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Playing Chicken with Sustainability: Lessons from the Fast-Growing Chicken Debate

Even with a wealth of technology at their fingertips, some chicken producers may be rolling back production practices to meet the demands of companies hoping to build their brand by differentiating how animals are raised. Whole Foods Market and other retailers have agreed to a set of principles from the Global Animal Partnership that includes replacing current fast-growing chickens with slower-growing chickens by 2024.

Is Slow Growing the Fast Lane to Success?

The fast-growing chicken phenomenon dates back to the 1940s. A recent article in National Geographic explains the history and how the poultry industry changed the shape of the chicken, and subsequently the market for meat, through the “Chicken of Tomorrow” contest initiated in 1946. It was a massive effort designed to grow bigger and better chickens. Most of the chickens grown for meat today, called “broilers,” have been bred for rapid growth and increased breast meat yields. This article from Best Food Facts has more information.

But a segment of consumers isn’t buying into “bigger and better,” primarily due to concern about animal well-being. Critics of modern production contend chickens today grow so fast they’re unable to support their own weight and are prevented from performing natural behaviors. Maryn McKenna, author of “Big Chicken,” a critical look at the history of chickens, told National Geographic the “Chicken of Tomorrow” contest wouldn’t fly today. Brands that want to appeal to that segment of consumers are hoping to capitalize on the higher-cost, slower-growing bird.

A Fast Track to Mistrust 

Proponents of modern poultry production point to scientific research showing that chickens today, in addition to growing faster, are stronger and healthier than ever before (including leg strength and bone density). In addition, today’s breed of chicken has a much smaller environmental footprint.

Poultry farmers cite, as an example, the common practice of selective breeding: think dogs being selectively bred for desirable traits or fruits and vegetables that now are grown larger. Science allows farmers to add attributes consumers want, and to produce the food we need using fewer natural resources every year.

Who Claims the Ethical High Ground?

Critics of conventional chicken production are concerned about ethical issues surrounding animal well-being and the technology that has driven the change in production methods. Chicken farmers are arguing they have science on their side. But science tells us if we can do something, while society tells us if we should be doing it.

In the age of climate change, the impact of a transition to slower growing birds is a critical ethical consideration that is frequently ignored in the flap over slow-growing broilers. If only one-third of broiler chicken producers switched to a slower growing breed, nearly 1.5 billion more birds would be needed annually to produce the same amount of meat currently produced – requiring a tremendous increase in water, land and fuel consumption:

  • Additional feed needed: Enough to fill 670,000 additional tractor trailers on the road per year, using millions more gallons of fuel annually.
  • Additional land needed: The additional land needed to grow the feed (corn and soybeans) would be 7.6 million acres/year, or roughly the size of the entire state of Maryland.
  • Additional manure output: Slower growing chickens will also stay on the farm longer, producing 28.5 billion additional pounds of manure annually. That’s enough litter to create a pile on a football field that is 27 times higher than a typical NFL stadium.
  • Additional water needed: 1 billion additional gallons of water per year for the chickens to drink (excluding additional irrigation water that would be required to grow the additional feed).

The Truth about Trust

The fast-growing chicken debate is just one of many examples in the food industry where the chasm is clear – antibiotics, GMOs, pesticides, chemicals in food – but where a willingness to engage in an ethical values-based discussion can help close the gap.

Research from The Center for Food Integrity shows that earning trust means engaging with the public on the values that are shared – care for animals, the environment and food safety – and being authentically transparent.

While the battle continues in the fast-growing chicken debate over whose science is right regarding animal well-being, there are areas of alignment between the two sides. For example, both care about the environment, yet rarely do consumers hear that quicker growth is better for the environment. Both care about ensuring a healthy, affordable food supply, yet there is little said about how the evolution of chicken farming made protein far more available and affordable.

The point being, beneath the quarrel about science, there are values worth having a level-headed conversation about.

Ultimately, whether the public is comfortable with modern production or prefers heritage breeds, the message from all those within the food system should be that chicken is a wholesome source of protein, and farmers care a great deal about the well-being of their birds.

On a broader scale, the food system must demonstrate to the rational majority of consumers that even though technology has changed food production, the commitment to do what’s right is as strong as ever.

To learn more about earning trust, contact CFI at or 816-880-5360.

Charlie Arnot
CEO, The Center for Food Integrity