Stop Planet Chicken, I want to get off

To complain about the ‘injustice’ done by humans to chickens – those cannibalistic balls of faeces and feathers – is to call into question the entire basis of human civilisation.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

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Books You Probably Can Judge By The Cover, Number 373. Apart from the title, ‘Planet Chicken’, and the subtitle, ‘The Shameful Story of the Bird on Your Plate’ (that’s your plate, notice, not theirs), there is also the cover illustration. It shows a chicken’s head with a tear falling from its eye; indeed the tear is rather bigger than the eye from which it is falling. Never mind your smart Alec questions about whether chickens can cry. Hattie Ellis’ moral message is that ‘the world’s favourite bird’ has been turned into the wretched of the Earth, suffering the terrors of factory farming to feed our addiction to cheap meat, and we should weep for them.

If I seem a bit cynical in contrast to Ellis’ obvious compassion for her subject, let me declare an interest. I don’t like chickens, oh no. I eat them of course, although the cloying texture and relative lack of taste make it far from my favourite meat. But the idea of having tender feelings for the live birds strikes me as frankly squawking mad. Regular readers will know that, in an anthropomorphic age when those who suggest that man is superior to beast are branded ‘speciesists’, spiked writers rightly insist upon drawing a clear and uncrossable line between humanity and the ‘animal kingdom’. I am tempted to add a personal, admittedly unscientific, distinction between other animals and the chicken.

As a young man I worked one summer on a Ministry of Agriculture farm, where I soon discovered the chickens we were supposed to be caring for were horrible, cannibalistic balls of faeces and feathers, an unpleasant underclass of the farm bird world. One morning a couple of other student summer workers and I were sent into a shed in huge souwesters and raincoats and told we had half an hour to ‘clear’ – that is, kill – the 200-odd chickens occupying it with our bare hands; we soon discovered that the rainproofs were for when you pulled a neck too hard and the head came off, turning the bird into a blood-spurting chicken pistol. I am sorry to report to chicken lovers that no tears were shed in the killing shed, either by hen or human.

Some animal rights’ activists might suggest that this shows I suffer from an irrational ‘henophobia’ bordering on fascism (after all, that Nazi Himmler started off as a chicken farmer you know). But an unsentimental attitude towards farm animals is actually sensible and human. Those who have to work with them for a living have always been the most clear-eyed about these matters – at least until the advent of hobby farmers who give their hens names like ‘Chickpea’.

But Planet Chicken is about more than Ellis’ personal warm feelings towards the foul fowl. Through its critical examination of the poultry farming industry, it suggests that there is something seriously wrong with the relationship between man and chicken today, and that the shitty way we treat them is a stain on modern humanity’s heart.

She starts by offering some startling statistics about the growth of the global chicken industry through intensive farming methods. At any moment there are now almost twice as many chickens alive as humans. People in Britain alone eat five times as much chicken as we did 20 years ago, now accounting for almost half the meat we consume. Britain produces more than a million tonnes of chicken a year, mostly in factory farms where big production lines can kill 9,000 birds an hour. In the USA, apparently, 24million chickens are killed every 24 hours.

Globally, chicken now account for the majority of the 50billion animals eaten every year. As Ellis notes: ‘The world is currently in the middle of what is termed a “Livestock Revolution”. This is the animal equivalent of the Green Revolution of the 1960s, which spread chemically sustained crop farming around the globe. In this case, it is about the rise of industrially farmed creatures.’

Now, to me this sounds like a fantastic human success story. Through the increasingly industrialised farming of chickens, producers are feeding the world by turning meat that, even in Britain, used to be reserved for special occasions, into an inexpensive everyday source of protein. That, surely, is something to crow about.

The message of Planet Chicken, however, is that the rise of ‘industrially farmed creatures’ is a bad thing. It assumes that there must be something morally suspect about ‘cheap’ meat produced by factory methods. More broadly, it is an attack on the development of industry and human society, and its separation from the animal world.

The reactionary strain in the argument is spelt out in the foreword by the TV cook and celebrity cottage farmer, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. He observes that we evolved from ‘savages’ into farmers, but that ‘the industrialisation of farming has brought us full circle’: ‘We have reduced, through mechanisation, the contact between “farmer” and livestock to the point where the sentience and natural inclinations of our farm animals is all too easily ignored… This is industrialised savagery, and for the sanity of our own species, as much as for the welfare of those animals we are so ruthlessly exploiting, this savagery has to end.’

To support this contention that the advance of civilisation is in fact a return to savagery, Ellis takes us on a journey through planet chicken. There is some brief and interesting history of the evolution of the species, from jungle fowl, through birds bred for their looks and cock fighting ability, to the mass-produced meat of the twentieth century. Following the success of industrialised methods in the USA, the first broiler strains came to Britain in 1956. ‘The post-war priority for farming – an entirely understandable reaction to austerity – was productivity. After 14 years of food rationing the bountiful harvest of cheap meat, brought about by the appliance of science, was a beacon of progress.’

So far, so good. But Ellis is quick to emphasise that ‘we’ now know how wrong that productivity-centred approach to farming was, both for the birds (who are still apparently wild jungle fowl at heart) and for the consumer. ‘Have we really changed so much’, she asks, ‘that this form of meat production and eating is natural?’ Well, hunger might be ‘natural’, but that does not necessarily make it right….

Ellis goes on to look at the packaged chickens on the supermarket shelf where, in her odd bird’s-eye view, ‘behind their tight plastic, the meat reminded me of the naked, shrink-wrapped magazine babes lined up on the top shelf of the newsagents’. Next she visits a crammed chicken shed where they grow sitting on their own litter, and seems childishly shocked to discover that ‘it was almost impossible to see these creatures as individuals – as creatures even. It couldn’t be further from a storybook farmyard image.’ Then she reviews a Compassion in World Farming video of a chicken-killing plant where there are apparently ‘birds with monstrous breasts, the Jordans of mass produced meat, barely able to stand up’. (Poultry-as-porn seems to be emerging as a theme.)

Meanwhile Ellis offers as an alternative an unappetising batch of self-righteous prigs opposed to industrialised farming. There is the man from the Real Meat Company who pompously announces that, ‘if you don’t like factory farming, you’ve got two choices: buy ours or become a vegetarian…. If you buy an ordinary chicken you know that it may have led a ghastly life, been transported terribly, lived badly, been killed badly. And you’re responsible. Who else is?’ This ethical marketing pitch is backed up with pictures of factory farming on his company website. Never mind that people’s primary responsibility might be to feed their family as economically as possible.

Then there is the ‘quietly charismatic’ Italian animal rights activist who, Ellis says, helped persuade the EU to outlaw battery cages by 2012. He tells her: ‘I knew I was risking a lot. But…if you believe in something you should invest in it to make it happen. What I could invest at that moment wasn’t anything else but putting my life on the table.’ Anybody would think it was him being bred in a cage and slaughtered for meat. Ellis assures us he is ‘not a crazed martyr’. Of course not.

Ellis is an evangelist for the advance of farming methods that claim to produce ‘happy chickens’, ‘slow chickens’, and higher-welfare eggs. She reports of one of these more naturalistic farmers that ‘whenever they have to be confined, for example when part of a shedful has to be collected up for slaughter, Susie told me the chickens emerge like schoolchildren let out at break-time’. Which I’m afraid strikes me as a truly sick attitude to take to birds you are breeding for slaughter. Ellis also has to admit that there is some considerable confusion over what terms like ‘free-range’ eggs and ‘organic’ chicken really mean today, and she lets slip her disappointment that freer chickens don’t live up to that storybook farmyard image either: ‘They may be able to display more natural behaviour, but unfortunately this can include vicious pecking and even cannibalism.’ That’s sounds like the chickens I know I detest.

Of course it is good to be able to eat better-quality eggs and meat, and to develop better techniques for producing them. But that is not about making chickens ‘happy’ so much as finding ways to make us happier to eat them. As Ellis has to concede, this comes down to money. Whether she and her ‘real meat’ mates like it or not, people want and need cheap meat. She quotes a professor of science policy who ‘immediately snapped any precious ivory fork in two’, declaring himself ‘bored and irritated’ by well-to-do friends who ‘sit around boasting about the lengths they go to have local, fresh, organic produce when actually it’s an exercise in conspicuous consumption – showing off their wealth and leisure’.

However, she soon sets aide such humanist concerns to conclude that ‘there is a bottom line. The production of cheap meat at a terrible cost to the chicken’s welfare is wrong…an everyday symbol of man’s inhumanity to animals.’

Like many issues to do with food and farming today, this chicken debate is not really about the details of different techniques for raising them. It is pecking at bigger targets: industrialised farming and, by implication, the social and economic advance of our society. The demand that we should all ‘reconnect’ with the animals that provide our food, for example, is really a call to turn back the clock on a social division of labour that has been developed over centuries. I am happy to leave the connecting to those unlucky enough to work with chickens. Ellis says that ‘chicken harvesting is widely acknowledged as being one of the worst jobs in the world. All you can say is that it must be even worse for the chickens.’ All I can say is that it is far worse for the humans, who unlike the brainless birds know what is going on as they slosh about in the blood, guts and chicken dirt.

The notion that the wonders of modern farming amount to ‘industrialised savagery’ is the product of a conveyor belt of overfed dull ideas in our Chicken Little society, where people who should know better rush like headless chickens from one food and health panic to another (as epitomised by the bird flu scare about UK poultry). It reflects a culture that not only fears the future, but has also lost faith in the achievements of its own past, so that a great stride forward for human nutrition can be dismissed as ‘inhumanity to animals’.

In the past it was said that you could judge the level of a society by its treatment of its prisoners. Frederick Engels argued that we should judge it by the way it treated the female half of its population. But only a society up to its own neck in misanthropic crap would accept that civilisation be judged according to how it treats its bloody chickens.

Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.

Planet Chicken: The shameful story of the bird on your plate by Hattie Ellis was published by Hodder & Stoughton. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK))

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Topics Books


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