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Oiling the Chicken Machine

Garth Brown at The New Atlantis

Photo by Brett Jordan / Unsplash

Queasy about lab-grown meat? Too bad — you’ve pretty much been eating it for decades.

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In her community, it’s common knowledge that my mom is a soft touch when it comes to chickens. She maintains a motley flock of adoptees — backyard hens whose owners have moved, scrawny layers too old to be worth their feed, the pets of children who never much wanted them in the first place. She knows most of the people who donate the birds, or at least knows how they connect to her capacious social circle. But a few years ago, a complete stranger arrived at her door. He came bearing two bony, adolescent chicks, pink skin showing through their white feathers, their beaks and feet comically outsized. He’d bought them as an Easter present for his grandkids, and rather than petite, pretty hens, they had turned into gangly monstrosities.

Mom spotted them for the woefully underfed meat birds they were, but she nevertheless took them in. One died almost immediately, whether of natural causes or at the teeth of a fox no one remembers. The other survived. It grew and grew and ate and grew some more, inflating until it weighed some twenty pounds, more than three times as much as a standard laying hen. Released from the pen for their morning constitutional, the other members of the flock would dart about after bugs and shoots. They’d take dust baths and cluck and squabble. The lone broiler would do all this too, but at half speed. While the araucana and barred rock chickens swiftly tacked about the large patch of hosta that curled around the back deck, the broiler would plod through it like a miniature white tugboat. Perhaps because of her size, she moved with uncommon deliberateness, as if taking each step only after a great deal of thought. She walked, and the leaves parted before the prow of her serene, unflighty chest.

For the past century, agriculture in America has been getting more productive and more efficient. After stagnating for decades at twenty-something bushels per acre, average corn yields have risen to nearly two hundred. Horses have been replaced by horsepower. Chicken meat, once a relatively rare byproduct of the egg industry, has become the most consumed meat in the country, a shift made possible by advances in genetics and feed. Now over a billion dollars, from sources as varied as Bill Gates, venture capital funds, and agribusiness giants, have been invested in the idea that the next big thing in food is to leave farming behind, at least the livestock part of it. Instead of growing chicken meat in a chicken, why not grow it in a test tube?

In June, U.S. regulators for the first time gave two California companies, Upside Foods and GOOD Meat, a green light for offering lab-grown chicken to American consumers, with star chef José Andrés becoming the first to cook it for his guests in July. The menu of his restaurant China Chilcano in Washington, D.C. now boasts “a tour of Peruvian cuisine beginning with our cultivated chicken anticucho from GOOD Meat” for the price of $70.

The arrival of lab-grown chicken in America marks a radical change to the food system, but it is also a logical extension of the progression of agriculture. A chicken breast cultured in a vat and one taken from a factory farm broiler are both products of the same miraculous, troubled system. The single-minded pursuit of efficiency that is largely responsible for this system has caused immense damage to the social fabric of rural communities, to some — though certainly not all — parts of the environment, and to the fundamental connection between place, food, and human beings. But it has also allowed food production to more than keep pace with the demands of a growing population. The modern food system feeds the largest human population ever, at historically low rates of famine.

Continuing to avoid global famine is the most important goal of this system. That means any critique of the trajectory of agriculture, even when it involves a change as profound as moving meat production from the factory farm to literal meat factories, must be balanced against this goal. Is it possible to sustain the bounty yielded by our modernized food system but also temper its excesses, or even reform it into something better?

How to Build a Chicken Breast

Today chicken meat is as thoroughly commodified as the flesh of a once-sentient creature can be. Three companies control the global supply of broiler chicken genetics. Each maintains four distinct populations, two of which are crossed to produce hens, two of which are crossed to produce roosters. These roosters and hens are sold to commercial hatcheries, where their eggs are collected and put in incubators. Once hatched, the chicks are in turn sold to farms, where they live out their brief lives, fed a carefully calibrated ration. Then it’s off to the slaughterhouse to be turned into thighs, drums, and, most importantly, boneless, skinless chicken breast. A typical broiler exists for about two months from laying to death: three weeks of development in an egg followed by five to six weeks of incredibly rapid growth.

The organizing principle is efficiency, achieved by maximizing the closely linked traits of breast size, growth rate, and feed conversion, which is a measure of the pounds of feed required to produce a pound of live weight in a chicken. All of the carefully managed breeding leads to a high degree of heterosis, also known as hybrid vigor, a phenomenon common to both plants and animals in which the offspring of two unrelated parents will usually grow larger and faster with fewer health issues than a purebred. Using four unrelated genetic lines compounds the effect, and also allows for the selection of ancillary traits, such as maintaining adequate egg production in hens.

Each level of the industry is specialized: genetics companies focus on developing proprietary breeding programs in biosecure facilities, hatcheries produce chicks at scale, and farmers oversee the growing phase of the chickens’ lives. Though the farmers are often self-employed, they are far from self-directed. Everything from the construction of the chicken barns to the timing and number of chickens raised to the details of the feed program is dictated by Perdue or Tyson or one of a handful of other large agribusiness companies. Finally, the chickens go through a slaughterhouse, where their carcasses are shackled to a disassembly line that moves them past workers and inspectors at rates of up to three birds per second.

More than any other animal, a meat chicken is a factory product. The hen you see pecking around your neighbor’s yard is still a chicken, living a chicken’s life much like chickens have ever since they stopped being wild junglefowl. The bird in the broiler house is something less. It might still have the capacity to scratch and peck, but it will never have the opportunity. It exists solely to convert feed to muscle, though to do so it requires annoyances like feathers, bones, a digestive tract, and a small but recalcitrant brain, from which no amount of breeding will remove certain distinctly chicken-ish desires. It is a unit optimized for the production of lean breast meat, but one that remains frustratingly bounded by its creaturehood.

More Muscle, Less Pain

Viewed this way, growing chicken cells in a bioreactor, producing what is called either “cultured” or “lab-grown meat,” just makes sense. Instead of optimizing for muscle growth in a chicken, with all the externalities that accompany raising livestock at scale, lab-grown meat takes the most economically valuable part of the bird and cultivates it in isolation. Rather than carefully selected lines of poultry, it utilizes carefully selected lines of cells. Rather than converting corn and soy to meat via an animal, a slurry of nutrients convert directly to muscle with no intermediary. Rather than traveling to a slaughterhouse, the output of a bioreactor can be shaped and packed at the point of production. In theory, a lab-grown meat factory should produce lean chicken more efficiently than a real chicken ever could.

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