Who could argue with scientifically informed efforts to raise chickens with less suffering? Isn’t less suffering better? And isn’t better, well, better? The nation’s leading animal welfare certification, Global Animal Partnership (GAP), has made news recently by teaming up with animal welfare groups and large food retailers like Whole Foods Market to set genuinely better standards on chicken welfare. The new standards are said to be based on a multi-year study GAP commissioned from the University of Guelph. GAP and its allies have even focused on the most challenging welfare problem in farming today: the chronic disease and deformities faced by virtually all chickens because they have been genetically modified to grow fatter, faster than ever before. Aggressive hybrid breeding techniques over decades have transformed the chicken genome in disturbing ways, so it’s a good thing institutions like GAP are talking about this public secret.
But while some animal protection groups are celebrating GAP’s new standards alongside industry, those of us who have seen “how the standards were made” aren’t smiling. When is better not better at all? When the process of creating slightly improved standards is carefully controlled from soup to nuts to ensure that factory farming continues to be a thriving and globally expanding industry.
GAP’s “better chicken” is a pawn sacrifice. What has in fact occurred is that after decades of runaway genetic modification that have left virtually all of America’s chickens sickly and morbidly obese, the industry is asking the public to accept as “high welfare” these genetically miserable birds because they aren’t as bad as the newest and most widely used strains.
Let’s say you are suffering from chronic pain and you go to your doctor. You are really suffering, so any relief would be welcome, even if it’s modest. Your doctor gives you a medicine that makes you feel 10% better, and you are appreciative. But what if you found out the next day that the “medicine” that is reducing your pain also has addictive properties that ensure that your painful condition will continue forever? And what if you further learn that a complete cure was available for a few dollars more, but was deliberately hidden from you? That’s how I and others feel about the GAP standards (but, yes, they are better).
What the business interests that really control GAP have achieved with GAP’s new genetic welfare standards is a benchmark for “better” that is so low that even factory farms can embrace it—a standard for improvement that is so low, it ensures no real change will occur. Shoppers that can pay a premium get a product that is “better,” and all of us are worse off together.
As a new father, I feel especially passionate about the harm this humanewashing is doing. I believe it is preventing a better future from taking root. The product being washed clean here is perhaps the largest lever the American public has to address the future of infectious disease, pandemic risk, climate change, environmental racism, animal suffering, and more.
Despite the ongoing global growth of industrial farming, I have hope for my son’s generation because I see the signs all around me that the public is waking up to the reality of factory farming. The material conditions sometimes continue to worsen, but there is more will than ever to build a better, more sustainable future for farming. Change is coming. While no one really knows just how much an increasingly food-conscious public will demand, businesses are already bracing to deliver more. The plant-based and cultured meats that have made headlines since at least 2019 when Beyond Meat became the most successful IPO since 2008 are merely the most visible—and may not be among the more important—of these deep changes.
My hope for the future is not in these technologies as much as the ambition to create a more humane and sustainable future that is mixed up with them. My hope is most importantly in the hearts and minds of Americans as they farm, buy, and eat their way into the future of food.
It is precisely this source of hope that humanewashing seeks to attack. Humanewashing isn’t only consumer deception; it’s yet another attack on our better natures. Wanting to be humane is a core part of our humanity. To accept humanewashing, or to shrug it off as a necessary evil, may take more from us than we bargain.
Most Americans remain in the dark about how disastrous animal agriculture has become, and industry knows it needs to change minds fast before a tipping point of awareness is reached. Big Chicken is looking at what happened to Big Tobacco and realizing the case against industrial poultry, especially in an age of pandemics, could be far worse. As the public will to end factory farming is built, industry is proactively defending itself, and humanewashing is a linchpin of their strategy.
It is in this historical context that weak welfare standards like GAP’s are the perfect smoke screen for industry. Whole Foods Market, GAP, and others are blowing that smoke straight up consumers’ arses.
While GAP’s stated goal of at least doing better does set them above industry certifications, the much-hailed study it commissioned was a farce—a performance to justify with the veneer of science an already foreclosed decision to support the status quo. The scientists themselves are innocent. The answers the study provided are answers to the questions GAP asked, but, with few exceptions, GAP only asked questions that would help its industry allies frame as “higher welfare” the most recent genetic offerings from the cabal of genetics companies that control industrial chicken genetics, and thus, the poultry industry, globally.
The truth is that GAP and Whole Foods have so far chosen not to require standards that would significantly improve welfare outcomes—despite having the evidence from their own study that truly meaningful improvements are possible. It is for this reason that after serving on GAP’s board of directors for a decade, Farm Forward resigned in 2020.
There was reason for hope when GAP announced in 2016 that it would establish benchmarks for genetic health, but at the end of a years-long process we’re right back where we started: with chickens who suffer from a range of painful afflictions as a result of their unhealthy genetics. There is not even a whiff of a plan to end this absurd and unsustainable situation, but meanwhile, GAP is trumpeting that it is “reinvent[ing] the modern day broiler chicken.” It wouldn’t be the first time that “new and improved” really means more of the same.
Whole Foods Market and GAP’s humanewashing is leading consumers to believe that they can purchase chickens from Whole Foods who do not suffer because they have been genetically modified for fast growth in ways that are known to produce leg deformities, muscle myopathies, and weakened immune systems. The reality is that chickens within GAP’s program will still suffer in these same ways, just slightly less. By contrast, the factory farm corporations and the retailers that profit from their products are almost certainly earning much more, or at least deflecting criticisms that might have forced them to change. GAP’s “better chicken” is better for business, but consumers, public health, the environment, and, of course, the chickens themselves are not necessarily better off when factory farmed products are viewed more favorably. Sometimes, promising to be better is really just the lie someone tells when they aren’t yet ready for real change.
Lead image credit: We Animals Media