Pecking order for traditional and modern chickens

The pros and cons of poultry breeding are not as clearcut as intensive producers or animal rights activists would have us believe…

The pros and cons of poultry breeding are not as clearcut as intensive producers or animal rights activists would have us believe, writes Andrew Legge

'All modern chickens have been bred from one species, the red jungle fowl. It's wonderful and amazing, one of the greatest human achievements in a sense that from that one bird we developed thousands of varieties adapted to different climates, societies and for different purposes."

So said Dr John Feehan of University College Dublin, describing how the chicken has been at the centre of farming and food production across the world for the past 5,000 years.

Today, chicken has abolished hunger in much of the world by making an excellent source of protein cheaply available for all. In Ireland, chicken was once an occasional treat but now it has become almost a daily staple.


This is made possible because of technological innovations such as described in Vincent Carton's article (Opinion, Friday April 26th) - including selective breeding techniques, low world grain prices, controlled environments and industrial-scale distribution networks.

There has been much debate about the effect of this transformation on chickens' welfare and on society in general. The tone of the debate has sometimes been shrill, with horror stories about hormone-pumped birds, hens crammed into cages and oven-ready chickens laced with antibiotics.

From the chicken industry, we hear how much of this is nonsense, how chickens reared for meat are not kept in cages, how the poultry houses and processing plants are regularly inspected by veterinary surgeons whose main purpose is monitoring animal welfare and how chickens are not fed antibiotics (although they are fed a coccidiostat, a drug that inhibits the development of a single-celled gut-dwelling parasite called coccidia).

In an urbanised society where consumers might live thousands of miles from the source of their food, people have little idea about the truths and untruths in this debate.

I decided to make a documentary film about chicken, showing the point of view of the poultry industry as well as that of the alternative - the artisan farmers who carry on the traditional methods.

Following a referral from the Irish Poultry Processors' Association, Vincent Carton of Manor Farm agreed to let me film the whole process of chicken production - from the hatchery to stripping the meat to packaging and despatching the processed chicken products.

I saw no sign of distress among the chickens, no deformed legs and no sign of animal welfare abuses.

The process was impressive: incubators with trays of hatching eggs; chicks sorted by their sex and sent spinning down gleaming stainless steel funnels; vast, airy barns housing up to 40,000 birds; whirring conveyor belts; armies of workers in spotless uniforms. As I recall, half a million chickens pass through this single factory every week. It was awe-inspiring and highly cinematic.

I also interviewed Giana Ferguson, part of a seventh-generation farming family that runs a mixed farm in west Cork - Gubbeen cheese is one of their products. They also produce eggs, milk and bacon. Her son, Fingal, smokes sausages and rashers; her daughter Clovis grows herbs and vegetables from her garden.

They manage the farm as traditionally as possible. It is not an organic farm - they have no problem with moderate amounts of fertilisers - but they rely on their own resources to maximise productivity with the minimum of waste and inputs. Giana keeps a collection of rare-breed chickens for laying and some fat broilers (roasting chickens).

About once a week, her husband, Tom, selects a plump bird. He leaves it in a shed overnight to clear its gut, throttles it the next morning, hangs it for a day or two and roasts it with garlic and home-grown vegetables for the family table.

The Gubbeen farm philosophy is to produce food in as sustainable as way as possible. A mixed farm is the ideal way to achieve this, they say: the waste from one part becomes the food for the other - the cow manure fertilises the vegetable garden; the whey from cheese-making nourishes pigs.

Like Manor Farm, Gubbeen Farm is run profitably. The traditional kind of farming provides for their needs and for their customers' needs, just as effectively as the industrialised alternative.

In my documentary, I investigated which had the longer-term future. Industrially produced chickens are cheaper, but does this account for their wider social costs? The loss of genetic diversity from basing chicken production on just a few species leads to increased vulnerability to disease.

As much as 20 per cent of the world's annual oil consumption is used to feed ourselves. Synthetic fertilisers are made from natural gas, pesticides are made from oil. The processing and transport of our food is highly energy-intensive.

Globalisation and the supermarkets' distribution network cause some food products to travel thousands of miles to reach the dinner table. The bulk of chicken served in Irish restaurants is imported. A lot of trade seems unnecessary. Last year, Ireland exported 77,000 tonnes of chicken to Britain and Britain exported 40,000 tonnes of chicken to Ireland.

As energy becomes more expensive, so too will the more energy-intensive forms of agriculture.

Industrial farming has put a chicken in every pot every day. Traditional farming would mean that we eat chicken once or twice a week. My film poses the question as to whether we, as a society, can afford to eat chicken every day.

In the event, Mr Carton objected to my portrayal of his industry and declined to give his consent to the broadcasting of the film. This is a shame, as I feel that the film could contribute to the debate.

• Andrew Legge is a documentary filmmaker