finger lickin’ good

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The piece t’other week on Ultra Processed Foods got me thinking of our most popular of meats and seemingly most ubiquitous of natural foods, the humble chicken, and how it can be right that a whole bird usually costs less than a pint of beer in your local?

Originally, chickens were far scrawnier, more colourful and way better at getting-off the ground than the birds we today recognise. As Charles Darwin first predicted, modern chickens are descended from the red junglefowl, a small pheasant-like tropical bird native to the jungles of Southeast Asia. And, back in the day, they were safe from our dining table: Archaeological evidence suggests we had no taste for their flesh but prized them as fighting cocks, deity-objects worthy of worship and sacrifice, and exotic status symbols. Phoenician sailors exported them to the Roman Empire where the common-or-garden legionnaire tucked them under his tunic when instructed to invade the dark, foreboding Britannia. 

In 1948, the US Department of Agriculture held a ‘Chicken of Tomorrow’ contest to see if it were possible to breed chickens with enhanced meat on the breast, thigh and drumstick. Via a series of regional competitions, White Rock birds from Connecticut and Red Cross chickens from California took the awards and today, over 90% of the world’s broilers are descended from these two birds. Having said that, modern chickens are ultra-fast growing – cheaper birds reach slaughter-weight in only five weeks – and can weigh up to almost five times as much as the comparable 1950s one.

Chicken has rapidly become the most popular meat, by consumption, in the world. Last year, an estimated 130 million tonnes were eaten, an increase of nearly 100m tonnes since 1990. At any one time, there are more chickens on the planet than any other bird and, at 24 billion, outnumber humans three to one. In China alone in this time, the broiler industry grew 600% and Colonel Sanders’ KFC quietly became their nation’s largest restaurant chain.

The question now being asked is can this continue? Probably not is the answer. As a result of increased commodity, energy and feed prices, sustained inflation and worker shortages, global prices are expected to rise by as much as 25%. Furthermore, the industry, which has reportedly low profit margins already, will also be squeezed by the understandable pressures of decarbonisation and animal welfare. Indoor cage-raised fast-grown chicken has a low-carbon footprint, about a tenth that of beef, but free-range healthier birds clearly require more land, more energy and more land. The days when you could feed a family with a #3 chicken are at an end.