Counting Our Chickens

Counting Our Chickens
Counting Our Chickens

The animal-agriculture industry produces two types of chickens for human consumption: egg-laying hens and broilers grown for meat. Over many years, the industry has dramatically reduced the amount of feed (and land) needed to raise them.

That doesn’t, however, mean that in terms land-use efficiency, eating broiler chickens compares to eating a plant-based diet!

As the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) puts it, “Chickens are the most ubiquitous of all livestock species, and are to be found more or less everywhere inhabited by people.”

So, how many chickens are in the world today?

The top Google result from the Statista website puts the number at 23.7 billion chickens. It’s a membership site, so I can’t access their primary source.

But I believe they’re citing the 2018 FAO database showing chicken totals from 209 countries. It’s listed China’s number of 5.4 million twice, so I think the actual standing chicken population is 18.3 billion. How much do they eat?

Daily feed consumption:

Laying hens: 1 ounce daily for six weeks; then 3 ounces daily

Broilers: 1 ounce daily for two weeks, then 3 ounces daily until week 8 or 9 (when broiler chickens are typically slaughtered)

Total food by weight: Between 1.83 and 5.49 billion pounds of food daily.

This 2016 article from The Guardian puts the number of chickens slaughtered annually at 60 billion. The United Nations estimates 60 million human beings die each year.

Given those figures, it’s not surprising that the Guardian reporter came to this conclusion:

“The domestic chicken is set to play an epoch-defining role for humanity, as its bones could become the key fossil evidence for the dawn of the age in which humankind came to dominate the planet.”

So how do chickens stack up as “efficient” protein producers?

With an average 2 to 2.5 pounds of feed yielding 1 pound of meat or eggs, their Feed Conversion Ratio is much better than that of cattle. From a land-use standpoint, however, they still leave much to be desired.

After all, the same land producing 2 pounds of chicken feed to make 1 pound of eggs or wings, leg or breast meat could simply grow 2 pounds of plant-based food directly for human consumption.

Of course, there are plenty of other environmental issues to consider. Chickens need 3 ounces of water for every ounce of food. Multiplied by a chicken population outnumbering humans almost 3 to 1, that amounts to LOTS of water!

Let’s cut out the middle chicken! 

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