From finger-lickin’ corsages to Domino’s dough-free pizza crust, our appetite for chicken grows with every deranged fast-food menu item. But a possible poultry shortage poses a more serious risk than leaving cravings unsatisfied.
The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that by 2030, the world’s population will demand 82 million tons of poultry, almost four times what we consumed in 2000. But the planet is warming up, and chicken, a big protein source, isn’t immune. That’s why geneticist Carl Schmidt and his colleagues have been working in the lab to breed a possible solution: heat-resistant chickens.
Colonel Sanders probably didn’t imagine such strange-looking poultry, but chickens with featherless necks and heads naturally occur in Africa and South America.
“Think of them, in one sense, like bald men,” Schmidt explains. “The feathers, which are excellent insulators, just don’t grow on the neck and head. So the chickens are really good at dumping heat out of their bodies.”
Schmidt’s research team at the University of Delaware has been trying to map out the chicken’s genetic codes to see if the trait could be bred in American livestock. To be clear, he says that they’re not creating genetically modified organisms. “We’re basically proposing to use the same approaches that have been used for 10,000 years to domesticate animals. We’re talking about mating birds.”
The United States government is funding such research in response to the threats climate change pose to the global food supply, which many food scientists have been preparing for.
Michigan State University researchers have been developing turkeys that can endure heat waves, which make the birds’ breast meat squishy and unsavory. In Oklahoma, scientist Megan Rolf has been experimenting with a breed of cattle from India that can also withstand harsh temperatures. It’s not as appetizing to American tastes, so Rolf aims to create a steer that’s resilient and just as tasty as an Angus.
Some climate-change activists are already dismissing these early projects. They argue that less meat consumption holds the key to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, not genetic trickery that protects industrial agriculture.
Alan Miller, a retired climate-change specialist at the World Bank, told the Los Angeles Times the approach “is like trying to promote driver safety while helping the car industry make faster cars.” He said that the government should instead explore solutions like the Bill Gates–backed technology that uses peas to create better beef and chicken knockoffs.
But solving the complex issues of global warming will take multiple approaches, according to Schmidt. “Agriculture has to anticipate the worst in terms of climate change,” he argues. “One of the biggest challenges, of course, is population. It’s an economic and political problem. My concern is that we have enough to feed people that are here and will be here.”
As for the chickens, his team is working to identify other genetic variants that may increase the animals’ ability to withstand hotter temperatures.
“It could take as long as 15 years to get a desirable gene into a line of chickens that people could eat,” Schmidt says. As the story of climate change continues, Schmidt says, “that’s why we need to start now.”