Impotent roosters wreak havoc in an industry that's already a mess

rooster closeup
CC BY 2.0 Natesh Ramasamy

Meat consumers are worried that there won't be enough chicken to go around, but there are much more important things to worry about.

The world’s largest poultry breeding company, Aviagen Group, has encountered a problem with its roosters. Apparently, a certain genetic tweak has created an inclination in the roosters to overeat, making them impotent. (Breeders tweak the birds’ genetics on a regular basis.) This is problematic for the factory farming industry because these roosters – the standard Ross male – are responsible for fertilizing 25 percent of chickens raised for slaughter in the United States. The hatching failure rate is up to 17 percent from the usual 15 percent.

Meat-eating consumers are up in arms. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported in June that this year’s poultry production forecast has been lowered by 195 million pounds. At the same time, international demand for U.S. poultry is on the rise. Slate reports that the chicken shortage comes at an inconvenient time, since “a deadly pig virus has decimated the pork supply, while the domestic cattle herd is at its lowest level in more than 60 years.”

There are so many things wrong with this story that I don’t even know where to begin. First of all, are people actually surprised that this problem has occurred? We have created a system in which animals are so genetically altered that they are incapable of reproducing without assistance. Despite factory farming’s claims of being necessary for feeding the hungry billions, it is the last system anyone should support if they genuinely care about feeding people sustainably over the long term.

Second, factory-farmed poultry has destroyed genetic diversity. It’s tragic that the impotence of a single rooster variety must have such a significant impact on the American poultry supply. Once upon a time, there were dozens of different chickens once raised for consumption (Jersey Giants, Plymouth Rock, New Hampshire breeds, etc.).

But because the poultry industry continues to increase production, and consumers continue to eat obscene quantities of meat (Americans eat 150 times more chickens as they did 80 years ago), while insisting that they pay minimal prices for it, we’re left with mono-genetic ‘factory’ chickens. The same genetic manipulations that led to the roosters’ impotence have created a bird that hardly resembles its heritage ancestors. In his excellent book, “Eating Animals,” Jonathan Safran Foer explains what has happened:

“From 1935 to 1995, the average weight of ‘broilers’ (meat birds) increased by 65 percent, while their time-to-market dropped 60 percent and their feed requirements dropped 57 percent. To gain a sense of the radicalness of this change, imagine human children growing to be 300 pounds in ten years, while eating only granola bars and Flintstones vitamins.”

Finally, residents of Georgia are upset that they now have to pay US $2.02 per pound of boneless, skinless chicken breasts, which is up 4.5 percent from last year. These are “record highs,” Reuters reports. I do not sympathize. Call me elitist if you wish, but there is no way that anybody should be paying only $2.02 per pound because it’s only possible in an industry that is cruel to animals and destructive to the environment, and produces antiobiotic-stuffed, disease-ridden, and feces-contaminated meat for public consumption. Besides, there is growing empirical evidence that vegetarian and reduced-meat diets are much healthier anyways.

Hopefully the rooster crisis will spur consumers to ask more questions about where their meat comes from, and how it’s raised, and why the impotence of a single breed of rooster has such a large effect on the national poultry supply. Perhaps it will push more people to consider a vegetarian diet. Awareness of what's truly going on behind the meat-production scenes is much-needed.

(Read “Eating Animals” if you want more info. I can’t recommend that book highly enough.)

Tags: Agriculture | Animals | Animal Welfare | Diet | Food Safety | Food Security

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