“When our mother drove us home, we were tired from doing nothing all day in a hot car. My mother smelled funny. The factory workers weren’t allowed to take unscheduled breaks, so they all wore pads in case they needed to use the bathroom. It smelled like my mother had used her pad. I decided that someday when I was rich, I was going to buy the factory and let the workers use the bathroom whenever they wanted.”
−Cynthia Kadohata, Kira-Kira
It was a glimpse of what it was like to be a migrant working in a chicken factory in Iowa in the 1950s. They spent up to 91 hours per week eliminating male baby chicken from the females, taking care of the farm, or cutting the slaughtered chicken into parts in the processing section. Within those endless working hours, they weren’t allowed to leave work unscheduled, even to go to the bathroom. With such sacrifices, the company paid them low. Their voices were silenced as the company strictly prohibited any worker union activities.
This excerpt from a novel by Chintya Kadohata might raise a few questions for readers in 2022. Meat production has been confirmed to be the biggest contributor to the heating of our planet and chicken is the most eaten meat in the whole world. Many people have started promoting meat-less diet to slow down this endangering process. Too much meat has also been connected to the skyrocketing risk of cardiovascular diseases, especially when a substantial share of all meat consumed in the whole world is deep-fried or made into processed food. As we browse through the social media of vegan celebrities and young campaigners of saving-the-planet movements, we increasingly believe that eating meat leaves more bad excess than it could deliver benefit. If we don’t have to eat meat, why do the workers in chicken factories have to work that hard? Why should there be a chicken factory at all in the first place?
To put it simply, this was not the way we used to secure our chicken. We used to hunt or breed, not produce them in a factory. As for the chicken, we did not even eat them until recently. The ancestor of today’s chicken, the jungle fowl, came from Southeast Asia. People in that region, thus, was the first to ever domesticate chicken. The purpose of the earliest domestication, however, was not for consumption. They did it because they started to take pleasure in cockfighting. As the fowl get dispersed to a larger part of the world, most of its early appearances fulfilled ritualistic functions. From greater Asia to Europe, because of its rarity and exotic qualities, chicken occupies a place as a significant cultural symbol. It was not until thousands of years since the first domestication that people started eating chicken. In the 1500s Southeast Asia, according to historian Anthony Reid, eating chicken was like performing a rite. It was only done on very specific occasions. In 17th and 18th century Europe, eating chicken was also far from a normal occurrence. Wild chicken appeared as imported hunting prey and served as rare delicacies. Shot fowl featured frequently in still-life paintings commissioned by upper-middle-class patrons from that era. While domesticated breed, however, has started to be kept in people’s backyards. These domestic chickens were nurtured for two things; their egg and meat. When it was increasingly normal for people to eat eggs, chicken meat was still a luxury.
The story, contrastingly, came from the food industrialization era of the 1950s. The 50’s witnessed the birth of gigantic fast-food brands like KFC, Chick-Fil-A, McDonald’s, and Wendy’s. These restaurants engineered demands among the growing lower-class population in the post-war United States. The engineering was done by providing cheap, hygienic, and consistent-tasting food everywhere. For this, they needed a kitchen that works as effectively as a factory assembling line and, most importantly, cheap ingredients. Big scale factories responded to this demand by starting the broiler chicken factory. A great conversion of family farmland into industrial-scale cornfields then occurred to cater for the demand. To secure this gigantic number of lands, sometimes individual owners were negatively affected. While the chicken, the workers, and the landless farmer suffered, for the first time in history, food was abundant, cheap, and its production capacity stable. The overflowing abundance, combined with the emerging millionaires in this industry and the faux joy the low-incomed majority felt when consuming cheap fast food from powerful brands overshadowed the bitter reality. Though broiler production and consumption score a promising growth up to today, there is hardly any increase in attention to the welfare of the worker in the chicken factory or the chicken itself. In 2002, an Israeli researcher developed a breed of chicken without feathers only to reduce the cost of plucking feathers. The other cruel secrets are kept tight behind the factory walls. Even they forbid journalist Andrew Lawler from seeing the chicken factory during the investigation for his book Why Did the Chicken Cross the World? that was published in 2014, just as how they disallow Robert Kenner from filming clips for the documentary Food.inc in 2004.
The stark contrast between modern and traditional food production lies not only in their practice but also in their grounding philosophy. Traditional food production positions humans as an integral part of nature who need to have a conversational adaptation with it to fulfill their needs, while the modern one is about manipulating and engineering nature in humans’ favor. While the traditional way sees chicken as a form of life, the modern one sees it as mere pieces of food. This thinking finds its roots in the Enlightenment philosophy from 18th century Europe, where it sees all humans as equally powerful to fight for their own happiness. However, while favoring humans, this philosophy regards nature as merely the background of human history or a wild power to be harnessed. The growth of “the world of human favor” accelerated since 1945. Since then, 90% of the weight carried by the planet is made of humans and other living creatures nurtured for humans’ interest, leaving only 10% for wildlife.
Every community in this world used to have their own foodways based on the biodiversity of its living environment. This is why carbohydrates, fiber and protein used to be obtained from highly diverse sources across the globe. Though chicken originated from Southeast Asia, the people in the region during the 1500s consumed fish as their main source of protein. This happened due to the landscape that constituted more water than land. While the agile semi-flying bird was hard to catch, fish was of great abundance. In the hinterland parts of Southeast Asia, which are surrounded by thick rainforest and have less water, the people also developed a fondness towards insects. Insect – the protein source that has no room in the modern food landscape – is still being consumed by more than 3000 ethnicities in 130 different countries. Cattle such as beef and lamb were originally the protein sources of Europe and Central Asia whose landscape was dominated by flat grassland suitable for herding cattle.
Everywhere, local knowledge like these have rapidly dissolved since the 1950s, when the West started to replace their direct control and exploitation with knowledge hegemony. They imposed their science and standard to thousands of communities in the third world that already have their own “traditional” knowledge only to secure more markets for their products and cheaper raw materials for their industries. This mischief was wrapped beautifully with developmental narrations which saw this as an aid from the West to the rest of the world, to help them climb the cultural evolution ladder. One day, the West promised, third world countries will be just as prosperous as them, but it was a big lie. One very representative example is the first broiler chicken farm in Indonesia. In 1967, broiler chicken was first bred in Indonesia with an investment from the US and Japan. It was part of a policy named Bimas (community guidance) which introduces high-yield crops and livestock under the umbrella of the New Order’s Green Revolution scheme. At first, the government of Indonesia claimed that it will be handled by small scale growers so this sector could enliven the country’s economy. 20 years later, this sector ended up being dominated by huge corporations.
Since 1967, broiler companies in Indonesia have converted thousands of fish, insects, nuts and vegetable eaters in this country into chicken lovers by maintaining their low price and continuous availability. My parents who were born in the 1970s and raised in the countryside have a contrasting perception towards chicken with my generation. They still maintain the old tradition of eating chicken only on special occasions. In our home, it is very normal to not eat any animal protein in a day. My parents also raise their own kampung chicken and feed them with our family’s food excess. When we are in need of cooking chicken, my father would butcher it himself. Mostly eating kampung chicken their whole life, they also do not enjoy broiler chicken. Broilers are indeed tasteless compared to our chicken. My generation, on the contrary, very rarely encounter live chicken though they eat chicken almost every day. If my parents served chicken only during birthdays and feast days, my generation is snacking on chicken stripes or wings. Our rapid consumption of broiler chicken is still projected to be growing for years to come by the FAO. This way, most likely, the number of farmers whose lands are robbed, the number of oppressed chicken factory workers, the number of cardiovascular disease cases, the obesity rate, the harm to biodiversity, the temperature of our planet, and our distance from Mother Nature would follow.