My grandfather raised chickens

February 17th 2014

Duncan Williamson looking after his three ‘girls’, Sherbet, Dib and Dab, in his back garden

Duncan Williamson looking after his three ‘girls’, Sherbet, Dib and Dab, in his back garden

My grandfather raised chickens. The whole family lived with my grandfather. We were all expected to help out; I was often in the chicken run. There are times I feel the chickens have greatly influenced my outlook. One thing I’m sure of is that chickens have personalities and are as contrary as people. They display natural behaviour: they dig, run about, love dust baths and sunshine and will stay indoors to avoid the rain. Not so stupid then!

I grew up in the 70’s and 80s (not that long ago) and even then the food we ate and fed the animals was vastly different to what we eat now. We didn’t have any food waste, the girls and our dogs were very obliging. We also took waste off a few of the shops – the bakers and green grocers being very popular – and swopped eggs for newspapers. Crispy pancakes were a novelty and no one had invented cheese strings or cereal bars. Sugar was not added to everything.  We ate with the seasons, pickled everything and had the trusty chest freezer as back up. Meat was still a treat, even chicken – we rarely had roast chicken but did eat a lot of slow cooked stews. Don’t get me wrong! I’m not saying everything was better, just different.

I suppose this upbringing made it inevitable that I’d always want to be connected to my food. And there’s no doubt in my mind that our food system and relationship to meat has changed drastically over the last 30 years. It has taken two generations to devalue our food.

Our relationship with chickens exemplifies to me how much the food system has changed and how quickly it has happened. Chicken is portrayed as the healthy virtuous meat – but is it? For sure it once was, and this has helped drive up demand. But, with the advent on large scale rearing and the change in diet and faster growth, many of the chickens we eat not only get bulked up with water but contain lots more saturated fat. This means they’re not so healthy any more, especially when you think that we are eating 400% more chicken than we did 50 years ago. In America the average person eats 44kgs of chicken a year, that’s almost 1 kg a week. Do we really want to copy this trend?

There’s also the issue with antibiotics. We’re feeding this to so many animals that we’re impacting on our own health and making ourselves more resistant to them. The bugs we take antibiotics to beat are becoming resistant. This has a further impact on ours and our livestock’s health. A rather daft situation when you consider that we don’t need to feed livestock antibiotics like we do.

Let’s also take a look at a chicken’s environmental impact. You can measure the direct footprint of the bird during its life up to the farm gate, and this is very favourable. Gram for gram it’s the lowest carbon meat. But this is only part of the story; the rest of it is often missed. The chicken’s footprint increases when you incorporate consumption, waste and the footprint of the storage. It will still look favourable, gram for gram from a carbon perspective to beef or a free-range chicken. This becomes less favourable when you scale up the extra amount of chicken that the average person eats, and compare it to other meats and proteins. The narrative becomes even more blurred when you include its feed. You need to grow crops, including soya.

To grow anything you need fertilizers, land, pesticides and more water. The fertilizers are often oil based and contain large amounts of Nitrogen, which too has a footprint. The excess of fertilizers and pesticides often end up in aquifers or rivers, which can cause eutrophication[1]. Excessive nutrients in the water cause oceanic dead zones[2]. These can be found at the end of every major river in the world and cause the death of many marine organisms. Back to the crop: any large scale farming involves ploughing, which leads to the release of carbon and soil erosion and loss of soil biodiversity, which is vital for life on this planet. The use of pesticides results in contamination, loss of wild flora and fauna, with the plight of insects being perhaps the most worrying. Land that is turned over to farming no longer contains so much biodiversity, a further cost. This is most noticeable when turning land over to grow soya in South America.

A side issue is the loss of agro biodiversity as we increasingly draw our chickens and soya from a limited gene pool that is programmed to be the most productive. The vulnerability of this is demonstrated with the 2012 US drought, which devastated soya and grain crops. As these make up the majority of a chicken’s food, any decrease in supply and increase in prices will affect the cost of the chicken or eggs.

So, the so-called “virtuous healthy”, low-carbon meat is in fact not as good as it looks. Chicken’s still good in many respects, but do we really need or want to eat so much of it? Maybe it’s time to embrace full lifecycle assessment, that are standardised and include the whole food system? Then we can compare like to like.

Go to a supermarket, even the smaller, higher priced chains. 90% of ready meals would have chicken in. Not only is this dull, but it also shows a staggering lack of imagination by the product developers. There’re other meats, other flavours. Britain has become a self-styled nation of “foodies”. These are people who pride themselves on their understanding of cooking, ethnic cuisine and local produce. But, we’re in fact eating a tiny variety of food types, and seem to be happy demanding more chicken and less of other things. To me this seems unadventurous and shows a lack of understanding of taste and how food works. Let’s look at our food choices!

Chicken is not off the menu, nor are eggs. Let’s embrace variety that can support farmers and enliven our pallets and plates, and maybe give the chickens a better time too.

Duncan Williamson

Food Policy Manager – WWF-UK

 


[1] A process by which pollution from such sources as sewage effluent or leachate from fertilized fields causes a lake, pond, or fen to become overrich in organic and mineral nutrients, so that algae and cyanobacteria grow rapidly and deplete the oxygen supply. Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged © HarperCollins Publishers 1991, 1994, 1998, 2000, 2003

[2] Dead zones are hypoxic (low-oxygen) areas in the world’s oceans and large lakes, caused by “excessive nutrient pollution from human activities coupled with other factors that deplete the oxygen required to support most marine life in bottom and near-bottom water. (NOAA). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dead_zone_(ecology). Visited on 07 February 2014.

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