Our stories are shaped by the feasts we share and the food we eat. For the holidays, we’re dishing up a 3-part series on familiar foods with surprising stories. Part Two: Chickens are quickly becoming the world’s most widely consumed meat. Intensive factory farming dominates poultry production, creating a laundry list of related problems — but is genetic engineering an effective solution? 

Read Part One: Is Synbio Vanilla “Natural”? Heck, No! and Part Three: GMOs and Heritage Corn: Protecting the Source of Life

Chicken is quickly becoming the world’s most popular meat. More than 90% of the world’s chicken is produced through factory farming. This intensive livestock production method brings with it myriad problems, including horribly cruel conditions and an ideal setting for new pathogens to emerge. The conventional poultry industry is embracing new kinds of genetic engineering to pave the way to an all-chicken future. 

These days, most GMO corn and soy — the two most prevalent GMO crops — end up in animal feed. GMO livestock feed is, quite simply, the norm. However, the rise of new GMOs made with emerging techniques includes genetically engineering the animals themselves. In 2015,  GMO salmon became the first genetically engineered animal approved by the FDA for human consumption — but it surely won’t be the last. 

If the future is chicken-centric, dependent on the co-existing apparatus of factory farming and GMOs, what else are we producing? 

The factory farming flu

Modern livestock production is an extension of industrial agriculture. Most chickens come from so-called “factory farming” operations, and even the shallowest internet searches reveal a deeply cruel system that demands reform. Agricultural biotechnology is often employed to expand fundamentally inhumane and dangerous practices. 

Factory farming practices house thousands of animals in crowded, filthy and stressful conditions. They come from genetically similar stock after generations of breeding to maximize growth. This creates the ideal conditions for viral and bacterial pathogens to emerge, mutate and spread. In the book Bird Flu: A Virus of Our Own Hatching, Dr. Michael Greger writes, “If you actually want to create global pandemics, then build factory farms.” (If this prophecy seemed distant at the book’s release in 2006, perhaps it has more resonance as we enter the third year of the coronavirus pandemic.)

Researchers at the Roslin Institute, University of Edinburgh are developing a GMO chicken with resistance to avian influenza. Currently, 90% of the chicken consumed globally comes from factory farming, making the suppression of bird flu a high priority. And while less flu is absolutely a good thing, engineering resistance treats the symptom (the rise of a specific pathogen) while leaving the underlying cause in place (a production model that breeds pathogens nearly as quickly as it breeds chickens).

Bird flu is not the only animal-borne disease plaguing concentrated livestock operations. The Guardian lists Mers, Nipah and Covid-19 as pathogens of importance, while The Counter just published a deep dive into salmonella. Perhaps the best lesson here is that nature is dextrous, and viruses and bacteria emerge and mutate wherever conditions are kind to them. 

Why did Bill Gates cross the road?

Chicken’s rise as The World’s Most Popular Meat isn’t an entirely natural phenomenon. It has had several helpers along the way. 

Philanthropic organizations and governments in developing economies are singing poultry’s praises. Bill Gates himself — Microsoft mogul and owner of more farmland in North America than any other individual — blogged about chicken-keeping as the antidote to poverty and even donated 100,000 birds to impoverished families. Ethiopia is one of several sub-saharan African countries expecting a population spike in the coming decades. The government is already promoting consumption of and investment in resources for the next generation’s nuggets. 

Chicken-keeping is commonplace in Ethiopia’s rural areas, where a flock of 5 or 6 birds can provide crucial income for a family. These chickens are indigenous varieties with a different lineage than the factory farm broilers. Indigenous chickens scavenge for their food and are skilled at evading predators, but they don’t grow quickly or lay frequently. Even by the standards of a developing economy, many Ethiopians consume very little meat. 

All of which begs the question: What do the Bill Gateses of the world have in mind when they picture expanded poultry production? Is the landscape populated with indigenous birds, well-adapted to their environment but considered low-producers? Were Gates’ 100,000 free chickens standard broiler stock, bred for high productivity but ill-suited to life in Africa’s rural villages? Perhaps the chicken of the future is a new bird altogether. Research facilities across sub-Saharan Africa and the EU are working to integrate the productivity of factory farm breeds with the resilience of the indigenous chicken — and genetic engineering is one of the tools available to them.

The trouble with chickens bred for productivity is that they show deficits in other areas. Fast-growing birds tend to be slower birds, less skilled at scavenging and avoiding predators. The factory farm setting which gave rise to conventional broilers controls for those particular risks, but chicken-keepers in sub-saharan Africa seldom have supplementary feed or shelter to offer their flocks. 

Currently, 90% of the chicken consumed globally comes from factory farming. The system is easily replicable, environmentally questionable and morally reprehensible. Can small household flocks survive with birds explicitly bred for a factory setting? If factory farmed livestock production spread across the planet’s fastest growing continent, what dangers would follow? 

Food for thought

Encouraging the consumption of animal protein in this day and age has another, more cynical purpose: the conversion of overproduced commodity grains — mostly GMOs — into discrete protein units. In the book, Animal, Vegetable, Junk, Mark Bittman identifies livestock as a great way to turn grain into money. For example, it takes 8 pounds of grain to generate 1 pound of chicken, smoothly turning crops into profit. That kind of conversion rate is a good thing, Bittman writes, “if you’re looking for a product that’s easier to ship and more marketable than corn.”

The idea places an unsettling spin on Gates’ 100,000 free chickens, as does the phrasing in Fortune magazine’s article outlining biotechnology’s role in “finding ways for farmers to produce more corn and soybeans on every acre.” It becomes difficult to read those words without seeing an ulterior motive. 

Only the philanthropists themselves know their motivations. However, the long-term plan bears investigating  — particularly with initiatives based on foreign, historically exploitative support. Is a movement, new product or aid package an effective way to feed people or an effective way to extract wealth? Does it create self-sufficiency or ongoing dependence? Will it concentrate power in foreign hands, ensuring continued influence over previously colonized land? 

If colonization and imperialism sound like buzzwords from previous centuries, keep in mind these twin specters operate under the guise of progress and development. In the end, only the methods of approach have evolved. Genetically engineered animals and crops are among the sneakiest, as “helping hands” — including patented GMOs and costly agricultural products — displace traditional wisdom and locally-adapted seeds. Meanwhile, the beneficiaries are the same as they’ve ever been.

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