Why suffering of chicken should worry us
By Lilian Kaivilu
With rising demand for chicken, more farmers across the globe are looking for ways to meet this gap. In the process, this has caused is untold suffering to the birds, as a recent report revealed. We spoke to Dr Victor Yamo Humane and Sustainable Agriculture Campaigns Manager at World Animal Protection, who shares alternative means to this brutal treatment of chicken.
Often, farmers will argue that the rising demand for chicken pushes them to expose the birds to harsh conditions. In your opinion, is this justified?
Farmers are trying all means to meet the rising demand for chicken. The reality is that because of this huge demand, we are pushing chicken into very small confined spaces and literally moving away from the natural way that chicken grow to a situation where we are industrializing the chicken (especially broilers) growing system.
It has reached a place where chicken are no longer an animal but a commodity. The attitude is that more we put in a space and the faster we can ensure that they grow, the more money we can make. We forget that this has got impact. The issue may not be as big in Africa like in other continents.
What qualifies chicken production to be harmful or stressful to the growth of the chicken?
It is different production systems, different levels of intensification. But chicken growing is classified in four levels by; Sector 1, 2, 3 and 4. Sector 4 is the backyard chicken. This is where chicken run around, fend for themselves and somehow they live to see another day. Sector 3 is an improved backyard where the farmer has done a chicken house, puts a bit of additional feed. This is what you would see among small chicken farmers in the peri-urban areas. Sector 1 is fully commercial. Here, you have an integrated system. Sector 2 is a big scale farmer but not attached to the big players.
So where are we as a continent?
The big proportion of chicken production in Africa is still under sector 3 and 4. Chicken production in Europe is majorly in Sector 1 and 2. That’s why you find a small scale farmer in Europe having three to four units each having about 100,000 chicken. On the contrary, the biggest contract farmer in Kenya keeps about 90,000 chicken on two farms. That’s a small scale farmer in Europe.
So do these differences in terms of numbers have a bearing on the conditions under which farmers in Africa and Europe, for example, produce their chicken?
In Africa, we produce chicken in open-sided naturally ventilated chicken houses. Our chicken houses are long with wire mesh on both sides. In Europe, they produce chicken in a tunnel-ventilated chicken house. It is a big chicken house with no windows. It is pressure-ventilated with fans that suck air in the chicken house and exhaust it at the other end. The chicken house is a tunnel permanently under artificial light. It is assumed that the more light the chicken are exposed to, the more they eat hence the faster they grow. That is the classical difference between the two; naturally ventilated and tunnel ventilation with automatic feeders and drinkers.
So does this affect the quality of chicken meat that we consume?
There is no genetic engineering in chicken. There are no Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) in chicken. What the industry has done over the last five decades is to select. Selection involves identifying the fastest growing chicken in a chicken house. We assume that in the genetic make-up, there is a gene for fast growth. So we then breed those chicken. That is how broilers have been bred over the years. It is a matter of looking at the fastest growing. The same thing happens in beef animals and layers. Genetic engineering, on the other end, means going into the genes and doing a manipulation.
Is this what we call advanced Kienyeji?
In some research institutions, they have gone across the whole country and collected all the chicken and put them in a house to identify those with different traits that are visible. For example, a good broiler will have a huge chest muscle. They are also heavier. These chicken are then grown under the same conditions in one location.
Should that worry us as consumers?
No. Because we are just taking the superior population of the chicken. If our target is to feed nine billion people, we cannot have a slow growing chicken. We want a chicken that will grow faster and produce more. Over the years, this selection has helped. The contrast is, such chicken may lose on taste. No wonder many consumers think broilers are not as tasty as Kienyeji. So the question to ask ourselves is; do we want a faster growing chicken that tastes differently or do you just want proteins?
So is the protein content in broiler any different from Kienyeji chicken?
The protein content is the same. It is just like white eggs and Kienyeji eggs. The difference is only the taste.
According to the Exposing the secret suffering of chickens farmed for meat report, we now have a broiler weighing a kilo in 56 days compared to 1957 where a 56-day-old broiler weighed 4 kilos. Why is this so?
The fast growth rate means by the time that chicken is 56 days, it is not a mature chicken. Those are the challenges that Europe is discovering in the poultry industry. Because that chicken is not mature, its body is growing faster than its skeleton, then the animal suffers. At 56 days, the bird is supposed to be weighing a kilo. But at 56 days, the same animal is weighing four kilos. How is the little bird going to carry the four kilos with the same bone structure?
So can we call these broilers ‘test-tube’?
Broilers are hatched naturally. There is normal mating and an egg is incubated for 21 days artificially in a hatchery. What is altered is the life after the broiler is hatched. The broiler is also being given very high quality feed. This means that it is able to grow way faster than a chicken that has to run around to fend for itself.
So what is the issue with the new findings by the Exposing the secret suffering of chickens farmed for meat report?
We are questioning the strain put on these chicken as they are forced to grow at this rate; being confined to a small space with inadequate ventilation. The report reveals that some chicken have more space in an oven than in the chicken house. This, therefore, affects productivity.