What Is Hybrid Poultry?

You’ve heard about genetically modified soy and corn, but genetically hybrid chickens? In the United States, virtually all the chickens and turkeys raised for meat or eggs—including those labeled natural, organic, and free-range—are from hybridized birds. “The poultry industry has hidden the problems stemming from hybrid genetics from public view more effectively than the tobacco industry hid the health risks of smoking. Insiders know it’s the biggest problem in animal welfare today and a threat to public health, but the full scope of the problem is obscured in most public forums,” explains Farm Forward’s CEO, Aaron Gross. As a result of modern hybrid breeding techniques chickens and turkeys suffer unnecessary and painful problems with skeletal development, heart and lung function,1 obesity,2 and more. Making a bad situation worse, the factory farm systems raising these genetically unhealthy birds require the use of drugs that then create a cascade of problems for human health.

Traditional Breeding

In the not too distant past farmers needed their animals to be healthy to turn the greatest profit. Breeding was accomplished primarily by carefully selecting healthy males and females of any particular chicken or turkey breed and allowing them to mate. The resulting offspring would possess, more or less, the same characteristics the parent birds had. Breeding lines that were hearty and that worked well economically were given names and became what we now know as “standard-bred,” sometimes called “heritage.” True heritage birds come from breed lines that were in existence prior to World War II (just before hybrid genetics took off), mate naturally, grow at a reasonable pace, and have the ability to live long, vigorous lives outdoors. More information available here.

The rise of feed supplements, highly controlled confinement systems, and the subtherapeutic use of antibiotics and other antimicrobials allowed welfare and profit to become separate concerns. Today, instead of aligning animal welfare and profitability, the dominant hybrid breeding techniques select for profitability at the expense of welfare.3

Hybrid Breeding

Hybrid breeding techniques are a relatively recent invention; there were no hybrid birds in the poultry industry prior to the 1930s.4 Hybrid breeding refers to a different logic and method than traditional breeding. It is accomplished through a complicated process of crossbreeding (breeding genetically dissimilar birds) that involves maintaining multiple specialty “breeder” lines—often animals that previously would have been considered mutants. These special inbred lines carry specifically identified genetic mutations, for example, genes that promote fast growth, laying larger numbers of eggs, or obesity. The different lines are then crossbred in pre-determined sequences—there may be ten or twenty crosses5—to produce the eggs that then become the hybrid meat birds (broilers) or laying hens that hatch the eggs we eat (layers). Unsurprisingly given the narrow purpose they serve as carriers of a genetic trait, many of these specialized lines have severe welfare problems. For example, chronic hunger is endemic in the lines that produce today’s fast-growing6 meat birds.

These welfare problems arise because, unlike in traditional breeding, hybrid breeding techniques ignore the overall health of the parent birds in order to preserve a particular “desirable” genetic mutation, like fast growth. Unfortunately, the “end” birds inherit many of the problems bred into the parent stock. The result is a very different, less healthy animal than the traditional chicken or turkey.

Recently, with greater demand from concerned consumers and increased awareness of the issues surrounding factory farming, long overdue reforms to the living conditions on factory farms have begun. Improving things like the physical space given to animals on factory farms, however, is only one component of higher-welfare poultry production. We must also address the fact that birds with typical hybrid genetics cannot live full, comfortable lives even in higher-welfare conditions. Fast-growing hybrid broilers, for example, are bred to have physical characteristics (e.g., larger breasts, less plumage, etc.) that are counter to the natural development of the animals and cause unnecessary suffering during the animals’ lives.7

Good for Corporations, Bad for Farmers

Furthermore, industry reliance on hybrid birds puts control in the hands of the companies that breed the birds rather than with the farmers who raise them. Because hybrid birds either cannot reproduce on their own or create offspring that do not share the desired traits selected in their parents, farmers have no choice but to return to factory hatcheries for each new flock.8 By contrast, one flock of standard-bred, heritage birds can serve a farmer for life, producing physically robust offspring. Heritage birds thrive in pasture settings, where they forage, are able to withstand the elements, and are resistant to naturally occurring pathogens.

More Fat, Less Protein

Beyond the welfare costs, intensive breeding of hybrid birds has profoundly altered the biological make-up of birds. Traditionally high in protein, today’s fast-growing hybrid chickens actually provide more calories from fat than from protein.9 To further document these often-ignored problems in fast-growth, hybrid broilers Farm Forward has partnered with scientists at Kansas State University and Frank Reese Jr. to conduct research comparing the nutritional value of fast-growth hybrid chickens from factory farms with heritage chickens. Results of this research are expected to show that heritage birds are nutritionally superior to hybrid birds. You can read more about the KSU study here and here.

To improve welfare in the poultry industry and reverse the nutritional decline of poultry, we must do two things. First, poultry farms must meet high-welfare standards in terms of the living conditions they provide for their birds (abundant pasture, places to nest and perch, etc.). Additionally, hybrid genetics that cause animals to grow too big too quickly or lay too many eggs must be phased out in favor of animals bred in accordance with Dr. Bernard Rollin’s Principle of Conservation of Welfare.10 That is, newer breeds should have at least the same level of welfare as previous breeds. If new approaches to hybrid breeding that do not as aggressively speed growth and give welfare equal priority can work, Farm Forward supports these approaches. If the entire nature of hybrid breeding inherently promotes bad welfare, then the entire system of hybrid breeding should end.

The rise of hybrid birds in the poultry industry has been a hidden source of cruelty with consequences for both the animals and people who eat them. Farm Forward is dedicated to keeping consumers informed of the realities of the poultry industry, and we hope you’ll join us in working toward more humane, sustainable, and just alternatives to factory farming!

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Next Step Read Next

  1. J.C. McKay, N.F. Barton, A.N.M. Koerhuis, and J. McAdam (2000). The Challenge of Genetic Change in the Broiler Chicken. BSAS Occasional Publication: 1-7.
  2. Y. Wang et al. (2009). Modern Organic and Broiler Chickens Sold for Human Consumption Provide More Energy from Fat Than Protein. Public Health Nutrition 13(3).
  3. For one useful discussion see, Cindy Skrzycki. “Old Rules on Poultry Categories May Fly the Coop,” The Washington Post, 7 Oct. 2003. Available here.
  4. O.A. Hanke (Ed.) (1974). American Poultry History, 1823-1973, American Poultry Historical Society: Layayette, IN.
  5. Frank Reese Jr., personal communication, June 28, 2012.
  6. Farm Forward is working to determine a more precise definition of “fast-growing.” Most industry chickens grow to market weight in 5 or 6 weeks. Commonly used standard-bred, heritage chicken breeds grow to market weight in 16-18 weeks. We know that 6 weeks is far too fast and we know that at 16 weeks is a long-established healthy growth rate. We also know that birds that grow to market weight in 8 to 9 weeks are healthier and have fewer welfare problems than those that are raised in 5 or 6 weeks and that birds that go to market in 10 to 12 weeks do better still. What we don’t know precisely is if there are birds that can grow to market rate in faster than 16 weeks while maintaining optimal health and welfare for both broiler birds and the parent stock. Some advocates argue that birds that go to market in 10 to 12 weeks can achieve optimal welfare, but the results are far from conclusive and others vigorously disagree with this conclusion. It may well be that the thousands of years of breed refinement that created chickens that reach market weight in 16 to 18 weeks has already pushed the animals as far as possible while retaining robust health. Farm Forward sees the welfare concerns of fast-growing birds to be among the most pressing issues in farmed animal welfare today.
  7. J.A. Mench & P.B. Siegel (1997). “Poultry,” Animal Welfare Compendium, USDA. Available here.
  8. A. Fanatico, S. Polson, and H. Born (2005). Poultry genetics for pastured production. ATTRA, The National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service. Accessed 11 Jun., 2012. Available here.
  9. Y. Wang et al. (2009). Modern Organic and Broiler Chickens Sold for Human Consumption Provide More Energy from Fat Than Protein. Public Health Nutrition 13(3).
  10. Read more about Conservation of Welfare here.

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