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Chicken.  By the numbers, it’s our country’s preferred protein source.  The average adult consumes 83 pounds of it per year- 23 pounds more than beef!   And why?  Well, it’s cheap or at least it appears to be cheap.  But like Michael Pollan said best, “Cheap food is an illusion.  There is no such thing as cheap food.  The real cost is paid somewhere.”   When we take a closer look at today’s poultry, we find perhaps one of the most abused farm animals in the world and another cog in our unsustainable food system.


The Chicken Factory

The majority of today’s broiler chickens (chickens raised specifically for meat) come from our factory farming system.  According to Food & Water Watch, these concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) raise over 1 billion broiler chickens annually- more than 3 per American.  This methodology of raising poultry dates back to the very beginnings of factory farming in our country and has resulted in a vicious system that can raise and slaughter a broiler in a mere 6 weeks.  It all starts by cramming the broilers into sheds- upwards of 40,000 at a time- leaving little if any room for movement or ability to exhibit natural behaviors.  There is no scratching and pecking due to no outdoor access and the common practice of beak-trimming which causes chronic acute pain for the animals.  The broilers are fed a steady diet of ultra low-cost, genetically modified corn and soy which includes dosages of antibiotics and arsenic.  Yes, arsenic- a poison to humans and is a common feed additive which helps to stimulate growth and improve pigmentation, providing the “healthy” pink shelf color which appeals to shoppers.  The antibiotics are a requirement for two reasons: first and foremost, the crammed quarters and lack of ventilation combined with residue from dust, feathers and ammonia from bird droppings causes respiratory  distress and even can lead to heart failure in broilers.  Each year, a certain percentage of broilers die under these conditions and this is an expected part of the business.  Antibiotics are needed to keep the broiler from getting sick but they’re equally used for weight gain- another added benefit to antibiotic use in farm animals of all kinds.  The broilers end up growing at such a fast pace that their leg/hip bones and muscles can’t keep pace with their rapid body weight gain and the bird becomes sedentary.

This production methodology produces what appears to be the low-cost chicken which lines our supermarket shelves today.  But what are the real costs embedded here?  Well, the real costs are passed on to our bodies and our environment.  This type of chicken is not only nutritionally deficient compared to pasture-raised chicken, but it’s ridden with toxins that can only damage our bodies in the long term.  From an environmental standpoint, the impacts are profound.  According to the Environmental Integrity Project, which was formed by former EPA agents, broiler producers in the top 10 states emit nearly 482 million pounds of ammonia (from feces) or more than 8 times the combined total from industrial sources (also keep in mind that this feces have to go somewhere).  We must also consider the vast swaths of mono-cultured, nutrient deficient land that must be used to grow the GMO corn and soy feed for the broilers (see the article “Soy To The World But Let’s Not Celebrate).  This is land that is losing its soil integrity with each passing year.

A Better Way – Pastured Poultry

Thankfully, there are far healthier, sustainable alternatives to raising broilers that exist today and are based upon old-fashioned farming skill along with some added ingenuity.  Joel Salatin and his Polyface Farms are an example of one such model.  Over the past 30 years, he’s developed a beyond organic, mobile pasture system which allows broiler chickens to lead a natural life. They spend their lives outside- scratching and pecking, growing on a diet of nutrient-rich forage and GMO-free grains.  His methods are also sustainable- the portable chicken enclosures are moved daily so the fields get adequate time to digest the nitrogen from the manure (the manure is not toxic and there’s no need to dispose of it elsewhere).  As Mr. Salatin states in the following video, one of the greatest benefits to the methodology is that it provides a low barrier to entry for young farmers to get into the business- a small piece of land and some inexpensive materials versus a $500,000 investment in a factory chicken shed and a life-restraining contract with a major poultry purchaser.  One of the greatest issues with our current food system is that we don’t have enough young farmers.  The Polyface model and others like it help to remedy this issue by attracting young people to a reputable, fulfilling and profitable profession.

This past summer, integrative medical practitioner Dr. Joseph Mercola spent some time with Joel Salatin touring Polyface Farms.  In the following video, Mr. Salatin explains the Polyface method for raising poultry and why it and systems like it are the right answer to our country’s poultry problem (more videos of Dr. Mercola’s Polyface tour including an interview with Joel Salatin can be found on Youtube).  ~ F

©2012 The Foodery.  The Foodery advocates the growth of sustainable broiler chicken farming practices.  We utilize only organic and beyond organic poultry in the meals we serve.  The Foodery crafts meals from sustainable, organic, local ingredients and delivers them to busy individuals and families in the Boston area who value real food.