Big Chicken: The Incredible Story of How Antibiotics Created Modern Agriculture and Changed the Way the World Eats
By Maryn McKenna
A decade ago, I remember picking up The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan for the first time. A few short hours later, I had finished the book, immersed in a world of words carefully crafted to move my mind and body to better food choices. It worked. For myself and many others, Pollan’s book helped create significant and lasting changes.
As I dug into Maryn McKenna’s new book, Big Chicken, it reminded me of the power that great books can have in propelling needed changes. Poultry is an area where America and the world desperately need big change, and Big Chicken is the kind of book that can help create it.
The book is exceptionally well crafted. McKenna weaves between real-life stories, history, statistics and science with a skill and deftness that only the most experienced dancers could muster. The writing is crisp, the storytelling engaging, and the information easily digestible, with facts peppered throughout the narrative to thoroughly educate but not overwhelm the reader. Actually, there is a great deal to be overwhelmed by—it is not only the complexity of the story but also the nature of the problem that is overwhelming. The world’s quest for big chicken involves billions of animals—cheap, convenient blocks of “meat cash” as a farmer once called them. These billions of animals consume hundreds of millions of pounds of antibiotics each year. The overuse of antibiotics has dire consequences not just for animal health, but for human health as well.
The book explores how chicken became big and discusses the related consequences of “big” for the invisible world of mostly friendly, but sometimes deadly, microbes. The first part of Big Chicken focuses on how industrial and scientific advances that began in the 1920s reengineered the chicken. Specifically, this section of the book explores the unfolding overuse and abuse of antibiotics in chicken production. McKenna nicely sums up her book’s central thesis on page 31: “Antibiotics have been so difficult to root out of modern meat because, in a crucial way, they created [modern meat].” Although many other factors also have played a part in creating the massive mess that is modern meat production—including the advent of artificial animal nutrition and industrial crop production as well as changes in animal breeding methods—all of these would be for naught without antibiotics.
Animal production currently uses 80 percent of antibiotics in the U.S. and makes use of over half of the antibiotics produced globally. McKenna observes (p. 27), “What slows the emergence of resistance is using an antibiotic conservatively: at the right dose, for the right length of time, for an organism that will be vulnerable to the drug, and not for any other reason. Most antibiotics used in agriculture violate those rules.” McKenna shows time and time again how little restraint or forethought governed what the burgeoning chicken industry was doing. This is partly understandable—postwar cultural tides and an unshakeable belief in science and chemistry (at a time when we had a very limited understanding of both) laid the groundwork for the deification of “better living through chemistry.” Or at least, “better, cheaper chicken.” This set the stage for what we see in the antibiotic resistance epidemic.
Why, when all modern industrial animals routinely receive antibiotics, is chicken the main character in this story? The answer is, because chickens were first. Almost all modern industrial meat production is based on what producers learned about, and did to, chickens. Raise animals on synthetic diets? Use confinement and incredibly crowded living conditions? Administer antibiotics (called growth promoters) to increase weight gain and protect the animals from their unnatural living conditions? Producers did it to chickens first, each and every time. Probably no animal in all of human history has enjoyed so much clinical attention and agricultural investment as the chicken. It needed every penny of this investment to take the chicken from the most to the least expensive meat per pound on the market, and to go from the Sunday and special occasion meal to the mass-produced protein that rules over all the others.
In their defense (as McKenna does a great job of showing), the early adopters of chemical-based agriculture really didn’t understand what they were doing. They were not able to set the immense benefits that they could see against the even greater costs of their actions, because the costs were truly hidden. The world of microbes was still mostly a mystery. Many of the costs were far off in the future or in a tiny microbiological world that had yet to be studied, let alone understood. Indeed, even to this day, the microscopic world remains one of the most promising but least well understood areas of research for improving human health.
Moreover, the benefits of “meat as cheap as bread” (Chapter 3) made it easy to dismiss the few detractors and warnings that emerged in response to the explosion of antibiotic-based agriculture. McKenna explains how enthusiasts began adding antibiotics to fish, using them to wash vegetables, and even painting antibiotics on meat before turning it into ground meat. The “more, bigger, faster” paradigm that Joel Salatin has described was born. From originally adding ten grams of antibiotics per ton of animal feed, some farmers increased the amount to one thousand grams per ton of feed. Neither government nor industry exhibited any caution or self-control.
The second part of the book shows how the discoveries that enabled massive changes in chicken production began to wreak havoc on microbes, quickly creating widespread antibiotic resistance. For McKenna, this case study of chemically based agriculture isn’t merely theoretical. Story after story involves actual people—including researchers and scientists testifying at hearings about the coming crisis, industry leaders and government officials blocking reforms, farmers trapped in the commodity raising system and individuals sickened by antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Disease outbreaks have dealt death and debilitation to hundreds. In a sense, Big Chicken is our story and the story of the modern U.S. and its relation to food and health.
What eventually stopped the excesses were all the problems that overuse of antibiotics began to create. Antibiotic resistance gave birth to questions among industry players and many others about whether “better living through chemistry” might not be “better” after all. In Part Three, therefore, Big Chicken ends on a surprising note of hope, following the modern-day movement to reign in antibiotic use. This movement isn’t solely or even primarily espoused by alternative farmers like fourth-generation cattleman Will Harris (who discussed “farming as it should be” in a Wise Traditions podcast and who McKenna prominently features at the book’s close). Rather, big chicken itself—the industrial poultry industry—has embraced the call to curb antibiotic use. The very industry that created modern meat production has been the most eager (at least on the surface) to tackle antibiotic use in animals. Although there is a recognizable need to address and reverse many other problems as well—such as confinement animals’ appalling living conditions, manure concentration and the use of genetically modified (GM) feed—stopping antibiotics is a critical first step to averting a global catastrophe.
Perdue, Chick-fil-A and many other companies have led the way, seeing the sea change in consumer attitudes toward antibiotics in animals. In just a few years, they have radically reduced the amount of antibiotics used in poultry. By around 2020, many commercial chickens will be antibiotic-free. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that this initiative has caught on in the other industrial animal production models (beef and pork). McKenna shares data from 2015, which indicate that antibiotic use for animal agriculture in America has yet to show a downward trend. We eagerly await more recent government data, which are long overdue because of the industry’s refusal to be transparent about its practices (funny, they never seem to turn down all the government money!).
Big Chicken is an absolutely fantastic read. Infuriating and illuminating, but fantastic. Get a copy for yourself. Get a copy for a friend. Enjoy talking about it over a pastured chicken from a local farmer. Two thumbs UP.