even then any loving relationship is conditional and temporary because the hens remain means to an end, which is to be sold in the market. Animal sanctuaries, where chickens live in true freedom and peace, without being “owned” by anyone, are places where they feel loved and express love.
Chicken farming is a very profitable business—but it all depends on how much of the hen’s life and freedom you are willing to sacrifice. If one adopts the intensive business model of Tyson Foods by caging millions of hens together, then one can expect to earn a significant amount of profit. If one uses clever marketing to advertise chickens as humanely raised in a backyard, then one can also hope to earn some profit. Of course, the more freedom and animal welfare considerations one starts to take up, the more it eats into the profits. Chicken farming is all about trading between profits and ethics.
Chickens do mourn members of their flock who pass away. In a non-cage setting, a chicken who is about to die goes to a secluded place, and other members of her flock come to “visit” the chicken and say goodbye. When the chicken dies, the other hens make noises as if they are missing the chicken. This behavior is greatly hampered in a factory setting, where high levels of stress make chickens kill each other, and even use their fellow chickens’ dead bodies for resting their feet and getting respite from the concrete floor.
There is no mincing words when it comes to this—all old hens are killed when they cannot provide eggs anymore. Only a few are given a new home in animal sanctuaries, where they die a natural death rather than being shackled and killed. The definition of “old” is also very young in the industry: egg-laying hens are usually killed two years after being born.
It is not surprising that when people get to know how chickens are farmed, they are in disbelief. All their lives, they have been given a picture of a happy, peaceful “Old Macdonald’s Farm,” and have grown up singing rhymes about how farmed chickens are happy and flourishing, and that farming them is even necessary. But beyond this facade lies the reality of billions of lives owned for the sole purpose of monetary gain. And that is not a pleasant picture to paint.
The environment in which chickens are kept is toxic, both chemically and behaviorally. Because of excessive accumulation of fecal matter and urine, and lack of adequate ventilation, chickens are continuously inhaling poisonous air into their lungs. They cannot express their natural behaviors like building nests and looking for nutrients found in nature. Chicken farming does not even allow chickens to groom themselves, which leads to various diseases.
Chickens in their natural state lay 10 to 12 eggs a year, maintain a healthy diet, and even fly. But domesticated chickens do not show any of those traits, thanks to genetic manipulation. Chickens are specifically bred to either lay many more eggs than they would usually do, or grow fat and “meaty”. Farmers breed chickens to be ready for slaughter within two months of birth, ensuring minimal use of resources to raise the chickens and make a profit. They ensure this via “selective breeding,” in which only chicken breeds that show profitable traits are grown.
Wire battery cages are very common in chicken farming. In this system, anything from three to six chickens is put in a cage meant for one, and chickens end up standing next to or on top of each other, with no room to wiggle, spread their wings or even easily turn around. Because of staying static like this for a long time, chickens develop many bodily deformities. Cages are also stacked on top of each other, which means that urine and feces from birds in the cages above are always falling on the birds caged below, creating the conditions for diseases to spread rapidly.
To prevent hens from attacking each other due to stress, chicken farmers subject them to the painful debeaking process, usually without anesthesia. Their beaks are trimmed using either heated guillotines or infrared lasers. Moreover, this process is done when the chicken is just a day-old baby, with hypersensitive nerves in their beak. The first day of their life is spent in pain and social withdrawal. A trimmed beak also means that their ability to eat properly is greatly reduced—many chickens face dehydration because of not being able to use their beaks to drink water.
Thousands of chickens raised for meat, or broiler chickens, are kept in giant barns, surrounded by the noise of automatic feeding machines and cooling systems. These indoor broiler sheds are constantly lit with artificial light, to manipulate the chickens into eating more food than needed and prepare them to be killed.
Transporting chickens from the farm to the slaughterhouse is a traumatic process. Terrified chickens run here and there while the transporters grab them and load them in transport cars. After being transferred from a static environment to a moving environment with different noises, chickens experience a lot of stress and fear—their final moments before slaughter are spent just like the rest of their lives—in agony. Often traveling long distances for days, chickens are deprived of food and water, and many do not even make it to the slaughterhouse.
Chicken farming involves going to any lengths to maximize earnings. Forced molting is one such method, in which hens are starved for profit. Molting refers to the process whereby hens stop laying eggs for a while and instead focus on growing new feathers. Chicken farmers force an entire flock to molt together, by withdrawing food and water for many days. Because of this, the hens cease their egg-laying, during which their reproductive tracts rejuvenate. Afterward, they are ready to give eggs again. This entire process is done just so that a final batch of a massive number of eggs can be extracted from aging hens before they are killed.
Given the high number of chickens that are usually kept on a chicken farm and the unsanitary conditions, disease finds faster avenues to spread. Whether it be intensive or alternative farming, all chickens on farms experience some form of adverse impact on their health.
Avian flu has become more common as factory farming has spread globally. The transport of chickens in bulk, amid unhygienic surroundings, leads to high chances of contamination, and birds detected with avian flu seldom survive more than two days. Usually, when a chicken on a farm is found to have avian flu, the entire flock is killed to control the spread—after all, more spread of disease means more monetary losses.
This disease is a contagious one that affects the respiratory, nervous, and digestive systems of chickens. It spreads from bodily secretions of the nose, mouth, and eyes. On commercial chicken farms, chickens are kept in confinement in large numbers, hence encouraging the spread of this disease.
E. coli generally spread in chickens via contaminated feces and eggs. Because of the way that hens are stacked on top of one another in intensive farming, and often defecate on each other, E. coli infections are very common on chicken farms.
While the use of growth hormones is illegal in the U.S., significant testing of growth hormones for chickens is going on.
Both factory farming and backyard farming of chickens can spread Salmonella to humans. Chickens can carry Salmonella in their guts, droppings, beaks, feathers, and feet, and contact with them is enough to be contaminated. This becomes even worse in indoor settings, where the rate of transmission is fast. Salmonella infection in humans can cause a diarrheal reaction that can even be life-threatening.
Profits for a farmer can drastically decline if the many health issues that chickens face are not taken care of. The solution? Chickens are pumped with heavy doses of antibiotics almost daily. Antibiotics are also given to promote rapid growth in chickens. This overuse of antibiotics can lead to antibiotic resistance in bacteria that can also pose health risks to humans.
In 2015 Food & Water Watch reported on proposed chicken litter incinerators likely to cause environmental pollution. These incinerators were aimed at burning chicken litter, which is full of antibiotic residue and heavy metal. The inhalation of the toxins released in the process leads to respiratory and heart diseases in people. However, chicken litter is far from being the only detrimental environmental impact of chicken farming.
There is a misconception that since raising chickens requires fewer resources than other meats like beef, it is environmentally friendly, but this is far from true. The carbon footprint of chicken is more than double that of tofu. What’s more, growing any of the foods that have less than half the carbon footprint of chickens—like beans and peas—also requires far fewer resources.
If you ever walk through a neighborhood where a chicken farm is located, the foul odor would be hard to miss. Families living in the neighborhood have to inhale this odor every day alongside the chickens, which can cause a host of respiratory diseases. Chicken waste dumped around poultry farms also leads to water contamination.
Let’s also talk about chicken feed. Chickens are fed a diet intense in grain and soy, for which large tracts of forest lands are cleared. With the demand for chicken increasing, the demand for chicken feed will only further fuel deforestation. Even if one adopts “sustainable” farming measures or the climate-smart agriculture that the United Nations is aiming toward, there will always be an environmental cost of raising a living, breathing, sentient being.
Even if one reduces it to its minimum, one cannot guarantee that the carbon footprint would reduce significantly. While universal access to nutritious food is part of why sustainable farming of chickens is encouraged, we need to go further in reexamining the idea of access. Food based on killing animals is accessible at all because governments around the world make it accessible through heavy subsidies and market support. The focus of climate-smart agriculture and innovation in food systems should be to encourage and promote access to plant-based foods that have a minimal carbon footprint and are rich in protein.
Chicken farming is a dangerous job, and women, immigrants, and people of color who usually take up these jobs are the most susceptible to its unsafe consequences. Workers are often denied something as basic as bathroom breaks, leading to workers reportedly wearing diapers to work. During the pandemic, the “elbow-touch” nature of work combined with lack of any protective gear led to a spike in COVID-19 cases among slaughterhouse workers in the U.S. Chicken farmers are also exposed to dust and toxins that lead to asthma and chronic bronchitis, among other respiratory problems.
The single biggest contribution that you can make is to shift to better sources of protein: plants. Going vegan for the animals and the environment is a step toward rejecting an exploitative industry and embracing a sustainable planet.
Another step that you can take is to demand that those in power make the distribution of plant-based food accessible—and one way of doing this is for governments to divest in animal-based industries and direct resources towards sustainable production of plant-based food. The UN has an important role to play in this, as under its Sustainable Development Goals it can commit to funding more plant-based food projects in developing countries to make these options accessible, and make agriculture smart.
The future of food is one where we do not see sentient, individual beings as food by virtue of not being human, and in which we encourage a just distribution of plant-based food.
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