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How a ‘Chicken of Tomorrow’ breeding contest turned America’s backyard birds into a giant global industry


New Yorker cover by Tom Gauld (via Pinterest).

The following fascinating recent history of the chicken in America is taken from a 2014 essay by Andrew Lawler published in Aeon (check out this online science and cultural magazine, founded in London in 2012, if you haven’t yet): Chicken of tomorrow: How a massive breeding contest turned a rarely eaten backyard bird into the technological marvel that feeds the world.

‘. . . [I]n colonial America . . . wild bird remains excavated by archaeologists outnumber those of chickens three to one, and cattle, pig, sheep and goat bones dominate. Virginians, meanwhile, feasted on turkey, goose, pigeon, partridge and duck, along with venison, mutton, pork and beef, as well as shad, sturgeon and shellfish.

‘”Seventeenth- and 18th-century descriptions of colonial foodways ignored the chicken for the most part,” says the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America (2004), edited by Andrew Smith.. . .

Just as European Jews gained expertise in moneylending, a profession disdained by Christians, poultry became an African-American speciality because whites preferred beef and pork. . . .

‘The First World War pushed the chicken from the backyards of US farms to the forefront of the war effort. . . . By the time the war ended, people in the US were eating nearly three times as much chicken as they had at the start. . . . Poultry entrepreneurs feared calamity in a postwar world where beef and pork were no longer rationed.

So at an industry meeting in Canada, Howard Pierce, an Iowa poultry scientist working for the country’s largest food retailer, A&P, proposed a kind of Manhattan Project for poultry called the Chicken of Tomorrow.

‘He suggested creating a chicken that looked like a turkey, with a broader and thicker breast and meatier thighs and drumsticks, and established the National Chicken of Tomorrow Committee, comprising all the major US poultry organisations, two trade publications, and employees of the US Department of Agriculture, to lead the work.

‘The goal was to create the ideal broiler, with “breast meat so thick you can carve it into steaks”. . . . The bird that provided three seasons of eggs, pin money for rural women, and the occasional special dinner was recast as a serious competitor to beef and pork. . . .

‘Just as the Manhattan Project brought together university scientists, industrial engineers and government administrators to unlock the secrets of the atom, the Chicken of Tomorrow project drew on thousands of poultry researchers, farmers and agriculture extension agents to fashion a new high-tech device. . . .

‘The Chicken of Tomorrow award marked the rise of a vast new industry and the metamorphosis of the backyard bird into a technological wonder akin to missiles, the transistor and the thermonuclear weapon, which had been tested for the first time six weeks earlier. The winning bird was chosen not for its exotic stature or pure breeding but for its similarity to a wax model of the perfect carcass as devised by a team of poultry scientists. The grilled chicken in your sandwich or wrap comes from a descendant of the bird that Vantress created by crossing California Cornish males with New Hampshire females. . . .

This hardy bird with just the right mix of European and Asian genes weighed an average of more than four pounds, twice the size of a typical barnyard chicken of the day. The speed with which it became the industry norm is astonishing. . . .

‘Until the early 1950s, most US flocks contained no more than 200 chickens, about the size advocated by ancient Roman agricultural writers 2,000 years earlier. In the wake of the Chicken of Tomorrow contest, farms raised tens of thousands of birds, some as many as 100,000. A hen that might live a dozen years on a farm could now be fattened and slaughtered in six brief weeks.

There had been nothing like this in human history. There is no record of any other major food – meat, dairy, grains, fruits or vegetables – expanding so quickly in volume and scale.

‘The only exception might be orange-juice concentrate, which, thanks to scientific tinkering and clever advertising, expanded rapidly in this same period.

Advances in nutrition and breeding techniques made it possible to grow a bird in half the time of 1940, while the price per pound plummeted from 65 cents to 29. . . .

What made chickens different from, say, cows? With a long, entrenched history, ranchers were slow to embrace academic genetics and corporate methods, and were generally suspicious of radical change. By contrast, a rising generation of poultry magnates happily drew on the extensive research by scientists on chicken genetics to create a more efficient product. . . .

‘Soon chicken was cheaper than beef or pork, and available neatly packaged according to cut. Picking out pin feathers, removing the guts, and chopping the feet off chickens had long been a laborious chore for housewives in cities as well as the country. Now they did not have to buy an entire chicken, which made the bird more popular for meals beyond just an elaborate Sunday dinner. And as people became more conscious of the dangers of fat in red meat, the low-fat bird became a more appealing choice. . . .

Fifty years after the Chicken of Tomorrow contest, chicken overtook beef as the meat of choice in the US.

‘The introduction of McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets and other highly processed poultry – tenders, patties, hot dogs – helped push the bird over the top. Food scientists discovered that the meat, like the bird of old, was infinitely versatile, absorbing flavours more readily than pork or beef, and perfectly suited for fast food. By 2001, the average person in the US ate more than 80lb of chicken a year, quadruple the 1950 amount. . . . The figure is now close to 100lb. . . .

Once ignored and despised by many in the farm sector, poultry is now an international multibillion-dollar complex that is setting the pace for the world’s agribusiness. . . .

Read the whole (good) essay by Andrew Lawler in Aeon Magazine: Chicken of tomorrow: How a massive breeding contest turned a rarely eaten backyard bird into the technological marvel that feeds the world, 5 Nov 2012.

The essay was taken from Lawler’s book, Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?: The Epic Saga of the Bird That Powers Civilisation’ published in Dec 2014.

One thought on “How a ‘Chicken of Tomorrow’ breeding contest turned America’s backyard birds into a giant global industry

  1. This article provides a good insight to how a technology and business models can co-evolve.

    Although the story, has some salient prejudgment undertones, has parallels and relevance to some of the issues that we are currently grappling with in some of our L&F value chains, especially the dairy and pig value chains. Livestock breeding, especially delivery of breeding services need to be a business that should be undertaken primarily by the private sector and not the public sector if the desired impacts are to be realized.

    The comments are equally interesting, in that there are concerns that the chicken of today are bred in such a way that they grow too fasts to be able to support their own weights; we however now have the genomic tools that can allow us to develop livestock breeds and breed types that are both productive and resilient enough to cope with the prevailing conditions, thus get the balance right, so long as there are enough socio-economic incentives.

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