Worldwide chicken production is up 400% over the last 50 years, while beef production is up 0%, yet we continue to vilify red meat as the cause of our modern health epidemics. In this recent post, I explain how we aren’t eating enough protein and animal flesh is the most bioavailable, nutrient-dense and calorically efficient source. In addition to eating more meat, we need to be eating better meat. Now, if you have access to truly pasture-raised chickens that spend their days outdoors in the sunlight, eating bugs and romping in the grass, that’s fantastic. However, these chickens are incredibly difficult to come by compared to grass-fed beef, which you can now find at Walmart.
The term, “A chicken In every pot” was first stated by Henry IV of France: “I want there to be no peasant in my realm so poor that he will not have a chicken in his pot every Sunday.” This is because chicken was such a luxury. During the 1928 Hoover campaign for presidency, the term was brought back, “A chicken in every pot and a car in every garage,” as a promise of prosperity to voters. The use of cheap grain, cheap oil, and widespread antibiotic has allowed chicken to be the least expensive meat in the U.S. at $1.50 per pound (the average price of chicken as of Sept 2016). Most farmers that I know who raise real, pasture-raised chickens, charge about $20 – $30 per bird. In my opinion, chicken should go back to being a “luxury” item.
Leonardo DiCaprio’s recent documentary, Before the Flood, does a fantastic job of raising awareness of how important it is that we make some serious changes in order to save the environment. However a glaring mistake in my opinion was the call to action to eat more chicken and less beef. This shallow thinking is quite prevalent among those who have a naive understanding of our food system.
I know boneless skinless chicken seems like a healthier choice than steak, but it’s not 1989 anymore and the low-fat thing is dead. I think because chicken is white, people think that it’s somehow healthier looking than “bloody” red meat (the red liquid in the package is actually just myoglobin, not blood.) Boneless skinless chicken breasts are pretty disassociated from the animal they came from compared to a rib roast or T-bone steak. Most people also feel more sorry for a cow than they do a chicken. Cows have big brown eyes, and remind us of our pets. We associate less with chickens than cows. Feed lots are out in the open, so people can see them as they drive by. CAFO chicken factories are more hidden, so we don’t really know what’s going on.
Here are 10 reasons to stop eating so much chicken (and more grass-fed beef…)
If you’ve ever visited a sustainable farm, you’ve probably seen some happy brown chickens running around in the grass, pecking at bugs and making noise. These happy chickens are not the cornish cross, which is so incredibly far removed from anything close to a “natural” animal, that they will die of organ failure if you don’t kill them by about 5 weeks. (In 1925, the average chicken took 125 days to reach market weight. Today, it’s only 47 days.) They absolutely could not survive in the wild. We tried raising this breed on our farm in an outdoor system and one little strike of thunder would send 1/2 the flock into cardiac arrest. They grow so quickly (better returns for the farmer) that their bodies can’t keep up. Their breasts become so heavy that they can’t walk. This is the breed of chicken you’re getting when you buy grocery store chicken. Cows are also pretty domesticated but it’s nothing like what we’ve done to chickens.
Speaking of unnatural, intensive chicken operations also produce incredible amounts of pollution – when animals are raised in a responsible way, their waste actually benefits the soil. This brings me to my next point…
Typical chickens are raised in large, windowless confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs). The air is thick with ammonia. Their feet have ulcers from standing in their manure. Think cage free is better? Did you know chickens are cannibals and will peck each other to death if they’re stressed out? You know what’s super stressful to chickens? CAFOs. In contrast, all cows raised for meat start out on grass. “Grass-fed” or “Grass-finished” beef continues to eat grass until they’re processed (mostly, the term is not well-regulated) and feed lot beef at 600-900lbs. When at the feed lot, at least these cows can move around on their own and are outdoors. I’m not advocating that everyone eat feed lot beef, but clearly if you have a choice between CAFO chicken and feed lot beef, the more humane choice is beef.
Because CAFOs are so disgusting and unnatural, the chickens are given antibiotics on a regular basis to keep them well enough to live five weeks. The problem with this is that bacteria can adapt really quickly and can become resistant to antibiotics. The reason this matters is because we humans also can become infected with the same bacteria and if it’s antibiotic resistant, guess what? An infection that used to be solved with a standard antibiotic can now kill you. This is a really big deal. In fact, a really serious antibiotic resistant super-bug has already been discovered on CAFO pig farms. Check out my interview with Michael Graziano, the director of the film “Resistance” for more on this topic. The manure of well managed grazing of cattle actually helps sequester carbon. (I wrote about this more here).
Antibiotic-free, hormone-free, cage-free are not really solving the problem. First of all, hormone-free is silly, because it’s illegal to give chickens hormones. Cage-free doesn’t really help, because as I mentioned earlier, chickens are cannibals and so putting them in a huge, windowless barn in a stressful situation and they’ll just peck each other to death. And, antibiotic-free sounds great, except (as I mentioned) CAFOs are really gross so they sort of need the antibiotics in order to stay healthy. Remove antibiotics and you just have more death, or other drugs that aren’t technically in the antibiotic class. This is like saying that smokers have yellow fingers so if we just cut off their fingers, it all will be ok. Oh, I forgot to mention “free-range/roaming,” and “cage free” can simply mean that there is one little door way back in the corner that the chicken may never see. One of the only third party labels that I actually endorse is Animal Welfare Approved.
Did you ever stop to think what “vegetarian fed” really means? Not much, because chickens aren’t vegetarians. Pasture-raised chickens love to eat bugs and even mice.
“Vegetarian-fed” chickens just means they were fed grain. Do you know how this grain was produced? In mono-cropped, gigantic farms that use GMO seed and are heavily sprayed with herbicides that kill the soil. Chickens are great at converting grain to flesh, at a rate of about 2:1 (2 parts grain to 1 part flesh), but do we really want each bite of chicken to equal 2 bites of GMO grain? In this post, I show that cows actually have the same feed to flesh ratio.
I’ll spare you the imagery on this one. There are regulations about how sheep, pigs, and cows are handled prior to slaughter. These large animals must be handled in a “humane” way, which includes rendering them unconscious before killing them. This makes a huge difference to the stress level of the animal. Poultry is excluded. This means they are often killed in not-so-nice ways. The Animal Welfare Approved label assures an even higher level of humane handling practices.
Many people looking to be more ethical about their meat consumption say that they want to have the least number of animal deaths to support their health. A typical cow produces about 490 pounds of edible meat. A three to five pound chicken only yields about 50% edible meat, so you’d have to kill about 250 chickens in order to get the same amount of meat you can get from one cow. That’s a lot more beings!
Chicken has a lot of protein, just like beef, however beef wins on nearly every other nutritional level. Red meat has much less omega-6 (the inflammatory kind) than chicken. Beef has about a 1:5 ratio of omega-3’s to 6’s, boneless skinless chicken breast has a 1:10 ratio (and it’s much higher when you look at other parts of chicken). Beef has nearly twice as much selenium and zinc, and more phosphorus, B6, and a ton more B12 than chicken. I’ve written more about the health benefits of beef, so has Robb, and Chris Kresser also does a consistently fantastic job at debunking the studies that claim meat will kill you.
Although I’m not a Purell addict, I am certified in food safety and nothing grosses me out more than someone touching raw meat and then not washing their hands. There are many different infections caused by food. Chicken are most associated with salmonella. Annually, salmonella causes 1.2 million illnesses, 23,000 hospitalizations, and 450 deaths. In contrast, the main issue in the beef supply is, E. coli, which causes an estimated 96,000 illnesses, 3,200 hospitalizations and 31 deaths in the U.S. each year. And on the topic of making people sick, it was recently found that many CAFO chickens contained arsenic in their meat, a known carcinogen.
Come on, it’s pretty much meat’s version of tofu.
When everyone blames cows for taking up much more land than chickens, they’re forgetting that they’re simply not comparing apples to apples. Yes, chickens packed in a CAFO operation take up less space than a cow in a field. However pasture land can not be used for anything but pasture. You can’t plant lettuce everywhere. Cows and other ruminants do a great job at surviving in brittle environments where not much else can be done with the land. Another thing people aren’t factoring in is the amount of cropland required to produce the grain to feed the chickens. Cows don’t actually require grain, but chickens do. This recent study examined food consumption and land use, and found that a plant-based diet is actually not as environmentally sustainable as everyone assumes. This is because crops and grains take up a lot of valuable land and actually require a lot of water.
Currently, 11% (1.5 billion ha) of the Earth’s land surface is used for crop production (annual crops and “permanent” agriculture like tree fruit). The FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) suggests that this is about 1/3 of the potential land mass (2.7 billion ha) suitable for crop production. That leaves a large amount of the land that is only suitable for grazing animals. In fact, most of the surface land on Earth is only suitable to grazing animals and not for crop production, due to topography, humidity, and other issues. What’s also not taken into account are the other potential uses this cropland may have for humans (such as housing, industrial uses, etc), so the total amount of usable land for cropping is likely much less than that number. Also, about 45% of potentially arable land is currently in forest. Read the full FAO report here.
If we stop eating so many animals that require cropland (chickens), and switch to eating animals raised on pasture (cows, sheep and goats,) which takes up most of the land mass on earth, this is a much more efficient system to feed people than simply using all the cropland and leaving the grazing land untouched. Additionally, when you don’t have animals on grazing land, the soil suffers. Pasture needs to have animals on it in order to function properly as an ecosystem. Remove the animals and you’ll increase desertification. Read more here about the environmental effects of ruminants on land. I explore this topic more in this post.
So, the bottom line is
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