If you want to minimize the suffering of animals before they become protein for humans, there are a few ways to go about it. You can stop eating meat altogether, you can make sure that said protein is raised in the "happiest" environment possible, or you can even raise chickens, pigs, or cows yourself.
Or… you can change their genetic code so that they feel less pain.
After years of trying to speed animal growth for production reasons, fast food chains like Wendy's are now changing their tune and looking for ways to reduce the size of chicken breasts, a change that would have to occur at a genetic level. But that move is motivated my more by customer complaints than by the comfort of broiler chickens, which now mature in half as much time as they did in the 60s.
Today's chickens are true Frankenbirds—genetically modified to grow too fat too fast.
Obviously, imposing such a heavy burden on chickens comes with serious and painful health consequences, like skeletal and heart defects. As Buzzfeed News reminds us in a recent article titled "Chicken Companies Are Trying To Breed A Bird That Suffers Less," almost all of the chickens we eat today come from a handful of genetically designed breeds with terrifying names like Ross 708 and Hubbard M99. Yum!
But with the power to make chickens bigger comes the power to make them smaller, meaning that they would technically suffer less than their huge ancestors. So, just to be clear, it's not that a generation of nerve-less chickens will be bred. But that's still a move in the right direction, according to Matthew Prescott, Senior Director of Food Policy for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).
"Today's chickens are true Frankenbirds—genetically modified to grow too fat too fast," Prescott told MUNCHIES. "The average chicken we eat in America is produced in a way equivalent to a human baby weighing 600 pounds at just two months old. Fortunately, some food companies are demanding changes to this macabre system, to hopefully correct course for the nine billion birds we raise and kill each year in this country."
But for the National Chicken Council, the self-proclaimed "advocate and voice for the US broiler chicken industry," smaller chickens doesn't necessarily mean happier, healthier chickens. "These improvements must be dictated by science and data—not activists' emotional rhetoric—which is why we support further research on the topic of chicken welfare and growth rates," they said in a recent press release.
So while big chicken companies and "emotional activists" duke it out, the fate and comfort of billions of chickens hangs in the balance.