clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Chickens are taking over the planet

The global meat forecast, explained by 85 billion chickens.

A white chicken with a red comb stands in a group of other chickens.
Chicken is the most popular meat in the world, with 74 billion slaughtered in 2021 alone.
Dimas Ardian/Getty Images
Kenny Torrella is a staff writer for Vox’s Future Perfect section, with a focus on animal welfare and the future of meat.

In the century since the modern chicken industry was born, chicken has overtaken beef and pork as the most popular meat in the world. According to a report published last month by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the United Nations’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), that trend is expected to rapidly accelerate in the decade ahead — and it’s one that will have enormous implications for climate change, animal welfare, and economic development.

Humanity currently raises and slaughters a staggering 74 billion chickens each year, which will jump to around 85 billion annually by 2032, a 15 percent increase, the report predicts. By comparison, the number of beef cattle and pigs raised for meat will rise to around 365 million and 1.5 billion, respectively, by 2032.

High-income countries account for just 16 percent of the world’s population and 33 percent of its meat intake. But that’s quickly changing: while meat consumption is stagnating in high-income countries and expected to decline in Europe over the next decade, it’s growing rapidly in middle-income regions like much of Asia and Latin America.

Chalk it up to what economists call Bennett’s Law, which predicts that as people climb out of poverty, they tend to shift away from largely plant-based, low-emissions diets heavy in grains and starches, to a more diverse, high-emissions diet heavy in meat and dairy, as well as fruits and vegetables. As hundreds of millions more people enter the global middle class, the world’s population of chickens is expected to surge to unfathomable levels.

Why the world is hooked on chicken

The global shift from red to white meat can be explained, in part, by simple economics: Chickens convert feed to meat more efficiently than pigs and cattle, and are thus much cheaper to raise. Inflation, combined with global wage stagnation, has people reaching for cheaper meats.

Consumers and governments are thinking about health and the environment, too. Poultry and fish are generally perceived as healthier than pork and beef, and while chicken and fish production are both terrible for the environment, they have a much smaller carbon footprint than red meat.

It adds up to a world that is dominated by chickens; more than nine are slaughtered each year for every human on Earth. Because chickens are small, it takes about 100 of them to get the equivalent amount of meat from one cow.

We eat so much chicken that some archaeologists believe their bones will define our modern age. (To try to grasp the astonishing scale of chicken farming, take a look at this clever visualization of US production levels.)

The trillions of chicken bones we’ll leave behind for future civilizations will speak to our ingenuity in dominating nature to produce more and more meat, our inability to consume it within planetary boundaries, and our cold indifference to animal welfare.

What we’ve done to the chicken

In its pursuit to put more meat on the table, the US poultry industry has turned chickens into Frankenchickens.

Today’s chickens have been bred to grow incredibly large and at breakneck speeds, reaching market weight in just six to seven weeks and weighing in at five times the size of previous breeds. It’s all caused a range of health and welfare issues, leading animal activists to call chickens “prisoners in their own bodies.”

Many chickens struggle to walk and end up spending much of their short lives sitting in their own waste, in massive, dimly lit warehouses with tens of thousands of other chickens. In recent years, animal welfare groups have successfully campaigned to get major food corporations to pledge to treat chickens better, but a recent report found that many companies either withdrew their pledges or have failed to report progress.

We might start to eat less meat ... in 2075

Last year, I wrote about how human prosperity and animal suffering exist in a kind of twisted symbiosis:

Economic growth leads to more food production and consumption, which in turn results in faster population growth and longer life expectancy, which then requires more intensive, factory-farmed meat to satiate growing populations.

The cycle has been miraculous for humans…far fewer people are undernourished today than they were in the 1970s, and the specter of famine has largely diminished. But the cycle has been disastrous for the environment and animals.

But the OECD-FAO report speculates that this cycle might begin to reverse itself around 2075. Upper-middle-income countries will drive an increase in meat consumption until 2040, the report predicts, and then low-income countries will drive demand until 2075. After that, global meat demand could start to decline.

The decline could come even sooner due to resource and environmental constraints, the report notes, and the livestock sector faces a host of uncertainties that will affect growth: public health and animal welfare concerns, trade policies, and climate impacts, like extreme weather events that destroy crops and livestock, which are expected to increase in the years ahead.

There’s also zoonotic disease. In recent years, African swine fever has decimated China’s pig industry, while bird flu outbreaks have devastated poultry markets.

The decline has more or less already begun in Europe, where meat production is falling and consumption is expected to fall over the next decade.

What we’ve learned from a meat-centric food system

It’s understandable that, after seeing high-income countries consume so much meat over the last half-century, governments of low- and middle-income countries aspire to reach Western levels of animal product consumption. But we’ve learned what comes with abundant cheap meat and dairy: air and water pollution, mass deforestation, biodiversity collapse, chronic diseases of affluence, acceleration of climate change, increased pandemic risk, and animal cruelty on an immense scale.

If the OECD and FAO are right, the industrial meat machine will continue churning out ever-increasing supplies at precisely the moment when climate authorities say we have to rapidly scale back livestock production to keep the planet habitable.

Environmental, Indigenous, and animal protection groups in the Global South are pushing back against factory farming expansionism. That fight is perhaps most heated in Latin America, including in Brazil, where Indigenous land is illegally grabbed for cattle grazing and planting livestock feed, and in Ecuador, where international institutions like the World Bank have financed large pig and poultry farms.

Only the people in low- and middle-income countries can determine the right level of meat production and intensification to balance their food supply needs against public health, environmental, and animal welfare concerns. But the 100-year experiment in American-style factory farming has proven to be an environmental and moral disaster we’re just now waking up to. Hopefully, it’s one that other parts of the world can learn to avoid.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.