by Allie Molinaro
9.6 billion chickens are raised and killed for meat in the U.S. alone each year, outnumbering Americans by about 30 to 1. Chicken consumption per capita has tripled since 1970 in line with the rise of factory farming. To maximize profits, the process of raising chickens for food has become so industrialized that these factory “farms” do not resemble farms at all. Instead, they look and operate like industrial manufacturing plants. The largest facilities pack over 125,000 birds at a time into a single operation. A complex web of government subsidies, grants, regulations, and insurances combined with vertical corporate integration, industry consolidation, deceitful farmer contracts, and exploitative worker conditions have supported the rise of cheap chicken. However, it is clearer than ever that cheap chicken comes at the expense of the birds, environment, climate, wildlife, local farmers, workers, and our health.
1. Animal Suffering
Chicken farming is the largest cause of animal suffering. Chickens far outnumber any other captive species, making chicken factory farming the largest source of animal cruelty in the nation. Most of the birds used in factory farms have been bred to grow unnaturally large very quickly to maximize profits. As a result, their bodies and organs are crushed by their own weight. Instead of engaging in joyful activities such as scratching, dustbathing, flying, running, and playing, many birds spend most of their time lying incapacitated in urine-soaked litter. Most of them never have the chance to go outdoors and spend their entire lives in overcrowded barns where they are allotted space no larger than a sheet of paper. Lethargic and deteriorating within their own bodies, many struggle to make it to food and water, and some are trampled to death. Many also suffer painful myopathies such as woody breast caused by rapid muscle growth.
After six weeks, they are transported to the slaughterhouse. By this time the birds are the weight and age equivalent of a 400-pound 8-year-old. Catching, crating, and transporting the birds is so stressful that over 30 million U.S. chickens die in the process each year. Once at the slaughterhouse, the birds are shackled upside down, dunked in electrified water, and killed by slitting their throats.
2. Climate Change
Poultry farms significantly contribute to climate change. While cattle farming has received the most attention in recent years for its methane emissions, the greenhouse gas emissions from intensive chicken farming are also worthy of concern. Chicken and other livestock manure emits nitrous oxide, which accounts for about 30% of all livestock emissions. This greenhouse gas is 273 times more powerful than carbon dioxide and ten to fifteen times more powerful than methane, meaning even relatively small amounts of nitrous oxide inflict devastating climate impacts. In addition, while methane lasts in the atmosphere for about a decade, nitrous oxide persists for over a century. The current rate of nitrous oxide emissions threatens our ability to stay below the 1.5 C target of the Paris agreement. Climate change is also a significant threat to food production, security, quality, and price stability.
Chicken farming emits multiple pollutants that contaminate air, water, and soil, harm wildlife, and hurt communities. Chicken manure contains three times more nitrogen and phosphorus than cattle manure. The excess phosphorus and nitrogen from chicken manure can cause harmful algal blooms in water bodies and breed toxic cyanobacteria, killing wild animals and threatening human health. Industrial chicken operations also emit ammonia and particulates into the air, which disproportionately impacts workers, their families, and neighboring communities. Despite government policies that limit pollutant discharges, loopholes, poor data management, and lax enforcement have rendered current actions not enough to protect communities and wildlife.
Even seemingly effective pollution control measures are designed to favor polluters. The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) is a voluntary government program that provides financial assistance to agricultural producers, including factory farms, to reduce air, water, and soil contamination. While this helps reign in some of the pollution, it allows factory farms to rake in profits while taxpayers foot the bill to clean up their mess.
4. Biodiversity Loss
Chicken feed production is a key driver of biodiversity loss. The chickens raised in factory farms require high-energy diets to support their unnatural rapid growth. As a result, they are fed diets of mostly corn and soy, which in turn requires clearing thousands of acres of wild habitat for monocropping livestock feed. The habitat ranges of animals ranging from insects and songbirds to apex predators have shrunk significantly. In addition, the corn and soy grown for chicken feed is often treated with pesticides, further harming wildlife. Virtually all corn and half of the soy produced in the United States is treated with neonicotinoids, a pesticide that is decimating pollinators like bees and butterflies that are critical to both wild plants and dozens of staple crops.
5. Local Economy
Farm consolidation has decimated small family farmers. Over the last several decades, large factory farms owned by corporations have driven family farms out of the market. In the late 1980s the average farm churned out 300,000 chickens per year; today, the average farm cranks out 750,000. While 91% of U.S. farms are small, large commercial farms account for 85% of the market value of agricultural production. As a result, many family farms must rely on other income sources for financial stability.
Other family farmers chose to stay afloat by contracting with large processors. The industry has become so consolidated that half of the nation’s farmers have only one or two options of companies to contract with, eliminating market incentive .Virtually stripping farmers of all control over their farm’s operations. The company controls all inputs, including the number and type of birds, feed, medications, and barn and equipment upgrades and repairs.
Despite this lack of control, contract farmers are paid via a tournament system. The system is a mechanism used by poultry companies to shift economic risks away from the corporation and onto the growers. Farmers are ranked against their neighbors, and the top-performing farmers receive a bonus while the rest are left with a pay cut. Thus, if the company gives a farmer unhealthy birds or poor-quality feed, the farmer is left to shoulder the burden. Even farmers who wish to switch to more sustainable methods or convert to plant-based farming are often stuck in contracts and/or mountains of debt.
6. Worker Exploitation
Poultry workers are some of the most exploited people in the nation. Factory farm and slaughterhouse workers have long borne the brunt of the cruelty and inadequacy of our food system. Former workers have told horrific tales of negligence, abuse, mismanagement, and mental trauma from witnessing animal suffering and killing thousands of animals per day. When the pandemic hit in 2020, meatpacking plants, which are already one of the most dangerous places to work, had some of the largest and most deadly Covid-19 outbreaks. Multiple factors contributed to the outbreaks and deaths, including lack of protective equipment, stressful working conditions that reduced workers’ immune responses, and inadequate access to healthcare, as many are either undocumented immigrants or are forced to use company-owned services. Recent investigations revealed that meatpacking plants falsified food shortage claims to force workers to continue working, which ultimately led to 269 Covid-19 deaths.
7. Human Health
Chicken products can be damaging to our health. Multiple health organizations have cited processed meat such as chicken nuggets, patties, deli slices, which are typically made from birds raised in factory farms, as damaging to personal health. Processed meat has been classified as carcinogenic to humans by the World Health Organization and linked to coronary heart disease, stroke, and type II diabetes. Despite this, cheap chicken, made possible through industrialization and government subsidies, has forced families into buying these foods instead of healthier options that are financially out of reach.
At the heart of all this lies a glaring truth: the current rate of chicken consumption is unsustainable.
Addressing the nation’s addiction to cheap chicken is essential to ending bird, farmer, and worker exploitation, reversing environmental degradation, and protecting our health. While Compassion in World Farming works with leading food businesses to address these issues directly in their supply chains, consumers can also help by purchasing higher welfare chicken products and by eating more plant-based foods.