April 24, 2009

Saving America’s Old-Fashioned Chickens

The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy has outlined a list of 66 breeds of chickens it is trying to save from extinction.

These so-called old-fashioned chickens represent a minority, as about 90 percent of all chickens on the market are factory-raised breeds.

"When we can identify something in danger, we need to protect it," Barbara Bowman of Sonoma County told the AP.

"The old breeds provide really sturdy genetics that we have to guard."

Purebred chickens began to decline after World War II when food producers initiated the "Chicken of Tomorrow" contest that would create a broad-breasted chicken that could be produced on as little amount of feed as possible.

"All of the other breeds lost their jobs because they couldn't grow as fast," said Marjorie Bender, the Conservancy's technical program director. "The marketplace only cared about how fast it grew and how big it got."

Genetically modified chicken breeds are designed to grow large and quick. One University of Arkansas study found that if a human baby were to grow at the same rate as a factory chicken, it would weigh 349 pounds by age 2.

Purebred chickens must breed naturally, be allowed to live outside, and must not be genetically modified in any way.

"To save them, we have to eat them," said Bender, referring to the conservancy's effort to push its "heritage" approved chickens to consumers in the same fashion as organic food suppliers.

Some breeds, like the White Delaware, the Holland and the Houdan have been listed as "critically threatened," meaning there are less than 500 left.

"We are losing genetic diversity in our country's livestock," Bender said.

"The factory chickens we have now are all closely related. If we had millions of chicken houses decimated (by disease), we'd have to figure out how to resist that disease. Part of the answer is genetically based."


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