P. Allen Smith raises chickens you won’t find at industrial chicken farms. With names like the Golden Penciled Hamburg, Blue Andalusian, and Buff Orpington, these chickens are looks, temperaments, and genes apart from the white-and-red chickens you’ll find grown at nearly all of the major poultry producers in North America.
For years, chickens grown for meat — broiler chickens — have been bred and selected for traits that give them the most commercial appeal: things like speed of growth, size of their breasts and drumsticks and amount of white meat, Smith says in a talk at TEDxMarkhamSt. This has created generations of birds lacking in genetic diversity — vulnerable to the same diseases, bacteria, health problems — and, as a study of the population suggests, “missing more than half of the genetic diversity native to the species.”
“We’ve created a monoculture of birds,” Smith says. “Pressure on these birds to create more meat with less food has created this,” he says, noting that — now — in 56 days, a farmer can grow a nine pound bird, when years ago that was unheard of.
“When you’re not breeding for immunity, for bone density, then what happens?” Smith asks. “You become susceptible; you become vulnerable to disease.” Smith references the 2015 avian flu outbreak in the U.S. that affected millions of birds – and that the New York Times says cost the industry [an estimated] “$2.6 billion in lost sales, almost $400 million in forgone taxes and 15,693 jobs.”
If we want to keep eating chicken, agriculture needs to change, Smith says. The standard broiler chicken isn’t the only kind of chicken out there, and Smith advocates for diversifying the breeding stock — or at least preserving their genetic material lest they die out.
Smith suggests that resources go to creating preservation vaults for chicken genetic material — like the ones that exist for plant seeds, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway and the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation in the U.S. and others. Some of these storehouses have been started for animal genetic material, Smith says, like the Swiss Village Farm Foundation, which preserves genes of sheep, goats, and cattle, but preserving poultry is just getting started, he says.
“There is work being done currently where the reproductive tissue of these various breeds of poultry is being cryogenically preserved with the idea of reintroducing it to be able to produce those breeds,” Smith says. “What we really need is a global genome project for poultry.”
But what can a regular consumer of chicken do right now? Smith has hope in small farms. Small farms are the ones growing diverse populations of chickens, Smith says, and whether through farmers’ markets, CSAs or other means, they can provide populations with alternatives to traditional broilers, and boost local economies in the process.
“Since 2002, there has been a 60% increase in direct sales from farms to people,” he says, “… and the University of Georgia found that for every five percent of food produced and sold locally, there [could be] about a $44 million increase [in local income] and about 345 jobs [made].”
Smith hopes for the day when small farms like his can deliver heirloom chickens to consumers on-demand via an Uber-like app, and when rare breeds of chickens will no longer be so rare.
To learn more, watch Smith’s whole talk below: