Questions I Can’t Answer. Chickens I Won’t Eat.
February 29th, 2012

You can’t blink or you will miss it.  It’s in the first line of this article called ”Farming the Unconscious” posted on We Make Money Not Art.” You don’t even know to be looking for it.

The “it” I refer to is the fact that the project discussed in the article comes from the Royal College of Art.  Not agriculture.  Not livestock.  Art.  This is relevant because it throws into question whether or not the entire project was created as an earnest attempt to solve a problem, or as a commentary on modern animal husbandry practices.

I encourage you to read the article.  The images alone are quite impactful.  The jist of it is this: Most people understand that the factory farming methods applied to chickens are largely believed to be inhumane.  The birds have been bred over time to reach physical maturity in about six weeks.  This rapid growth cycle is often too much for the cardio-pulmonary systems of the birds to withstand and many of them die before they can be slaughtered.  On top of the questionable breeding they are housed in huge, windowless, poorly ventilated barns with little-to-no room for movement, standing on a bed of their own feces, and reduced to cannibalizing each other out of boredom.  Seriously, it’s pretty disturbing.

But more disturbing still is student André Ford’s proposed solution.

He suggests that if the demand for poultry is such that we must be able to produce it on a mass scale, then why continue to raise chickens when we could just grow them?  Yes.  Grow.  Like a crop.  It is (apparently…) the logical extension of Purdue University professor Paul Thompson’s belief that raising more tolerant blind chickens we could circumvent many of the animal welfare problems plaguing the egg and poultry industry today.  If they are blind they won’t object as much to the conditions in which they live.  So why not take it a step further, render them fully unconscious, and house them in the most economic conditions possible?  While the chicken isn’t technically headless, it is effectively brainless.  To quote Ford explanation of the project:

As long as their brain stem is intact, the homeostatic functions of the chicken will continue to operate. By removing the cerebral cortex of the chicken, its sensory perceptions are removed. It can be produced in a denser condition while remaining alive, and oblivious. The feet will also be removed so the body of the chicken can be packed together in a dense volume. Food, water and air are delivered via an arterial network and excreta is removed in the same manner.  Around 1000 chickens will be packed into each ‘leaf’, which forms part of a moving, productive system.
I won’t even try to pretend that the very thought of this doesn’t disgust me.  But if it is worth anyone’s time to explore this topic in the first place then it is also worth it for me to withhold my gut reaction at least long enough to earnestly consider the merits of such an approach.
There are two major objections to factory farming: its negative effect on human nutrition, and concerns for animal welfare.  The nutrition concerns stem from issues like drug resistent bacteria that have evolved from use of antibiotics in animal feed, the effects of growth hormones from animal byproducts on children, and the compromised nutritional profile of many factory farmed animals.  The animal welfare concerns stem from the often-filthy and sardine-like conditions in which factory farmed animals are raised.  These conditions are a far cry from the idyllic pastoral scenes we like to envision when we think about where our food comes from.  But due to a flurry of media attention to this issue over the past five-ish years, we all know better now.
In thinking about this collection of concerns I have to admit that it would be intellectually dishonest not to concede that Ford’s suggested solution could mitigate, if not altogether eliminate, most of them.  Growing chickens in plexiglass containers would keep them in a clean (perhaps even sterile?) environment, removing the need for the excessive antibiotics used today.  Removing their brains would prevent them from objecting to such conditions.  And such intensive growing practices could allow more animals to be produced at a time, potentially limiting the need for the growth hormones that are used to increase production rates.  I suppose the entire approach could be more efficient than current practices.
None of this, however, changes the fact that if forced to choose between meat raised in these conditions and vegetarianism I would choose the latter every time.  And what frustrates me most about this is that I can’t really articulate why.  It’s a gut reaction.  It just feels wrong to me.  I am comfortable with my place on the food chain.  But I am not comfortable hideously subjugating an entire species of animals just because there is a market demand for cheap and abundant poultry.  Ford, however, would argue that we’re already there.  In his interview he candidly comments, “ Unfortunately, there is very little that is natural about the way the our food is currently produced.”
But as for cheap and abundant poultry… A follow-up argument here is that if the poultry industry were to follow Ford’s lead, chicken could become incredibly inexpensive.  Think of all the malnourished people living in poverty who might be able to afford a package of drumsticks for the first time.  Meat is calorie-dense and (obviously) high in protein.  Would I rather grow a chicken in a plastic box or watch a child go hungry?  It’s a conundrum that throws my moral high ground into question.
Here I am, more than 900 words into this post (if you’ve made it this far, bully for you!) and I don’t have an answer.  I won’t apologize for that because this is a topic that deserves some serious wrestling and I think it’s okay that I don’t yet have my views packaged up with a bow on top.  As I’ve said in previous posts on previous topics, asking these questions is the first step in answering them.
But back to where I started: The Royal College of Art.  Does André Ford really want us to grow our chickens in plexiglass containers?  Or did he just assert that we should in order to set us to thinking about whether the ends they produce justify such extreme means?  Either way, it worked.
This issue of our food supply is something I’ve explored in multiple prior posts.  If you’re interested, you can read further via the following links:
Posts on eating meat
Posts on feeding the poor

5 Responses to “Questions I Can’t Answer. Chickens I Won’t Eat.”

  1. thekitchenwitch Says:


  2. Ana Says:

    Agree with the ick factor. But as usual, the issues of morality when it comes to meat-eating are never straight-forward. I think I’d go back to vegetarian, too…but what about if my family still wants to eat meat? How do I reconcile that? Its complicated indeed.

  3. e Says:

    Maybe I’ll just give up eating? Thinking about it is something I guess I probably attempt not to do. And then I think back to my childhood and the care my dad gave livestock while they had them, and I’m back to – back in the good old days…..

  4. BigLittleWolf Says:

    As if your words weren’t horrifying enough, I went to the article and skimmed. Looking at the photos was certainly unsettling (these concepts of “farming” seem abhorrent to me, as they do to you).

    I’ve also written on this topic, but not from the humane treatment of animals perspective but rather, the human consumption health aspects – and also, accessibility and cost of non-steroidal/altered food sources.

    I will add, however, that I know how my body functions. I know its nutritional needs, in particular what happens when I don’t have enough meat or poultry, and I simply don’t feel well with alternatives. That said, I am increasingly seeking out the free-range and organic sources where I can, and where I can afford them.

  5. Anne Says:

    Well, I’m just going to sound like everyone else, but…..seriously. This gives me the heebie-jeebies. I’m nowhere near a card-carrying member of PETA, but I’m going to have to align with the chickens here and say….THIS IS MEAN. It sounds like a chicken lobotomy. Creepy. It does get me thinking…and then I want to stop thinking about it and go commune with all the happy chickens living in people’s backyards all around my hippie neighborhood.

    Funny Oregon moment: yesterday when volunteering at the local high school I listened to two parents compare their chicken breeds. “You know, one’s a buff orpington which is pretty standard, but then I also got…INSERT NAME OF DESIGNER CHICKEN BREED.” Also, I almost hit one a chicken roaming down our street the other day. I wonder what they’d say about plexi-glass chickens.