Cluck, no! Why choosing chicken over beef won’t save us

by Chloë Waterman, climate-friendly food program manager

he COVID-19 crisis has highlighted how deeply interconnected and fragile our food system is. Our highly concentrated meat processing infrastructure buckled early in the pandemic, and to date, more than 57,000 meatpacking workers became infected with COVID-19. Lines for food banks stretched down blocks. Diet-related chronic disease became one of the biggest risk factors for hospitalization and death from the virus. People of color bear the largest share of COVID-19 infections, deaths, and economic suffering.

As we scrutinize our food choices and the policies that influence them, we must acknowledge the impacts not only to our own health but to people across the globe. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) puts the odds of the next pandemic coming from animals at 3:1; our intensive confinement of billions of animals raised for food presents a major threat. The food and agriculture sector is also a primary driver of another crisis we are facing: climate change.

One food trend at the heart of the overlapping climate, public health, and worker justice crises we are facing is the rise in popularity of chicken. While U.S. beef consumption has steadily declined since the 1960s, chicken consumption has shot up from 28 pounds per person in 1960 to 96 pounds in 2019.

At first blush, a shift from beef to chicken may seem like a good thing. Beef is the biggest climate culprit in our diets, accounting for more than one-third of diet-related emissions in the U.S. High consumption of red meat has also been linked to heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and some forms of cancer. It certainly makes sense to reduce industrial beef consumption.

But swapping factory-farmed hamburgers for chicken wings will fail to adequately address the climate catastrophe and would actually exacerbate many of the pressing environmental, health, and worker justice problems that are more urgent than ever in the time of COVID-19.

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a crucial consideration, but, as COVID has made clear, mending our broken food and health systems requires a holistic approach. For a thriving planet, we need an abundant and clean water supply; equitable access to safe, sustainable, and nutritious food; an end to the chronic disease epidemic and the racial health disparities that come with it; fair working conditions and livable wages for workers; and an end to inhumane factory farms that are a breeding ground for the next pandemic.

Increasing industrial chicken production would generate more dead zones in our oceans, deplete increasingly scarce water supplies, accelerate climate change, and require more animals to be killed after a cruel existence.

Here are eight reasons why serving chicken instead of beef is the wrong solution:

1. There is no shortage of replacements for beef that are healthier, more climate-friendly, and more economical than chicken.

Given the drastic emissions reductions required from our food system in order to meet the Paris agreement target, switching from beef to chicken is a half-measure that we cannot afford. While poultry is less emissions-intensive per calorie than beef or pork, GHG emissions per gram of protein from poultry are more than six times greater than for pulses like beans, lentils, and chickpeas. Tofu, nuts, and other plant-based sources of protein are also far less emissions-intensive than chicken. Plant-based burgers with a more meat-like taste that generate far fewer emissions are also becoming widely available. Chicken doesn’t look like a good alternative to beef when considering the plethora of less carbon-intensive protein sources available in the market today.

2. Chicken processing plants are among the most dangerous places to work — especially during COVID-19.

Even before COVID-19, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that injury rates for poultry processing were higher than for logging, construction, or coal mining. These dangerous conditions, low pay, extreme demands on worker speed, and widespread abuses are all reasons why plants recruit employees from vulnerable populations like immigrants, refugees, and people who are incarcerated. During the pandemic, the situation is even more dire. Over 10,000 poultry processing workers have been infected with COVID and at least 41 have died Poultry processing companies like Tyson, Mountaire Farms, and Wayne Farms have even lobbied successfully to increase slaughter line speeds during the pandemic, making social distancing impossible and demonstrating their merciless attitude toward the workers they call essential.

3. Chicken carries the highest risk of foodborne illnesses and could be the vector for the next pandemic.

The CDC found poultry to be responsible for more deaths from foodborne illness than any other food category. And the antibiotics used in industrial chicken farming can lead to urinary tract infections for women who eat chicken, a growing number of which are resistant to antibiotics. Also, the H5N1 avian influenza virus emerged in Chinese poultry farms in the late 1990s and had a 60% mortality rate. The Center for Health Security at John Hopkins says that “of the infectious disease threats that the world faces, avian influenza viruses ranked among the most alarming,” and the World Health Organization has said that a future pandemic from an influenza virus, like the bird flu, is “a certainty.”

4. The chicken industry is depleting and degrading our scarce water resources, including by creating dead zones.

The total amount of water consumed and polluted to produce one pound of chicken is over 500 gallons, excluding the considerable amount of water used in chicken processing. A 2016 report by the Environment America Research and Policy Center found that the chicken producer Perdue Farms dumped more toxic pollutants into America’s waterways than ExxonMobil or DuPont.

Poultry manure contains excess nutrients — generally two to four times more than manure of other livestock types. The massive amount of nitrogen and phosphorus from manure, along with fertilizer used to produce chicken feed, gets washed into waterways, where it causes an overgrowth of algae, which in turn depletes oxygen, creating dead zones — vast areas that are uninhabitable by most marine life. Poultry litter is a driving source of pollution for the Chesapeake Bay, one of our nation’s most economically important and threatened bodies of water. A recent report identified fertilizer pollution from animal feed crops in the U.S. as the primary cause of the 7,000-square-mile dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

5. Increasing consolidation in the chicken industry harms farmers.

The vast majority of U.S. chicken farmers work under independent contracts with large agribusiness firms. Meeting contract requirements often forces farmers to go deep into debt. With the industry dominated by just a few companies, farmers often become trapped in unfair contracts. On top of that, there’s growing evidence of major chicken agribusiness companies engaging in anti-competitive practices in order to keep farmers’ pay low.

6. Consuming chicken has adverse effects on human health.

While red meat rightfully has a bad reputation for causing health problems, recent research shows chicken can raise cholesterol just as much and is associated with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and prostate cancer. Also, most broiler chickens are treated with drugs that contain arsenic, a toxic and carcinogenic metalloid, which works its way into our bodies. According to the 2020–2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, men, in particular, are over-consuming meat, poultry, and eggs, while the average American eats insufficient amounts of vegetables, fruits, and legumes. It would be in line with dietary guidelines to replace beef with these under-consumed healthy foods rather than with chicken.

7. Chicken farms are a major source of air pollution.

Industrial chicken production emits ecosystem-destroying ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, and the highly potent greenhouse gas nitrous oxide. For workers on these chicken farms and people who live nearby –disproportionately immigrants and people of color — ammonia and hydrogen sulfide can cause respiratory problems and, in the case of ammonia, irritation of the eyes.

8. Replacing beef with chicken will lead to more animal suffering.

From an animal welfare standpoint, chicken is more harmful than beef, for the simple reason that a chicken feeds far fewer people than a cow. Chickens suffer in extreme confinement and have been bred to grow so large that they suffer heart failure, trouble breathing, leg weakness, and chronic pain. If we replace industrially produced beef with chicken, we end up causing a far greater number of animals to suffer a miserable existence. When serving either chicken or beef, it’s certainly preferable to get it from higher-welfare, organic, and well-managed pasture-raised sources.

Replacing beef with chicken is not a solution. Increasing industrial chicken production would generate more dead zones in our oceans, deplete increasingly scarce water supplies, accelerate climate change, and require more animals to be killed after a cruel existence. When a plethora of healthy, sustainable, and delicious alternatives ranging from lentils to the meat-like veggie burgers are available, embracing the shift from industrial beef to industrial chicken would be making a false choice to pursue a half-measure that we cannot afford to take right now.

Friends of the Earth U.S. defends the environment and champions a healthy and just world.