Say you have a nice dinner: mashed potatoes, carrots, green salad, and roast chicken. The chicken is juicy, with that crusty, seasoned skin that is delicious. There’s even a light gravy. You have a drumstick, a thick slice of breast meat, and maybe a wing.
Of course you aren’t the only person who ate chicken tonight. Thousands of other people devoured the birds for their dinners, too. Even as you read this, the number of people eating chicken in the United States numbers in the millions. According to something called the National Chicken Council: at least 30.71 billion pounds of chicken product were purchased by Americans in 2011. Americans purchased 84.1 pounds of chicken per capita in 2011. That’s almost a quarter pound of chicken per person per day.
Purdue University says Americans consume 8 billion chickens a year. At a United States population of 313.9 million, every single one of us consumes more than 25 chickens per year.
In order to check up on the waste end of chicken production, we visited Titus County, Texas, the home of Pilgrim’s Corp, formerly Pilgrim’s Pride. Pilgrim’s is the largest chicken producer in the United States, and second largest in Mexico. In 2007, Titus County and the surrounding area produced 23.5 million chickens. Titus County itself has more 9,000 chickens per square mile.
Titus County is also home to several Pilgrim’s Corp meat processing plants. These plants, like the 184 other chicken slaughtering and evisceration plants in the US, have their downsides. Neighbors often complain about the odor, which Margaret and I can confirm is prodigious.
As with almost every aspect of our food production system, delivering such a massive amount of chicken on demand to kitchens all over the US generates quite a bit of waste. Big Chicken, the Pew Environment Group’s report on the poultry industry, calculated that 1000 chickens produce 81 cubic feet of waste (called ‘poultry litter‘) per year. Given the number of chickens we are talking about, that’s a hell of a lot of poop.
But hey, this land is your land, from sea to shining sea, and it’s really big, right? The trend in chicken farming over the last few decades, as demonstrated by Titus County, has been towards consolidation and concentration. Most chickens you buy at the grocery store are produced in what are called CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations). According to the EPA, a CAFO confines animals for more than 45 days out of the year, has no grass or grazing, and has more than 37,000 animals when it comes to chickens. Lots of chickens in a small area means you are going to have to spread the litter thick or ship it out.
The majority of the waste is spread on farm fields and crops as fertilizer. Although chicken manure can be a great fertilizer, over application produces problems. Application to croplands can cause significant groundwater problems, as well as powerful odor issues.
Some researchers claim that shipping poultry litter to places that haven’t got enough chicken shit can be more cost effective than purchasing commercial fertilizer, “given current high fertilizer prices.” My dad used to often say, Dilution is the solution to pollution. While I don’t agree with the statement, I wonder if a corollary isn’t true: Concentration is the source of pollution.
The consolidation produced by high demand for cheap products has led to a concentration of production processes and a host of difficulties. Economies of scale work magic in reducing the cost of things, but they come with an environmental curse: in this case, way more chicken shit than we know how to spread around.