Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Building Better Poultry: Reflections on the 2010 International Poultry Exhibition (IPE) and Scientific Forum in Atlanta, GA

In the book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (HarperCollins Publishers, May 2007) author Barbara Kingsolver takes her family on a journey to eat from their own hand and land for a year. Needing supplemental protein to their largely seasonal vegetarian diet, she laments at one point the possibility that turkey have largely lost their ability to breed in the wild as it has been selectively engineered out of them by the advancement of science throughout the history of agribusiness (probably the second oldest human profession). She finds a place to obtain some ‘wild breeding conserved’ birds with the hope that she can assist in the effort to give nature a chance to reclaim its rightful place as master of the reproductive and parenting cycle right in her very own backyard.

As the turkey industry has an extremely long history of artificial insemination one might conclude that Kingsolver faces an uphill battle, but I am certain that her locavoire dedication will succeed nonetheless. I know this from my own personal experience travelling Interstate 89 in Vermont to and from work everyday, where wild turkeys graze year round next to the highway shoulder completely unaware that they cannot manage in the wild (these turkeys seem more at risk from their own lack of grazing intelligence than their inability to reproduce naturally). In this day and age there is room for indistinguishable, mass produced, genetically engineered, hyper vaccinated, nutritionally supplemented commercial flocks living in high rise pens; small European style backyard coops; and, free ranging wild poultry that still have the capability to produce their own antibodies against avian diseases and incubate, hatch, and raise their own clutch of chicks (grazing ground choices aside).

As supportive as I am (or maybe am not but should be for the sake of political correctness) of the organizations who request we consider adopting rescued chickens as domestic pets to help end their inhumane suffering at the hands of the poultry industry, after attending the IPE I have to offer some perspective. Suffice it to say that the rearing, feeding, and psychological and physical health care of commercial birds is better than a significant percentage of the world’s human population – including many who gain vital economic sustenance by farming them. Nigeria, where malnutrition and starvation is a stark reality, is actively promoting the ‘maximization of the value chain in animal production technology to assist livestock farmers’. They have also discovered the economic benefits of ‘utilizing roasted fluted pumpkin pod husk waste to feed chickens with a result of 20% inclusion in the diet translating to the highest profit per bird’. Other research includes ‘comparing enriched and barren rearing environments for their effect on the welfare related behavior of commercial layer chicks and pullets’. Essential oils are studied for their ability to inhibit growth of Clostridium perfringens. Creative enzymatic compositions of fodder are designed to nurture pleasure and loyalty of the poultry to feed, reduce sensitivity to stress, aid digestive secretions, balance intestinal micro flora, fight salmonella, reduce ammonia volatilization in broiler litter, and produce lower nitrogen levels in poultry waste. Did you know that green energy is being manufactured from turkey litter? That chopped switch grass is being evaluated as a sustainable litter material? Science is busy worldwide in the poultry industry, and not only in the name of my eating enjoyment and the well being of the fowl that contribute to it, but to assist those in need of economic independence, and to preserve healthy aquifers and soils that sustain life on this planet.

Speaking of environmental sustainability, it was a major theme of the Expo. Though certainly a noble endeavor and essential business decision anyway, let’s face it - even to a casual observer at a show like the IPE it is the pursuit of the perfect, succulent cut of fowl worthy of godlike status that appears to be the true driving force behind this industry - producing superstar, Olympian gold medal chicken clones strutting amazingly luscious breast meat that won’t sicken or kill the consumer once eaten (the mature birds shown in trade journal advertisements are missing only a pair of 3-inch red stiletto heels). Oh, and I can’t forget to mention the genetic and biochemical sculpting in place to produce the masterpieces that are today’s pristinely shaped, thick and smooth-shelled eggs with creamy, consistently round, deep yellow, high Omega-3, low cholesterol yolks that are unfortunately unable to ever hatch. The scientific art in place to produce the eggs that do hatch, in the laboratory and prolifically, is actively at work as well. While walking around in an IPE stupor I found a poultry museum exhibit on the trade show floor and was absolutely astounded that it resembled a Petite Galerie de Volaille Historique rather than a Volaille du Louvre.

But, let me refocus on Kingsolver’s poultry experiment to avoid any further digression (it is a blog after all). Her turkeys successfully grown, the unfortunate fate that awaited them came by her own hand on her own land as well (femivores take note). Her description of the slaying was a somber and spiritually troubling segment in her journey that left me without an appetite and asking myself why I ever gave up a vegan diet. That for most of us this final act is performed by a largely invisible and unspoken ‘Slaughter and Evisceration’ segment of agribusiness should be each consumer’s loudly spoken thanks before any poultry meal. Rubber picking fingers that are “good to the last feather” leaves very little to the imagination. Just as Kingsolver was moved to do, I have enhanced my own elaborate blessings on these birds for their sacrifice to privileged consumption. I also secretly wonder (again, I’m watching my political correctness here) why she didn’t just simply take up turkey hunting and find a collegial locaviore to do the rest.

In conclusion I remember the proverbial question we have all considered at one time or another – “which came first, the chicken or the egg?” Having attended the gargantuan IPE that leaves not one part of the poultry industry a mystery (except a primary breeders gene pool), one could cynically conclude that the answer to this question has become an evolutionary mute point. Not me. Regardless of how I receive sustenance from precious fowl specimens, be they farm, forest, otherwise hatched, or just admired out the window while driving to work, my natural curiosity will continue to contemplate the answer to this great meaning of life question. As I find myself pondering it while I first sanctify then dine on the delectable piece of chicken breast that I hope is imported from Nigeria by my local national food chain rotisserie bistro, I am inspired to raise my glass of French chardonnay chosen to perfectly complement my meal and declare a toast - vivĂ  la poultry industry quest to provide economic and environmental sustainability while building better poultry! And eggs. Bon Appetite.

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