The 11,700 or so years following the last major ice age are collectively called the Holocene, a geological chapter in earth's biography that includes the development of all human civilization. Some experts argue that humans have fundamentally altered the earth's biosphere to the point where we now live in a new age called the Anthropocene, an amalgamation of the Greek words for "new" and "human". Copernicus was wrong: the earth doesn't revolve around the sun anymore. It revolves around us.
When and why the Anthropocene begins is up for debate. Many point to sometime in the mid-20th century when we started dropping atomic bombs, paving the world over in cement and concrete and filling our oceans with plastic as a beginning to the so-called Anthropocene. Now new research from geologists and archeologists published in the Royal Society poses another possible marker that began in the 1950s as well: the rise of the factory farmed chicken.
In 2016, the world consumed almost 66 billion chickens. To put that number in perspective, we slaughtered 1.5 billion pigs, 550 million sheep, 460 million goats, and 300 million cattle that same year. About nine out of every 10 terrestrial animals slaughtered for food globally are chickens. And that looks like it may only increase as chicken consumption is growing – especially in developing countries – faster than the consumption of any other land animal.
Our planet is covered with chickens. If you took a snapshot of all the birds alive on the planet at this very moment, domesticated poultry – mostly chickens – would have a total biomass about three times greater than all wild bird species combined.
These chickens are a product of modern technology that rivals almost any other innovation over the past 50 years in its scope and impact on our food system. The modern chicken has been bred into an entirely new animal that looks very little like its wild counterpart. Through breeding techniques and feed manipulation, farmed chickens quadrupled in size between the mid-1950s to the mid-2000s.
In order to keep them from getting deathly ill and to accelerate growth, chickens are fed antibiotics prophylactically to the tune of half a million pounds a year in America. About 80% of all antibiotics sold in the US and over half sold around the world are fed to farmed animals, accelerating antibiotic-resistance in bacteria – a public health crisis already killing at least 700,000 people across the globe annually. No wonder the UN calls antimicrobial resistance "a fundamental threat to human health, development and security".
If chickens were not killed at such a young age (on average, five to seven weeks), they would be unable to survive into maturity. While their bodies, limbs and organs simply cannot function properly into adolescence, their bones may last a very long time. In the wild, bird carcasses either decay or are scavenged by predators. Chicken bones, on the other hand, are discarded in landfills where anaerobic activity tends to mummify more than decay. We may see our appetite for 66 billion chickens a year crystalized in the fossil record long into the future.
Chickens aren't only changing our fossil record. They're pecking away at our environment in more profoundly concerning ways. So concerning, in fact, that the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization has said that "the environmental impacts of the sector are substantial" and include the acceleration of climate change, erosion of biodiversity, pollution of soil and water, overexploitation of natural resources, and the list goes on.
If chickens really do symbolize the brave new world of our human-altered biosphere, how should we think about the future of our farms, our food and our feathered friends?
When dinner on our table is proposed alongside atomic bombs, concrete and plastic in its long-term impact on our planet, we need to step back and think deeply about how we got here and where we are headed. We might have to reconsider the scale and scope of industrialized animal agriculture. We might need to look beyond our plates to the social, economic and environmental impacts of our food. We might even be forced to fundamentally redesign our food system from the ground up.
However it shifts our perspective, the chicken-induced Anthropocene is more writing on the wall that industrialized animal agriculture has gone too far. Without radically reimagining our food system, our future in the Anthropocene looks just like the lives of those 66 billion chickens every year: nasty, brutish and short.