Chickens are taking over the planet
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.