Science  /  Origin Story

The Unending Quest To Build A Better Chicken

Maybe what we need is not just a new form of poultry farming but a complete revolution in how we relate to meat.

It was the eve of a growth spurt for both the chicken industry and the chickens themselves. Technology was key. New indoor barns featured artificial light and heating, promoting faster growth. Nutritionists carefully formulated feeds. Peterson had not gone to college, but he leaned into another angle of the emerging poultry science: genetics. He kept detailed notes on his own chickens and perused scholarly studies. Eventually, he hired a team of geneticists. When he was inducted into the Arkansas Agriculture Hall of Fame, the citation noted Peterson’s breakthrough recognition that “feed efficiency” was a heritable trait. He realized that you could, in other words, breed birds across generations that got better and better at turning food into body mass. Less input, more output.

When Peterson was a child, a typical chicken would take around four months to reach its slaughter weight of 2.5 pounds. Growth rates began to crank upwards in the 1950s, and by the 1970s, as Peterson rose to the heights of his reputation, the chicken was well on its way to becoming a new beast — one featuring a “distinctive new morphotype,” according to scientists. Today, chickens reach 5 pounds in two months, while consuming less food.

Consistently fast-growing and fat chickens became the foundation of a small empire. Before Peterson passed away in 2007, his company was cranking out more than a million broilers each week and bringing in $180 million in annual sales. That made Peterson one of the country’s top 25 poultry operators — and one of the biggest businesses in Arkansas.

The domesticated chicken — Gallus gallus domesticus — had meanwhile been turned into one of the planet’s most important animals: our most-consumed meat. With a global standing population of at least 25 billion, these birds outnumber every other vertebrate species. The total standing biomass of domesticated poultry is around three times higher than the biomass of all wild birds combined.

Understanding the human relationship with our fellow animals — and considering the future of how we might or might not eat those animals — requires reckoning with this unlikely bird.

From a certain point of view, the extraordinary abundance of chickens might be seen as a positive development: Here is a source of protein that is cheaply produced, transportable, happily consumed by a huge number of people across the world. And thanks in part to Peterson’s efforts at improving feed conversion efficiency, chicken has a much slimmer carbon impact than beef, which contributes more than 9% of global emissions.