A new study has found that commercial birds raised for eggs and meat are missing more than half of the genetic diversity found in native chickens, possibly increasing a vulnerability to new diseases and raising serious questions about the sustainability of the poultry industry.
Yikes. We’ve all heard stories about the Irish Potato Famine, what has been called Ireland’s “biggest catastrophe.” We’ve learned that a lack of biodiversity among potato crops in Ireland at that time was a major factor in that disastrous event. What if the same thing were to happen to the poultry industry? Scientists warn that with the way the industry has evolved, this is all too possible.
[social_buttons]Hundreds of chicken breeds certainly exist, but today’s commercial broilers all descend from about three lines of chickens, and poultry raised for eggs all come from only one line. This has led to breeds of industrial chickens that have only half the genetic diversity of native chickens.
“Just what is missing is hard to determine,” says Purdue University animal sciences professor Bill Muir, “But recent concerns over avian flu point to the need to ensure that even rare traits, such as those associated with disease resistance, are not totally missing in commercial flocks.”
Chicken meat production has increased by 436 percent since 1970. Poultry is the meat of choice in the United States and in most other countries. Maintaining genetic diversity in food-producing animals such as poultry is absolutely critical in order to ensure that these birds have the ability to fight off disease.
One possible, and probable solution, is to begin interbreeding native birds with those lacking in genetic diversity. It seems utterly important to maintain non-commercial breeds of poultry, and to keep stocks of wild birds in order to safeguard the genetic diversity of the world’s poultry supply.
What can we do? Unfortunately, buying an “organic” chicken doesn’t necessarily mean that we are buying a chicken with all of its genetic diversity intact. But there are other options. It requires some research to find the farmers in your area who are producing meat in a sustainable and careful way, but it’s surely research worth doing. And once you find that farmer, urge your local grocery store to carry their products. And for the brave, there is the backyard urban chicken movement gaining ground in cities across the U.S.
Photo: Eigenproduktion on Wikimedia Commons