Poor chickens. It’s not their fault that the poultry industry is one of the biggest polluters in the country. Chickens are born to be soil-nurturing, pesticide preempting, sustainability machines. <!–more–>But when you hear <em>chickens</em> and <em>the environment</em> in the same sentence, it’s a reasonable assumption that the connection is going to be negative.
It’s hard to believe that poultry farming can be ecologically sound, with pollution pouring from all manner of industrial poultry facilities. Based on its own reporting, from 2010 to 2014 the country’s largest chicken processor dumped more toxic pollution into our waterways than Cargill, DuPont, and ExxonMobil combined. That doesn’t even include any of the pollution from the farms that are propped up with synthetic inputs to grow poultry feed; or the sheds where chickens are packed in the tens of thousands, spewing toxins into the air and water. How can these massive polluters be turned into an environmental boon?
The fact is, they already are the ideal farm animal. Removed from the conventional food system, chickens are a miracle of efficient energy transformation, which is the most essential quality of any sustainable system. With their instinctive talents, they take in weeds and bugs from the paddock and give the farmer financial and ecological liberation from synthetic pesticides and herbicides. The same crops that provide the birds with protection from the sun and predators also cool the soil, lessening the need for intensive irrigation. And their excrement is a priceless gift: crops drain nutrients from soil, and poultry poop replenishes those nutrients.
Chicken is, likewise, the most ecologically efficient animal protein. It takes approximately two units of chicken feed to make one unit of meat protein. Mammals require three to ten times as much input to produce the same amount: that’s three to ten times as much wasted energy. Plus, the poultry diet can be an integrated part of the farm itself – corn and grains that are fertilized by the chickens, and pests and weeds which we don’t want around anyway.
Better still, their contributions extend well beyond the farm. Poultry-centered farming can improve the health, diversity, and resilience of the extended regional ecosystem. Chicken-nurtured soil produces less runoff and supports healthy water systems. Since they help replace damaging pesticides and herbicides, chickens welcome the company of bees, birds, and bats that bolster balance and diversity in the surrounding landscape. The absence of synthetic additives also means the absence of superbugs and superweeds which can shatter the ecological symbiosis of an entire area. But this isn’t even their coolest feature.
Poultry-nourished soil is resilient soil, and healthy soil captures more carbon. That means regenerative farms like those at Main Street Project not only avoid polluting the region, they can help reverse global warming through carbon sequestration. The birds don’t do it alone, but outside of the farmer they are the greatest contributors to this game-changing system.