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Poultry sums

Your World: What If . . . Chicken Conquers the World - review.

Your World: What If . . . Chicken Conquers the World
BBC World Service

The first in a two-part documentary about our chicken consumption (28 January, 2.05pm) featured Nigel, who, with just nine workers, raises 6 million birds producing 10 million kilos of chicken meat a year. Nigel took the presenter Sophie Emmett into a warehouse 90m-long and 25m-wide containing 54,000 baby birds (“One of the sights of the farming world”) lolling incongruously in the 25-degree heat.

“Look how beautifully they’re spread,” sighed Nigel, who praised the “sweet, warm smell” of the room: sawdust mixed with tonnes of chicken shit produces a tremendous heat. “Chickens love it,” he said, reassuringly. Compared to any other animal, the feed-conversion ratio of the chicken is phenomenal. It’s so quick, in fact, that the main problem is growing enough corn to feed them. Somewhere in Brussels, the “global co-head of animal protein”, a softly-spoken Brazilian man who says he prefers his chicken barbecued with lemon, confesses to losing sleep anticipating drought in Lithuania, the biggest producer of corn in the world outside the US.

In Scotland, a company designing super-chickens concentrates on not just flesh-yield but cardiovascular fitness (like all muscle freaks, the super-chickens have weak hearts), and currently produces a flock that goes on to “influence” half of all the chickens bred in the world. To be clear: one single male from this company could “have an influence” on 50 million commercial broilers. “That’s 70 million tonnes of meat,” confirms the director of global genetics, another softly spoken, super-reasonable-sounding guy. (Why do all these people sound so nice? Like doctors poised over you just moments before the anaesthetic hits, gently explaining that it will be necessary to remove the entire organ after all. Or a child coming up to you with a shy smile and then taking your hand and pressing a soaking snot-rag into it.)

Sophie tries to get in to see one of these chickens, but “for bio-specific reasons I can’t meet any of the elite”. We are left merely imagining their strange, pebble-smooth Johnny Weissmuller thighs – and also wondering why we bother these wretched creatures for their flesh at all. Isn’t chicken-flavoured soya just so much . . . easier?

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 04 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Intervention Trap