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Asia’s poultry industry spreads its wings

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A worker sorts fresh eggs at an intelligent production line in Hai 'an City, Jiangsu Province, China, 30 May 2023 (Photo: Reuters/Costfoto/NurPhoto)

In Brief

The headline ‘Dead Chickens’ is not what one would typically encounter when tuning in to an evening news bulletin, especially the financial segment. But this unconventional title was chosen by established Australian economics commentator Alan Kohler for a broadcast in June 2023.


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After concluding his usual overview of the day’s global share and commodity markets, Kohler raised the prospect of lab-sourced meat. A recent decision by US regulators has given two companies the green light to start marketing ‘meat’ cultivated from a few cells of a live chicken.

Kohler declared lab-grown chicken to be a game changer. He drew attention to the staggering drop in price of this lab-grown meat — from US$480,000 per pound in 2013 to a mere US$6 per pound today. But lab-based chicken is still some distance from competing with the global wholesale price of traditional factory-farmed poultry with a cost of US$1.60 per pound. Kohler concluded with his signature wit, asking ‘But what price [is] the lives of the 713 million chickens slaughtered in Australia over the past year, or 75 billion worldwide?’

These startling figures underscore that we are now living on what some have dubbed the ‘planet of the chickens’. Large and short-lived broiler hens that are farmed worldwide have become a signature of the so-called ‘Anthropocene’. The weight of the world’s broiler chickens, bred solely for their meat, is now three times that of all wild birds combined.

The COVID-19 pandemic sparked biosecurity worries that temporarily slowed poultry supply chains. But global production and demand for chicken is still predicted to sharply rise over the next decade, especially in Asia. This is in part because booming markets and changing food consumption patterns are prioritising animal protein — a process known as ‘meatification’. Chicken meat is also seen as a more viable alternative to red meat due to its health benefits, lack of major cultural sensitivities and lesser environmental impact.

Asia has been central to these trends, with increased meat consumption and a related escalation in production. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations pointed out that in 2020 Asia dominated chicken meat production, generating 38 per cent of the global total. This figure is set to climb, fuelled by ongoing financial investment and government incentives. These subsidies effectively lower the price of production, even as the social and environmental impacts of production are not accounted for.

Asia is where the broiler’s ancestor, the red junglefowl, was first domesticated some 8000 years ago, and its production has long been characterised by small-scale poultry farming. This small-scale poultry farming has been a significant source of protein, trade and income for rural and peri-urban households. But recent decades have seen a shift in attitudes from governments and private industry favouring industrial over smallholder production. Present-day policy and practice in Asia have been explicit in prioritising a more intensive, vertically integrated corporate approach to broiler production.

The rapid rise of the industry means that regulation and transparency are extremely uneven across the region. The broiler boom within Asia is also far from homogenous, displaying various different trajectories of growth and development across the region.

China’s livestock industry is the most prolific, whereas Thailand has secured its place as the sixth-largest broiler chicken producer and third-largest exporter globally. While Indian producers are comparatively new to the scene, according to The Livestock Census, poultry numbers have increased by 16.8 per cent over the period of 2012–2019. Vietnam’s poultry sector, which started modestly among small-to-medium scale producers, is also picking up pace, with large-scale factory farms supported by both state and private investment.

Although the European Union and other Western countries have sought to introduce strict regulations for intensive broiler farming, especially targeting antibiotic use and food safety, Asia’s industrial broiler farming system remains a black box. We know relatively little about investment strategies, trade relations and supply chains in this industry. More concerning are the effects of the poultry boom on land and labour relations, which in the Thai context have been decried as ‘modern day slavery’.

Then there are the devastating risks for the environment, the potential for disease outbreaks, the sector’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, antimicrobial resistance and the hazards of chemical pollution.

Big Farms make Big Flu’, warned evolutionary biologist Rob Wallace in his landmark 2016 book. Wallace makes a forceful argument about the unholy alliance between big agribusiness and pathogens in the service of capital. The COVID-19 pandemic offered a stark reminder of the vulnerabilities inherent in our global food systems, reinforcing the need for transparency and sustainability in what is a rapidly changing agribusiness landscape in Asia.

The broiler industry in Asia is set to dominate the global poultry sector. As such, it is crucial for international entities and national governments to safeguard and sustainably manage the trade channels, land use, labour relations and pollution practices underpinning the global meat complex.

Until lab-grown chickens become a regular feature on supermarket shelves, and their environmental and social costs have been fully accounted for, we must confront the pressing challenges that come with the alarmingly cheap price tag attached to the billions of chickens slaughtered annually.

Assa Doron is Professor of Anthropology and South Asia in the School of Culture, History and Language at the Australian National University.

Sango Mahanty is Professor of Resources, Environment and Development in the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University.

Rebecca Hamilton is Lecturer in Physical Geography in the School of Geosciences at the University of Sydney.

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