Chickens, or more accurately Gallus domesticus (I call them chooks), are everywhere – just about. Andrew Lawler contemplates A world without chickens (paywalled).
The short answer is that we’d struggle to survive.
There are 22 billion chooks in the world. They supply almost 100 million tonnes of meat each year, close to a third of all the meat we eat. In addition we gobble down over one trillion eggs every year.
Apart from that the world uses 400 million doses of flu vaccine each year. The serum is reproduced in fertilised chook eggs. It is estimated that without the vaccine 50,000 more Americans would die each year.
Replacing chicken with beef would require eight times as much feed and ten times the land – more than India and China combined. Or we could double the number of pigs. Pigs require only 14% more feed to produce the same amount of meat.
No other bird will do. Neither ducks nor turkeys produce meat or eggs as efficiently as chooks. Ducks need water. And they are not as adaptable. “You don’t find ducks in semi-desert subsisting on vermin” says one expert.
Lamb produces over five times as much greenhouse gas as chicken, beef nearly four times. Turning to pork would increase greenhouse gases by 75% for the same meat. But switching to beans would reduce emissions to less than a third.
Chicken generally is becoming more popular. As recently as 1950 Americans ate twice as much red meat as chicken. Today that situation is reversed. In China chicken is about to surpass pork in popularity.
Chooks have been around for a long time. Lawler says:
Some 3000 years ago, Polynesians took chickens with them on their expeditions to settle Pacific islands, using their bones to make sewing needles, tattooing implements and even musical instruments. Ancient Greeks considered the bird sacred to their god of healing, and believed its parts could cure illnesses ranging from burns to bed-wetting. Roman generals kept a flock of chickens on hand before battles for military advice. If the sacred birds ate heartily before the conflict began, then the generals could expect victory; if they turned up their beaks, then best to retreat. And cockfighting is probably the oldest spectator sport after boxing.
Lawler reports that Darwin spent a good deal of time and money studying the bird.
Darwin deduced that all varieties of domestic chicken descended from the red jungle fowl, a shy and elusive pheasant that lives across south Asia and parts of China, and is adapted to a variety of habitats. His conclusions were confirmed in 2004, when the bird’s genome was sequenced.
This source suggests that first domestication may have occurred in Thailand 8,000 years ago, or perhaps there were multiple origins in distinct areas of South and Southeast Asia, including North and South China, Thailand, Burma and India. The above photo shows a red junglefowl (Gallus gallus).
Domesticated chickens appear at Mohenjo-Daro in the Indus Valley by about 2000 BC and, from there the chicken spread into Europe and Africa.
The Spanish conquistadors brought chickens to the Americas, but “presumably pre-Columbian chickens have been identified at several sites throughout the Americas, most notably at the site of El Arenal-1 in Chile, ca 1350 AD.”
In modern times we treat chooks abominably, by and large. They have short and miserable lives and are often consumed in ways that are not particularly good for us.
There still seems to be some confusion about what such terms as “free range” and “organic” mean. If memory serves, I heard discussion on the radio about ‘free range’ being claimed where stocking density was up to 25,000 birds per hectare. This 2011 article claims that in Australia there is no single standard for organic or free range products and anyone can use those terms. Here is a sustainable table for free range chickens and eggs.
Yuval Harari, though gloomy about the future of Homo Sapiens, suggests that animal rights are going to be much more topical in the coming century. I hope he’s right. So-called ‘free’ trade agreements tend to produce the lowest common denominator. In the US free range regulations currently indicate only that the animal has been allowed access to the outside. Regulations “do not specify the quality or size of the outside range nor the duration of time an animal must have access to the outside.”
Europe has a formal standard whereby single eggs must be individually marked with a number to indicate one of four categories: Organic (ecological), Free Range, Barn, or Cages. Stocking density is limited to 2500 hens per hectare or one hen per 4m2. Britain has the largest free range flock, but standards are not always followed in practice.
Some retailers – such as Waitrose, Sainsbury’s, the Co-op and Marks & Spencer – no longer sell eggs from cage birds.
The article points out that under EU regulations free range allows up to nine hens to be crammed into every square metre of floor space when in the shed.
FWIW this post states that Coles in Australia accept 10,000 birds per hectare under their “free range” label. This photo is said to be from a Coles free range shed:
Finally, being Easter I’ll mention that when I was very young growing up in a settlement of German farmers there was no such thing as an Easter bunny or candy and chocolate Easter eggs. We had boiled eggs with coloured dye on the shells, fondly remembered.