Selective breeding is more worrying than GM food

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When does it stop? At what point does the search for ever cheaper food come up against the obstacle of legitimate concern for animal welfare? The answer should be: some time ago.

When does it stop? At what point does the search for ever cheaper food come up against the obstacle of legitimate concern for animal welfare? The answer should be: some time ago.

The standard chicken reared for meat grew to a full size of 1kg in 1976. Just a quarter of a century later, selective breeding has produced a fully grown bird of 2.6kg. And this unfeasible creature is reared in just 42 days – seven weeks from egg to slaughter. Popular alarm about genetic manipulation seems misplaced when breeding alone can produce such walking blocks of oven-ready meat. And it will be selective breeding which will raise the target weight to 3kg and beyond in the next few years, while cutting the time taken to achieve it to five weeks or less.

This "progress" has been achieved at too great a cost. There is the traditional problem of overcrowding, which causes birds to peck each other to death. Farmers have long dealt with that not by reducing livestock density but by de-beaking – cutting the ends off chickens' beaks. Today's overweight birds suffer a new set of cruelties in addition, as they hobble around their A4 space allocation, namely the many heart and leg problems brought on by their size. For all these reasons, 4 per cent of broiler chickens die before they make it through their seven-week lives, a mortality rate which is acceptable commercially but intolerable ethically.

The key to change is consumer awareness. The main difficulty of protecting animal welfare in intensive farming systems is the disconnection between the consumer and the means of production. That is one reason why animal protection campaigns ought to be allowed to advertise on television, as the RSPCA argued last month. Ultimately, it is consumer pressure which will force the pace of European Union law, which the Commission intends to draw up next year. Minimum standards have to be set at EU level, otherwise free trade within Europe would mean British chicken was undercut by cheap imports.

When the Commission draws up its directive, it must cover the issue of selective breeding: there ought to be independent oversight of the extent to which features such as high growth rates are compatible with the well-being of the animals concerned.

Meanwhile, aware consumers – if you have read this far, this means you – must continue to push supermarkets into providing more and cheaper free-range chicken.

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