Chicken farmers in the sky

Can sky farming save the world from the truth about dead Chinese fowl?

Published June 14, 2007 7:14PM (EDT)

The FDA is considering a major revamp of its imported food inspection procedures, reports the Wall Street Journal. The key will be evaluating the most likely vectors of risk and focusing departmental resources at the crisis points. After reading the latest offering from the environmental journal ChinaDialogue, How the World Works has a recommendation: Take a hard look at Chinese chicken products.

"The Truth About Dead Chickens" is a worthy installment in the Eric Schlosser, "Fast Food Nation," once-you-read-this-you-will-never-look-at-a-drumstick-in-China-the-same-way-again school of journalism. 23 years ago, Chinese chicken farmers started to move to "battery farming" -- force-growing chickens in ultra-crowded conditions. (23 years ago, incidentally, was 1984, when economic reforms spearheaded by Deng Xiaoping allowed China's peasants greatly expanded freedom to capture the rewards of their own investment and hard work. Coincidence? We think not.)

In ChinaDialogue, Gaoming Jiang, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute of Botany, reports that battery farming of chickens in China typically results in large numbers of sick or prematurely expired chickens. But 80 percent of the carcasses of these chickens still end up in the food supply.

So how does this happen? One route is factories producing processed meat "sausages." The dead birds are very cheap -- US$0.05 to US$0.07 a kilogram -- and the bosses of small-scale factories are often happy to buy them. Villagers told us that you will find people waiting around the factories looking to buy carcasses, or farmers will sometimes have direct links to factory bosses. Sick birds are likely to be sold off at the same time. Just pluck them, gut them, cook them and mix in some starch and preservatives -- all that is needed for one of these sausages.

Stall-holders selling roast chicken also see the profits to be made from dead or sick birds, since they are much cheaper than healthy ones. They choose chickens that are close to death and get them onto the spit as soon as possible. Think about that next time you are tempted by a street-side chicken leg in China. An avian disease specialist once told me he bought a roast chicken before boarding a train, and was shocked to discover millimeter-thick, yellowish-white protein deposits in its heart and liver, indicating the chicken had died of an infection. The stall-holder obviously had not had time to clean the bird properly before cooking and selling it. The expert may have been able to tell the difference, but who else could? It was the last chicken he ate.

Jiang finishes with a call to let all chickens run free that will no doubt resound with any organic farmer. But one has to wonder -- won't increased demand for more chicken nuggets and fried eggs from affluent middle class Chinese only pump up the pressure to squeeze together more chickens per square meter? With global population set to grow by another 3 billion by the middle of this century, and 85 percent of the world's arable land already being farmed, is there enough room on the planet for every chicken to be free range?

At moments like these, one contemplates the growth curve of Kentucky Fried Chicken in China and finds it difficult to ward off the fowl despair ever lurking around the next chicken coop corner. But today, How the World Works refuses to give in.

Scrolling through the Treehugger environmental blog this morning, our attention was captured by an artist's rendition of a skyscraper farm proposed for downtown Toronto. Perhaps skyfarming -- urban arcologies that take greenhouse farming to penthouse suite heights -- will save us all. New York magazine published an illustrated run-down of the concept in April, but for the full breathtaking flavor of the proposal you need to go straight to the source, Dickson Despommier's,

Despommier, a professor of environmental sciences and microbiology at Columbia University, lays out a few of the advantages of skyfarming in an essay that is more optimistic and visionary than a score of hopeful science fiction novels. Here's a taste:

Vertical farming practiced on a large scale in urban centers has great potential to: 1. supply enough food in a sustainable fashion to comfortably feed all of humankind for the foreseeable future; 2. allow large tracts of land to revert to the natural landscape restoring ecosystem functions and services; 3. safely and efficiently use the organic portion of human and agricultural waste to produce energy through methane generation, and at the same time significantly reduce populations of vermin (e.g., rats, cockroaches); 4. remediate black water creating a much needed new strategy for the conservation of drinking water; 5. take advantage of abandoned and unused urban spaces; 6. break the transmission cycle of agents of disease associated with a fecally-contaminated environment; 7. allow year-round food production without loss of yields due to climate change or weather-related events; 8. eliminate the need for large-scale use of pesticides and herbicides; 9. provide a major new role for agrochemical industries (i.e., designing and producing safe, chemically-defined diets for a wide variety of commercially viable plant species; 10. create an environment that encourages sustainable urban life, promoting a state of good health for all those who choose to live in cities. All of this may sound too good to be true, but careful analysis will show that these are all realistic and achievable goals, given the full development of a few new technologies.

OK, maybe there are a few technical details to work out -- such as the energy inputs necessary to make a 50-story, year-round urban farm function -- before the greatest idea for urban renewal to ever hit the streets becomes a reality. But if you want to wash the taste of dead, diseased, unsustainably factory-farmed Chinese chicken out of your mouth, take a trip to the skyfarm. And at the very least, let's build one and see if we can get it to work.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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