Thursday, March 19, 2009

Thoughts On: Evolution and Responsible Stewardship

Chrissie and Koorosh Zaerpoor have been thoughtful stewards on so many levels: farmers, landowners, parents, educators, cheesemakers and community members. This year brings much change to Kookoolan Farms, including a move away from regular participation in the Hillsdale Farmers' Market in order to focus on their farm store in Yamhill, where they will offer cheese classes, sell cheesemaking supplies and eggs and devote energy to a nascent CSA. It also gives an opportunity to develop a more natural, comprehensive system for raising poultry meats, which Chrissie reflects on here.

There has been substantial media focus on the rapidly-reducing number of species and varieties of foods available to humans. A huge amount of our own species' calories comes from just corn, soy, wheat and rice. Within these plant species, genetically modified varieties exist for all four, and a number of natural and heirloom varieties suited to particular climates, resistant to particular diseases and possessing certain characteristics that were valued by the people who selected them (such as flavor, color, and nutrition) are either lost or threatened.

It is the same for livestock breeds. Modern domestic breeds of cows, pigs, chickens and turkeys are bred for rapid growth and docile temperament. Older breeds that had been selected for high butterfat, good mothering skills, excellent taste, hardiness in certain climates and strong immune systems are rapidly going extinct.

Nearly all of the chickens that we raised in 2008 were Cornish Cross chickens. These are the same broad-breasted chickens that are raised by virtually everyone in America; exact statistics are hard to come by, but well over 90% of all American chickens are Cornish Cross. By the early 1950s, more than two-thirds of all commercial chickens in the United States carried the bloodlines of the winners of the "Chicken of Tomorrow" breeding contests of 1948 and 1951. [watch this amazing video about the contest - KAB] The poultry breeder who placed second in the contest developed the hybrid chicken: female and male breeders are bred separately for different characteristics, and then bred together for egg and chick production in confinement factories. The hybridization ensures that second-generation chicks will not produce good meat chickens, guaranteeing buyers for the hybrid chicks just as sterile seeds from Monsanto guarantees seed buyers.

Commercial broiler chickens today grow to twice the finished weight in less than half the time and on less than half the feed, compared to chickens available in 1935. Summarized another way: prior to the hybridization and industrialization of the poultry industry that began around 1935, the natural growth pattern of a meat chicken was a 16-week growth period to a finished carcass weight of less than three pounds. Rapid growth in modern chickens has come at the expense of the birds' immune systems, resulting in weaker legs, more heart attacks, green muscle disease and the need for antibiotics and medications to prevent large-scale outbreaks.

Koorosh and I are having ethical struggles with nearly every aspect of what we've outlined here. The delicious irony is that preserving these heirloom animal breeds requires both raising them and creating a market that demands these meats. Older breeds of chickens have far better immune systems, and they are physically able to reproduce naturally. Is it possible to grow an older breed of chicken, have our own flock reproduce naturally, raise the birds to the natural mature age of 16 weeks and market a 3-pound bird profitably? This is an experiment best done on a small scale, and not with the volume of birds we raised in 2008.

Photos of chicks (top) and egg-washing (upper left) by Frederick Joe, the Oregonian.


Lisa said...

This is fascinating information. Thanks for sharing your concerns in this post. I'm glad I had a chance to read it. Best of luck!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this great info! I have 9 chickens and 6 of them are 4 different types of heirloom breeds. I love having them run around the yard in all their multi colored petticoats. Happy Spring!

cryFowl said...

Comparing hatcheries who sell Cornish Cross chicks to Monsanto or Cargill selling patented GMO seeds is a bit of a stretch. The cross breeding involved in hatching cornish cross chicks is well known and available through a google search. It is true that hatcheries have selected strains of the parent chickens to yield characteristics in chicks that are desired and these chicken breeders are jealous of their work. But this situation is much more similar to a hog farmer who has selected good breeding stock over many generations and refuses to sell boars. In other words, if you want to hatch your own fast growing cornish cross chicks then you have to do your breeding homework and pay your dues over many generations of breeding stock.

Kathleen Bauer said...

Chrissie responds:

"It may be "a bit of a stretch." But only a bit. Hybrid plants or animals do not reproduce true to form, meaning that you can't save seed from a crop, or hatch chicks from adult chickens, and get the same item next time.  

"Patented GMO seeds are produced in an unnatural way, supposedly for the goal of huge crop production, at the expense of severe and significant damage to the environment, and at the expense of the taste and nutrition of the corn itself. The focus of the breeding is on economics and not on food quality. The resulting monocultures lead to the decline of genetic diversity within the species.

"Similarly, the parents of Cornish Cross chicks have been produced in an unnatural way, meaning they have been raised in confinement operations and on an extremely restricted diet, for the goal of huge production and efficiency in chicks solely suitable for confinement raising. This comes at the expense of the health and the humane treatment of the live chicken, the use of antibiotics, the dependence on GMO corn and soy to feed them, the huge amounts of waste generated in small areas, and the taste and nutrition of the finished chicken. The focus of the breeding is on economics and not on food quality. The resulting monocultures lead to the decline of genetic diversity within the species.

"They are identical practices.

"Kookoolan Farms is looking for different chicken genetics for the purpose of entirely opting out of the system of confinement raising of chickens. That includes not only how we raise our own birds, but also the supply chain that brings our chicks to us. We're looking for the most sustainable and natural methods, and that includes our supply chain. We believe it is a sacred imperative to work toward preserving and increasing, rather than decreasing, genetic diversity in human food sources whether plant or animal. And we're looking for, uncompromisingly, the best taste, texture and nutrition in our poultry."

- Chrissie Manion Zaerpoor
Kookoolan Farms

cryFowl said...

Chrissie, I think you are missing the point. Cross breeding chickens and genetically engineering seeds are not "identical processes." It is true that cross bred chickens, hybrid tomatoes and GMO seeds will not come true in the next generation. The important difference is that the process to get the cornish cross chicks is well known, relatively easy to do, and completely legal. Much differently, the process of genetically engineering "roundup ready" seed corn is technically difficult, capital intensive, and, if you want to commercialize your work, illegal due to patent protections.

You describe the horrible confinement conditions where industrial cornish cross parent stock is raised and you dwell on their industrial corn/soy based diet, implying that this is the only way they can be raised. Most of the commercially available stock is selected for these industrial conditions but there is no reason you couldn't do your own selective breeding of cornish cross parents that thrive, and whose cross bred offspring thrive, on pasture supplemented with a more sustainable diet. (By the way, the parent stock we are arguing about are "heritage breeds" so developing your own strains that work well in your preferred environment may be a meaningful exercise in increasing genetic diversity.)

I agree with the general direction you are heading in, but I take issue with the overly broad, technically incorrect rhetoric.

Kathleen Bauer said...

Chrissie responds:

"My point has not been the natural/legal process of breeding chickens vs the technical and patented process of gene splicing. Rather, my main issue with Cornish Cross breeding is the focus on weight and economics, and the resulting mediocre taste, weak legs and hearts, and "blah" attitude toward life. I also agree that there are "better" Cornish cross such as Privet Hatchery's slow-growing Cornish cross, but their taste and behavior are only incrementally better than fast-growing hybrids.

"Yes, I could breed my own Cornish cross -- but WHY???? We're going back to the heirlooms."

- Chrissie Manion Zaerpoor
Kookoolan Farms