Dr. Frankenstein is alive and well, and he is running our food system. There has been quite a bit of buzz lately about GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms), especially corn and soy. But what many people don’t realize is that the agriculture industry has also been genetically modifying farmed animals for years. The results of decades of selective breeding are even more shocking and strange than pesticide-resistant corn or apples that never turn brown. One good example of the bizarre outcome of these cruel experiments is the modern chicken.
The chicken is no longer just a chicken. Depending on what they are bred for, modern chickens are either “layers” or “broilers.” Bred, of course, to lay eggs, layers have been so dramatically altered that they can lay more than 250 eggs per year, while their ancestors in the jungle laid about two dozen annually. They do not grow fast enough to be used for meat, however, which is why all of the non-egg-producing males of the layer breeds are killed soon after hatching. This is where the “broilers” come in.
Genetically Modified Chickens
Today’s broiler chickens have been bred selectively since the 1950s to produce meat—breast meat in particular—and to produce it quickly. A modern meat chicken weighs up to three kilograms: almost double the size of a chicken from 60 years ago. And their breasts are 80 percent larger. They also manage to reach this size in six weeks, whereas it took a bird in the 50s up to 15 weeks to reach its fully grown (but much smaller) size. Not surprisingly, this accelerated growth leads to health problems and suffering for the animals.
The rapid growth rate of broiler chickens makes simply moving from one place to another a difficult and painful task. A 2008 study of more than 50,000 chickens found that by the age of 40 days, over 27 percent of the birds had impaired locomotion capabilities and 3.3 percent were almost unable to walk. This large percentage of lame birds becomes even more disturbing when we consider that chickens whom the farmers considered lame had already been culled due to welfare policies.
These disabilities largely stem from the imbalance in the birds’ bodies; due to excessively large breasts, they are “front heavy,” which adds to the strain on their legs. Other factors caused by rapid growth—including micro fractures and degenerative bone disease—also contribute to this lameness. Another study found that if lame birds received painkillers in their feed, they would become more mobile. In fact, lame birds actually chose analgesic-laced food over normal food, which non-lame birds did not do. This leads to the inevitable conclusion that a large percentage of “meat” chickens are in pain for at least a portion of their lives.
Suffering for Profit
Lameness is just one of many health issues broilers often face. Others include cardiopulmonary problems and sudden death syndrome. Even the birds kept alive for breeding purposes — whom some might consider lucky — endure their own kind of suffering due to their design for rapid weight gain. When allowed to grow to full size, broiler “breeders” experience fertility problems so their food intake is typically restricted to keep them underweight. In fact, they may be given less than half the amount of food that other birds receive. It is reasonable to suspect that they live their lives in a perpetual state of hunger.
Perhaps more than any other animal, the modern broiler chicken is a victim of our growing appetite for cheap meat — as well as animal agriculture’s rapid industrialization over the past half-century. The more than eight billion birds raised and killed in the United States every year serve as examples of what can happen when the cruel calculus of efficiency and profit is applied to living creatures. As in the classic tale, it turns out that the real monster is Dr. Frankenstein himself.
What You Can Do
Thanks to the work of kinder scientists, however, we can now enjoy chicken without using birds as meat machines. Plant-based meat companies like Gardein, Boca, and Beyond Meat have perfected the taste and texture of chicken but left the cruelty behind. Simply replacing chicken in your diet with one of these alternatives can spare 24 animals each year from a lifetime