The Unending Quest To Build A Better Chicken


Boyce Upholt is a writer and editor based in New Orleans. His book “The Great River” will be published in June 2024.

The tale of Lloyd Peterson is almost too perfect an American parable. Born in rural Arkansas in 1912, Peterson was the grandson of pioneers who, as the tales have it, rolled into the Ozarks by wagon. He was too hardworking a fifth grader to take money from his parents, so he dug ditches, mowed lawns, milked cows, sold newspapers. He was too practical a 22-year-old to accept a professional baseball contract offered by the New York Giants, choosing instead to manage a farm store in Decatur. “Lloyd Peterson developed his business by being fair and honest,” one industry biography reports.

Soon he began to deal in chickens, which he sold to local farmers to be raised and shipped live to cities across the Midwest. By 1939, Peterson had decided to keep a flock to produce “broilers,” the term for chickens destined to become dinner.

It was the eve of a growth spurt for both the chicken industry and the chickens themselves. Technology was key. New indoor barns featured artificial light and heating, promoting faster growth. Nutritionists carefully formulated feeds. Peterson had not gone to college, but he leaned into another angle of the emerging poultry science: genetics. He kept detailed notes on his own chickens and perused scholarly studies. Eventually, he hired a team of geneticists. When he was inducted into the Arkansas Agriculture Hall of Fame, the citation noted Peterson’s breakthrough recognition that “feed efficiency” was a heritable trait. He realized that you could, in other words, breed birds across generations that got better and better at turning food into body mass. Less input, more output.

When Peterson was a child, a typical chicken would take around four months to reach its slaughter weight of 2.5 pounds. Growth rates began to crank upwards in the 1950s, and by the 1970s, as Peterson rose to the heights of his reputation, the chicken was well on its way to becoming a new beast — one featuring a “distinctive new morphotype,” according to scientists. Today, chickens reach 5 pounds in two months, while consuming less food.

Consistently fast-growing and fat chickens became the foundation of a small empire. Before Peterson passed away in 2007, his company was cranking out more than a million broilers each week and bringing in $180 million in annual sales. That made Peterson one of the country’s top 25 poultry operators — and one of the biggest businesses in Arkansas.

The domesticated chicken — Gallus gallus domesticus — had meanwhile been turned into one of the planet’s most important animals: our most-consumed meat. With a global standing population of at least 25 billion, these birds outnumber every other vertebrate species. The total standing biomass of domesticated poultry is around three times higher than the biomass of all wild birds combined.

Understanding the human relationship with our fellow animals — and considering the future of how we might or might not eat those animals — requires reckoning with this unlikely bird.

From a certain point of view, the extraordinary abundance of chickens might be seen as a positive development: Here is a source of protein that is cheaply produced, transportable, happily consumed by a huge number of people across the world. And thanks in part to Peterson’s efforts at improving feed conversion efficiency, chicken has a much slimmer carbon impact than beef, which contributes more than 9% of global emissions.

But the rise of poultry, and of poultry science, has not been great for the chickens themselves. They are now less functional animals than meat-growing machines. So much of a chicken’s energy gets devoted to growing as big as possible as fast as possible that the parts less useful to us humans — lungs and hearts, say — are neglected and wither. Due to underdeveloped immune systems, the birds are dosed with antibiotics. Many full-grown broilers are unable to stand under their weight. Activists and critics have called them “prisoners in their own bodies.”

They’re also more literally prisoners: Most broilers spend their brief lives locked inside massive sheds alongside tens of thousands of their genetic cousins. Each bird gets around a square foot of space, so many that are still young enough to walk have no choice but to step over their immobilized relatives. This is an ethical nightmare, clearly, but also an existential threat: So many identical chickens packed so close together is a breeding ground for disease. The latest strains of avian influenza have grown so severe that endangered wild birds have to be immunized to prevent their extinction. That several humans have tested positive for bird flu over the past few years is also worrying; the worst pandemic in the past century, with a death toll perhaps 30 times worse than Covid, came after bird flu jumped through poultry farms into human populations in 1918.

The specter of chickens killing us through disease is what first led me into the annals of the industry, and eventually to Peterson. What hope is left, I wanted to know, for those of us who enjoy eating meat?

“Chickens today are now less functional animals than meat-growing machines.”

Roughly 12,000 years ago, people in the Middle East began to shift the way they preyed on animals. Hunters realized that rather than roaming a wide territory in search of prey, they could steer the beasts into a smaller area — where, as a bonus, the animals could be protected against predation by rival predators and harvested in a way that allowed them to reproduce. Thus, gradually, began the process of domestication.

Gallus gallus domesticus was a relatively late addition to this brave new world. The species emerged some 3,500 years ago somewhere in southeast Asia, where a few red jungle fowl must have wandered into a village. They were almost certainly tempted by discarded food waste and rice and grain fields. In the Middle East, the first acts of herding were a human innovation, with the goat forced into confinement; the chicken, by contrast, volunteered.

Biologically, then, the egg came before the chicken: The red jungle fowl was laying eggs long before anything distinctly chicken-ish ever emerged from the shells. But that’s not to say that the chicken became the chicken and then the process was done with. Ever since those first flocks decided to join our villages, savvy chicken keepers have been shaping gene flow, gradually altering the species by deciding which hens and roosters were allowed to mate. By the mid-20th century, there were dozens of distinctive local breeds in the United States: White-Laced Red Cornish, Mahogany Orloff, Silver-Spangled Hamburg and so on. Such chickens, known today as “heritage breeds,” were more prized for their laying abilities than for their rapid growth. Meat back then was mostly a byproduct, a profitable and convenient way to dispose of chickens too old (or too male) to lay eggs.

Then came technology. An electronically heated chicken incubator may seem like a utilitarian device, but it is hard to overstate how much it altered the fate of the chicken. Instead of wasting months mating birds and rearing chicks, a farmer could outsource all the messy business of reproduction and receive in exchange a steady supply of chickens ready to lay eggs. This launched a new kind of business: the hatchery, where eggs could be nurtured until they hatch and then the chicks sent off to farms. Enterprising hatchers soon realized that if they focused on growing bigger and meatier birds, then chicken meat could become a star product all its own.

In the 1940s, the U.S. Department of Agriculture helped sponsor several “chicken of tomorrow” contests, competitions meant to see who could develop the fastest-growing birds. Many of the entrants attempted to tweak and perfect one of the classic, long-known chicken breeds. But the initial winner took a more daring approach: He crossed a popular East Coast meat bird with a different breed developed in California, creating an entirely new hybrid chicken. Three years later, the same breeder won a second national contest, again with a crossbred bird. A revolution had begun.

The advantage offered by hybrid birds was already well known: Crossing genetic lines can produce heterosis, or “hybrid vigor” — an enhancement of the latent genetic potential in each of the parents. But the boon is temporary. When a pair of promising hybrids mate, the genetic advantages begin to dwindle in their children. In farmer speak, the birds don’t “breed true” — their offspring don’t retain their full characteristics.

The electronic incubator offered a workaround. Chicks were already coming from hatcheries; those hatcheries could maintain separate populations of the two chickens they wanted to crossbreed, producing an endless supply of perfect, first-generation hybrids. The farmers first turned to hatcheries for convenience. Now they came to depend on them: They were the only source for the best modern birds.

Lloyd Peterson became a leader in this new industry. His most famous product was the “Peterson Male,” which, by the 1970s, accounted for the vast majority of the domestic market for male chickens. The genetic code that distinguished each breed of chicken had become intellectual property. Through these decades — as the chicken was hyper-domesticated, as farming industrialized — the chicken farms consolidated. So did the breeders: Peterson Farms eventually sold its male line to Aviagen, one of the two companies that today produce around 99% of the world’s chickens. Consider that again: The world’s most abundant vertebrate is a product supplied by just two corporations. At this point, the chicken might be the most domesticated animal on Earth.

The names for those companies’ top products differ — Cobb 500, the Ross 308 and so on — but most broilers are just subtle variations on what can generally be described as the “Cornish Cross,” which can grow to be five times larger than the hens Peterson first dealt with in the early 20th century.

Many of the companies that advertise “free-range” or “pastured” chicken raise these Cornish Cross hens. Andrew deCoriolis, the executive director of Farm Forward, a nonprofit that advocates for safer, healthier and more humane agricultural practices, argued that it hardly matters where such a chicken spends its life. Cornish Cross hens need so much help from humans that they may lead better lives if kept indoors, he said. Studies have found that the greatest factor impacting a chicken’s welfare is its breed. The cruelty, in other words, is inscribed at the genetic level.

“The greatest factor impacting a chicken’s welfare is its breed. The cruelty, in other words, is inscribed at the genetic level.”

While the chicken was a latecomer to domestication, it became a trailblazer. By the mid-1950s, Farm Journal was encouraging hog farmers to “raise pigs like broilers.” Thus began the turn away from pasture-based farming toward “concentrated animal feeding operations” — one more agricultural word that needs little gloss to reveal its brutality.

Eventually, cows, too, were corralled into CAFOs. Still, there are enough independent ranchers left that grocery stores can procure pasture-raised beef, giving diners who are sensitive to animal cruelty a viable option. But methane-producing cattle are so bad for the environment that a carnivorous diner who cares about cruelty and climate has few good choices: The poultry industry has been so thoroughly swallowed by industry that there is almost nothing for sale in grocery aisles but Cornish Cross meat.

Even if you do not care about animal welfare, there are reasons to despair over industrial chicken. You might worry about human welfare, for example: Modern chicken production is a labor nightmare, sometimes conducted by underaged and undocumented immigrants. And if you don’t care about laborers, there’s a more self-serving reason to worry: Chickens are a major public health risk. The use of antibiotics could drive the evolution of drug-resistant super-bacteria that could infect humans, too.  

Perhaps scarier, though, is that chicken CAFOs are breeding grounds for influenza. Population density helps increase pathogen transmission, while genetic homogeneity helps drive pathogen evolution, so sometimes mild viruses become far more deadly. Even early animal agriculture practices created what anthropologist James C. Scott called “a perfect epidemiological storm.” Since then, the scale and density of agriculture has increased enormously.

After the 1918 catastrophe, avian influenza caused two more global pandemics, in 1957 and 1968, and a terrifying near miss came in 1997, when a stunningly deadly strain of bird flu savaged Hong Kong but failed to spread across the globe. Now, another virulent strain of bird flu — which has some genetic roots in African poultry farms — is on the loose.

Scientists describe the situation as “unprecedented and catastrophic,” with the wild bird death toll reaching into the millions. Worryingly, these strains have proved very capable of leaping into mammals. And the virus now appears to be endemic in migrating birds, which means each fall and spring, as they embark on their journeys, they carry the virus, creating a seasonal risk of spillover. Typically with chickens, when just one bird in a flock is confirmed to be infected, the entire barn is euthanized to halt the spread, often by spraying the birds in a foam that causes them to suffocate: millions of birds killed not by the flu but to prevent its spread.

In early October, just a few days after bird flu made its latest seasonal return to the United States, a group of scientists announced that they’d made a breakthrough: Using CRISPR, they had altered the genetics of chickens once more, now to help them resist flu infections. One of the virologists involved described the results as a “proof of concept that we can move toward making chickens resistant to the virus.” But it’s a proof that comes with a strong caveat: They noted that the virus was able to quickly adapt if only one gene was edited. Even when multiple genes were altered, high viral loads led to breakthrough infections. One scientist told The New York Times that the results showed instead how hard it would be to engineer any solution in this arms race.

“Even if you do not care about animal welfare, there are reasons to despair over industrial chicken.”

Another approach might be to reform chicken farming. “We could just tell the poultry industry, ‘Listen, you can’t use these genetics, and you can’t raise them in these kinds of densities — period,’” deCoriolis told me. Sure, the price of chicken would go up, but that cost might be worth the lives saved. He pointed me toward one chicken farm that he thought was doing a decent job of showing how this might be possible: Cooks Venture, it’s called, a business co-founded by none other than Lloyd Peterson’s grandson.

Before Cooks Venture, though, there had been a decline. A year after Peterson died in 2007, amid a family financial crisis, his grandson, Blake Evans, decided to sell off much of the company. The poultry industry was, as Evans later put it, too “high-risk and high-reward.” Chicken is a commodity product, so producers have little protection against the whims of the markets. Even after all the consolidation, a business as large as Peterson’s could not compete against epic giants like Tyson Foods.

After the sale, Evans began to talk with colleagues about where the industry had gone so wrong. Eventually, he decided to return to his grandfather’s first mission: He wanted to build the perfect chicken, but now with a new definition of perfection. Evans decided to create a higher-end product, one that might appeal to a consumer willing to pay a bit more, so he could break out of the commodity rut. Evans had noticed that consumers were more interested in where their food was coming from and how animals were treated. So he tried to create a bird that could thrive out in a pasture rather than in a CAFO, but that would still be relatively cheap to raise and easily shipped to grocery stores. That ruled out the heritage breeds, which Evans deemed grew too slowly to compete in the modern economy.

He found what he considered to be a winning formula when crossed two heritage breeds — Naked Neck and Delaware — with one of his grandfathers’ proprietary creations. “We literally knocked our performance back into the 1950s,” Evans told me.

By 2015, Evans’ company, like his grandfather’s, had vertically integrated with a processing facility. The timing was perfect: Two years later, a group of NGOs began to push for science-based welfare standards in the chicken industry. More than 200 food companies eventually signed what became known as the “Better Chicken Commitment.” The groups’ scientific research later concluded that breed is the most important factor in chicken welfare, and included Cooks Venture’s Pioneer as one of the few that met the requirements — the only such breed, Cooks Venture noted in a press release, that was not owned by massive genetics conglomerates. Here, in other words, was a better form of corporate agriculture: The company of tomorrow would sell the chickens that are halfway tomorrow, halfway yesterday.

“What we need is not just a new form of chicken farming but a complete rethinking of how we relate to meat.”

There is, of course, a simpler solution to the meat conundrum: Stop eating animals entirely. We could turn to lab-grown meat or plant-based replacements for protein, perhaps even precision-fermented bacteria. Modern chicken has been cited as evidence of how little diners care about their meals’ provenance — or their taste. As the writer George Monbiot has noted, poultry today is already a hyper-technological product that has been reduced to a “generic white protein,” bland and tasteless, little more than a vessel for a fried shell.

Unfortunately, several surveys and studies have found that even when meat replacements compete on price, taste and convenience, many consumers decline to make the switch. You can swap out a coal plant for solar panels, perhaps, but protein is more than a technical tool; there is no one-for-one alternate replacement. The world appears to be attached to meat.

Why is that? Surely culture has something to do with it. Decades of advertising have told the world that to eat meat is to be powerful and virile, an ideal of maleness in a world where men dominate. (Studies show that meat eaters tend to hold more authoritarian political viewpoints.) As a man myself, perhaps my desire to eat meat is the result of brainwashing. But if I’m able to recognize that, I’m still wary of condemning all meat consumption. As the Canadian Métis anthropologist Zoe Todd has noted, in some Indigenous societies, it would be considered disrespectful to reject an animal’s offering of its flesh: “They’ve given themselves to us,” she said, an effort to assist humans — “feeble and fairly incompetent beings that continually need to be taught how to work better.”

Todd, of course, was not referring to industrial livestock rearing. She was speaking about her own culture’s deep ties to wild-caught fish and hunted bison. The way we eat meat now only became possible after the lands beyond Europe were colonized and cleared and turned into massive meat-raising pastures. Along the way, the animals were stripped of their animal nature, deprived of the joys of an animal life.

Is it possible to build a system of animal agriculture that deepens rather than distances our relationship with animals? One potential ideal might be a future where anyone who chooses to eat meat keeps a handful of chickens clucking through their backyards. When I raised this possibility with one epidemiologist, though, she cautioned that an expansion of such “small-holder” poultry farms could be its own pandemic risk: Now that influenza is endemic in wild birds, a more dispersed poultry production system means more potential sites for spillover.

“Protein is more than a technical tool; there is no one-for-one alternate replacement. The world appears to be attached to meat.”

The U.S. produces maybe 45 billion pounds of chicken each year. Because slower-growing chickens, like the Cooks Venture Pioneer, live longer, we’d need more of them to sustain these levels of production and consumption — nearly doubling the U.S. chicken population, according to one study. Even if these chickens were housed in CAFOs, the industry’s land use would have to increase by at least 20%.

“Without a drastic reduction in consumption, switching to alternative breeds will lead to a substantial increase in the number of individuals killed each year, an untenable increase in land use, and a possible decrease in aggregate chicken welfare at the country-level scale,” the study concludes. There is no plug-in solution, then: Simply swapping our current meat supply for “better chicken” would be far worse for the world than plugging in alternate meats. What we need is not just a new form of chicken farming but a complete rethinking of how we relate to meat.

Cooks Venture’s CEO, John Niemann, cautioned that he did not see the company leading a revolution; it wasn’t a David versus Goliath story of a small independent company battling the multinational superpowers. “I’m not interested in slaying the giant,” he said. He just wanted to meet consumer demand for a more ethical product.

It’s not clear, though, how strong that demand is. A 2018 study found that a year after the Better Chicken Commitment, only 12% of consumers had heard of “slow-growth” birds. Only 1% had ever purchased such meat. The study concluded that before such chicken can take off, there would need to be a “substantial marketing effort.” Even then, growth may be limited: What’s made chicken so popular in the first place, the study noted, is that it’s the cheapest of the meats.

As I peeled back the layers on the Cooks Venture story, it seemed as full of warning as hope. I bought a box of the company’s chicken in the fall; each whole bird cost around $20-$25, well above the $15-$20 that Cooks Venture suggested in early press coverage and twice the price of the most expensive chicken at my local grocery store. Would the company be able to survive with prices that high?

More worrying was the company’s ownership changing like a game of corporate hot potato. In 2017, after several years of nearly doubling his sales, Evans decided to sell to a bigger food processor. But then around a year later, he and an entrepreneur named Matthew Wadiak — a founder of the meal-kit company Blue Apron — bought it back. In August, when I first reached out, I learned that Wadiak was departing. The company’s board had decided “a change in leadership was necessary to scale the business,” as the company’s publicist, Elizabeth Matthews, later explained. Niemann, his replacement, spent 20 years at Cargill, a multinational giant hardly known for its sustainability. Niemann noted that on his own row-crop farms, he’d implemented as many regenerative practices “as feasibly possible.”

Wadiak declined to comment on his departure but noted that the company had gotten its chicken into hundreds of stores. Consumer adoption was strong, he said. But to compete against the industrial food system is difficult, and few funders are willing to provide the large-scale, long-term capital needed to help truly revolutionary concepts get off the ground.

As if to prove his point, on Thanksgiving Day, I received what would be a final email from Cooks Venture: The company was ceasing operations immediately. “It was a very sudden decision based on an inability to secure funding,” Matthews wrote.

What would become of the chickens? There were perhaps a million of them in contract farmers’ barns across Arkansas. And what would become of the Cooks Venture Pioneer breed in general? I emailed Evans but got no reply. Soon, though, I heard reports from the Ozarks that state officials were working to “depopulate” the chicken houses with foam, in some cases without permission from the farmers who owned the barns. So far, it doesn’t seem like anyone has been tasked with the responsibility for cleaning up the carcasses, which prompted a state senator to appeal to the governor to declare a state of emergency. In November, more than 8 million chickens had been killed in the U.S. to contain an outbreak of bird flu. Now, a million Cooks Venture Pioneers seem set to join them. And for what?