Chicken, once a distant third to beef and pork, is now the most popular meat in the United States. The average American eats almost 84 pounds of chicken a year, more than twice the amount eaten in 1970.
The American poultry industry has matched this change in appetite with an exponential increase in production. In 2007, for instance, 8.9 billion chickens were raised and sold as food in the United States, a jump of more than 1,400 percent since 1950. At the same time, chicken farms have mushroomed in size; by 2006, a typical operation produced an average of 605,000 birds in vast buildings of 20,000 square feet or more. Meanwhile, the number of individual farms raising chickens for food has plummeted by 98 percent in just over half a century. This transformation of the industry has been accompanied by an environmental challenge: In many cases, these large poultry farms pose major pollution problems for regional communities.
The Pew Environment Group’s new report, “Big Chicken: Pollution and Industrial Poultry Production in America,” describes how the industrialization and consolidation of the poultry business have concentrated production in what is now known as the Broiler Belt. In this area, which extends from eastern Texas through the southeastern United States and north to Maryland and Delaware, chickens outnumber people by as much as 400 to 1.
The waste produced by these concentrated poultry operations raises serious concerns about treatment and disposal, particularly along the shores of the largest estuary system in the United States, the Chesapeake Bay. The 523 million chickens produced each year in just Maryland and Delaware generate roughly 42 million cubic feet of chicken waste—enough to fill the dome of the U.S. Capitol about 50 times, or almost once a week.
Traditionally, farmers have managed this manure by spreading it on fields. But the combination of industrial-level production and the diminishing amount of cropland in these two states has resulted in more manure than crops can use, and the excess flows untreated into the streams and rivers that feed into the Chesapeake. “Big Chicken” examines 50 years of data to take a fresh look at industrial poultry production and to make policy recommendations for managing chicken waste to mitigate its toll on our land and water. For more information about this serious problem, visit www.PewEnvironment.org/BigChicken.