Chicken Math: The impact of conventional meat production

May 29, 2024

Chicken Math: The impact of conventional meat production

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In the world of chicken production, the scale of operations is clucking staggering. Every year, we gobble up 74 billion chickens worldwide. If each of these chickens, averaging 27.6 inches in height, were stacked on top of each other, they would form a tower stretching 32,234,848 miles into the sky!

(To put this into perspective, that’s enough chickens to circle the Earth roughly 4,067 times or reach the moon and back 67 times.)

These astronomical comparisons are more than just intriguing trivia; they highlight the mammoth scale of chicken production, over 99% of which is factory-farmed. It’s a scale so grand that it extends beyond our everyday experiences, nudging us to think about the impact of our dietary choices on the planet.

A Deep Dive Into The Water Footprint of Chicken

Ever wondered about the splash chicken production makes on our environment? On average, producing just one chicken, which weighs around 4.5 pounds when slaughtered, requires about 2,330 gallons of water. To put that into perspective, it’s akin to the amount of water you’d use to take 133 showers!

Not all water is created equal in the chicken world. There are three main types of water in play here, classified by color:

  • Green water is simply rainwater used by plants that feed the chickens. 
  • Blue water refers to water from lakes, rivers, and underground sources for irrigating additional crops to feed chickens. 
  • Gray water is water contaminated by pollutants from fertilizers and other farming activities.

When we zero in on chickens, it’s the blue and gray water that should have us all ruffled. Chicken farming, with its reliance on beefed up animal feeds, guzzles blue water and churns out gray water at alarming rates. 18% of our total chicken-related water footprint – that’s enough to fill 31.7 million Olympic-sized swimming pools – is blue and gray water. That’s not just a drop in the bucket; it’s a deluge that needs our immediate attention. 

Beyond the Coop: Unearthing the Land Impact of Chicken

Let’s face it: our obsession with chicken is eating up our planet, literally. Each kilogram of poultry requires approximately 132 square feet of land to produce. ​ With approximately 74 billion chickens raised annually just for consumption, the global tally for chicken farming alone skyrockets to an area exceeding 436,000 square miles – that’s roughly the size of Ethiopia!

Rewinding a thousand years, the Earth was predominantly a tapestry of wild and semi-natural landscapes, with over 92% of land untouched by human agriculture. Fast forward to today, and we see a dramatic shift – only 48% of the land retains its wild roots.

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The culprit? A surge in agricultural expansion is necessary to keep up with global population growth, which now claims roughly half of the global habitable land for agriculture. This transformation is reshaping Earth’s landscape, one chicken pen at a time. 

While we often squawk about cities and their environmental impact, urban areas account for just a tiny 1.7% of land. This flips the script, showing commercial agriculture, including our chicken farms, as the heavyweight in environmental impact.

Fowl Air And Muddied Waters

As we wade deeper into the environmental tide, we delve into a less-discussed yet equally critical aspect of chicken production: greenhouse gases and manure management. 

For every pound of chicken cranked out, a whopping 22 pounds of greenhouse gases are spewed out. Chicken farming doesn’t just hatch carbon dioxide; it also produces substantial amounts of methane and nitrous oxide from manure management. These gasses pack a much stronger punch in global warming terms than CO2, with methane being 21x and nitrous oxide nearly 300x more potent.

The transformation of the chicken industry from quaint farmyards to colossal, factory-like operations has skyrocketed manure production. In states like Maryland and Delaware, the industry churns out an astonishing 42 million cubic feet of chicken manure every year. That’s enough waste to fill over 476 Olympic-sized swimming pools affecting the beautiful Chesapeake Bay! 

The downstream effects have created “dead zones” with alarmingly low oxygen levels. This ecological imbalance has had a direct impact on the bay’s marine life, including the decline of Maryland’s iconic blue crab population. This snapshot from the Chesapeake Bay mirrors a global need to tackle the henhouse of effects caused by intensive chicken farming. 

Un-clucking Our Planet: Cultivated Chicken Takes Flight

In the realm of meat production, a sustainable revolution is brewing. Cultivated meat has potential to scale as a viable alternative. Remember when the world’s first cultivated burger was more of a novelty than a nosh? Fast-forward to today, and the cost has nosedived by 99%, edging cultivated meat toward an affordable reality.

2023 marked a milestone with the USDA giving approval to UPSIDE cultivated chicken to sell in the US after receiving the FDA greenlight in 2022. Cultivated meat is a viable option at scale with its potential of positive impact on our planet, people and animals.

Now, let’s envision a scenario where a family of four opts for cultivated chicken for just one meal a week. A study from the Good Food Institute highlights this shift, showing that cultivated meat dramatically reduces resource usage—recycling up to 75% of water, cutting land use by at least 64%, and greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 94% compared to conventional meat. What does this mean in tangible terms? This family’s choice:

  • Restores an incredible 20,212 gallons of water to our ecosystems annually—enough to fill 674 bathtubs or sustain over 1,155 showers.
  • Reclaims around 9,651 square feet of precious land—more space than many spacious homes offer.
  • Reduces air pollution by about 1,078 pounds of CO2 equivalents, which is similar to taking an average car off the road for 5.5 weeks. 

This isn’t just a meal change—it’s a powerful step towards a sustainable planet.

So, what’s your role in this unfolding story? It’s simple yet powerful. Start exploring the world of cultivated meat. As we navigate this journey towards sustainable chicken production, awareness is key. Share this article, spark conversations, and become a part of the movement towards food sustainability. Each of us has a spoon in this pot, stirring towards a sustainable and tasty future, and your choices today can sculpt a greener tomorrow.