Will Eating Chicken Really Save The Planet?

Contrary to popular belief, chicken is not a sustainable food choice


(updated )

5 Minutes Read

A rooster on a chicken farm Chickens are often thought of as a planet-friendly food - but how true is this? - Media Credit: Havva Zorlu / We Animals Media

People don’t like to change and they especially don’t like to change what they eat.

But as the realities of the climate and biodiversity crises get ever more serious, the impact of food is becoming impossible to ignore.

Read more: Think Free Range Eggs Are Ethical? Investigation Exposes Reality Of ‘Cage-Free’

Faced with uncomfortable truths about the impacts of different foods on the planet, one response has been denial. This trait is evident amongst supporters of “regenerative” farming, who claim that animal agriculture can be “carbon positive.” A recent study put another nail in that coffin.

Another response has been deflection.

It’s very easy to point the finger at cows. Besides the fact that that finger should be aimed firmly at the humans who farm and eat cows, rather than the animals themselves, such simplification is potentially very problematic.

House on fire

Beef has far and away the highest contribution of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of everything humans eat.

The amount of land and water needed to farm cows is astronomical. The amount of crops grown to feed them is enormously wasteful. The waste and deforestation that cow farming causes make it one of the most destructive activities on the planet.

In response to concerns about beef’s environmental impact, some have put forward chicken consumption as a climate solution. A recent article even suggested that being a “chickentarian” could be a viable alternative to veganism. 

But two wrongs don’t make a right.

Over-emphasizing the unique harms of beef production risks letting another ruinous meat industry off the hook. Worse, beefing up chicken slaughter could exacerbate several key environmental, ethical, and health risks.

As Nicholas Carter, an ecologist and data scientist, puts it: “Choosing chicken over beef for the claimed environmental benefits is like turning down the thermostat in a burning house.”

Room for improvement

Fast growing broiler chickens in a factory farm
Molly Condit / Sinergia Animal / We Animals Media The vast majority of the world’s chickens are raised in factory farms

Removing ruminant meat (cows and lambs) from menus has been touted as a climate policy by some forward-thinking institutions and restaurants.

While the intention is admirable, the consequences can be alarming if all that beef is replaced with chicken meat.

Read more: EU Making Animal Diets ‘Artificially Cheap’ With Subsidies, Report Finds

That’s because the argument for eating more chicken is usually based solely on GHG emissions. Although lower than for some other meats, chicken has higher emissions than plant-based proteins such as tofu, lentils, chickpeas, and beans.

“Chicken does have a lower carbon footprint than beef or pork,” Carter tells Plant Based News (PBN). “But it’s still three times higher than even the highest emitting plant protein, like soy, and almost ten times higher than peas.”

Mega mess 

Worse, scaling up chicken production usually means even greater intensification.

Intensification is a long-standing answer to how to reduce the climate impact of meat. The result can be seen in the spread of Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) in the US and mega-farms in the UK.

Intensive farming comes with serious problems. 

Read more: How Many Animals Are Killed For Food Everyday?

Carter points to the extreme risks of zoonotic diseases from mass confinement of animals as one leading concern. Studies have shown that intensive farming poses a major risk of antibiotic resistance, disease spread, and pandemics.

This echoes the warnings of Matthew Hayek, Professor of Environmental Studies at New York University, who has warned of the “zoonosis trap” that results from chicken farming. This trap involves a cycle of intensifying existing facilities (which enhances disease transmission and antimicrobial resistance) and expanding into new regions (where humans will come into contact with the new diseases).

There’s also chicken poo to contend with. Keeping huge numbers of birds in one place inevitably leads to huge amounts of waste. Excessive manure runs off into local waterways and can bring about ecological collapse, as has happened recently in the River Wye and Lough Neagh.

It’s not the how, it’s the who

A white chicken looking towards the camera
Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals Media Chickens are sentient beings capable of pain and suffering

If the environmental and health risks are not enough to turn people off chicken meat, the ethical arguments are overwhelming.

Chickens, being smaller, are farmed in significantly higher numbers than cows. Indeed, more than 200 million chickens are slaughtered for food every day. That’s 140,000 deaths every minute.

For the birds stuck in factory farms right now, ever more intensive farming methods means ever less space and ever more suffering.

Eat beans, not birds

Mark Zuckerberg’s recent announcement that he had started raising cows was rightly condemned by climate scientists as an “obnoxious luxury.”

Sticking it to Zuck for raising cows while tucking into a chicken dinner, however, is not the climate solution that some seem to think it is.

Study after study shows that the best response to the ills of animal agriculture is to transition towards a plant-based food system.

“Continuing to farm chicken is one of the riskiest ways of attempting to feed the world,” Carter adds. It’s time governments stop gambling and start following the science.

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