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Conference Description

Yale University
New Haven, Connecticut
May 17-19, 2002

to top The goal of this conference is to provide a deep and innovative natural and cultural history of the chicken (Gallus gallus). Starting from the genetic base of the wild jungle fowl in Southeast Asia 7,000 years ago, to a living presence in barnyards around the world, chickens have become the front line of an increasingly industrialized agriculture.Arguably the most engineered of all domestic animals, the chicken’s breast, legs, eggs, wings, feathers, and fighting abilities have been the subject of centuries of breeding and research. In the past it has been the focus of efforts to diversify household production, agricultural economies, and improve urban diets. Today Chicken McNuggets are a living symbol of verticalized industries, mass production, and global markets.

We hope that careful study of the chicken will serve as a privileged window on the transformations of agriculture, cuisine, health, biodiversity, and labor associated with its domestication, production, and consumption.This conference will provide an arena of sharing and discussion for participants who have studied the economic, social, health, and ecological consequences of poultry rearing and the poultry industry – past and present. We will be bringing together scholars, agronomists, public intellectuals, chicken growers, workers, industry representatives, and activists from the labor, farm, animal welfare, environmental, and public health movements, whose work has helped to define and change what we know about chickens and their production and consumption.

We hope that this conference will result not only in a substantial volume of scholarly papers, but also in the development of new relationships, perhaps even of new and renewed coalitions and organizing efforts. In honor of the fowl whose history we are considering, we are also planning a small film festival, literary events, poetry readings, and, of course, cuisine prepared by cooks who love chickens and the many alternatives to eating them.

Here we would like to signal a few of the intellectual, social, economic, and moral issues associated with the history of mankind and poultry that we believe deserve careful attention.This conference will feature presentations correlating with the following major themes.

to top A. The history of the chicken.

The domestication of the Malaysian (russet-colored megapode) jungle fowl was a distinct event separate from the domestication of migratory birds (ducks, geese). The history of the chicken involves looking at the development of breeds (subspecies) for meat, eggs, feathers, fighting, hardiness, inability to fly, auguries, and other valued properties. Breeding in the later half of the 20th century has also involved the development of pullets, capons, and incubators. Alongside these developments, we have seen the intensification and transformation of the chicken into the creation and elaboration of registered standard breeds selected for survival in large confinement operations with rapid growth and with efficiency in producing desirable meat and eggs. Similarly, the creation of scientific feeding regimens with mass-medication, chemical castration, and growth hormones to cut time-to-slaughter by more than 60 percent has resulted in a sort of ‘economic logic’ of the dominant breeds for meat and eggs (e.g., the Italian White Leghorn as the ‘standard layer’). Our conference will ask, what are the patterns of the development of specialization in poultry breeding, hatching, raising, butchering, processing, and marketing and their concomitant effects on farming, credit, the gender distribution of labor, etc? What are the consequences (for the chicken growers as well as public consumers) of the engineering of taste through additives, feed regimens, coloring, body configuration, presentation, advertising, and promotion?

to top B. The uses of chicken in literature, myth and popular symbolism.

The chicken has long been a metaphor in Western literature and non-Western cultures. From the early use of Chanticleer in Chaucer, to images of the Little Red Hen in modern children’s literature, the use of chickens to represent motifs from domesticity to wildness (the fighting cock) is widespread. Our conference will ask what metaphors and images are most closely associated with the chicken, (the hen, the cock, the cockerel, the capon) and how such imagery has changed in English and in other languages.

Furthermore, chickens remain highly vibrant cultural symbols in non-Western contexts, as representatives of gender, health, religious, and moral questions. Our conference will look at chickens in symbolic and historical contexts across time and space and explore the rich vein of imagery and practicality (chicken sacrifice, for example, or chicken auguries) across cultures.

to top C. Chickens and cuisines.

Consuming chicken has never been as widespread across the world as it is now. The ready supply of low-cost chicken in many forms, from mass-produced fast food to locally produced organic eggs, is now a global phenomenon. Our conference will ask how has cuisine associated with the chicken had changed in different cultures and in the West, and to what degree have these changes been the result of deliberate manipulations of ideas of taste and health.

Furthermore, as chicken becomes more and more a part of the world’s diet, what is its effect on diet and taste? From the symbolic ‘healthiness’ of white meat comes an underside of the industry that prepares chicken in unhealthy ways (deep-fried, battered). What are the implications of chicken preparation on diet and rising obesity in the West and around the world? And how have the industrial methods of chicken production affected conceptions of the ‘healthiness’ of chicken around the world? The recent example in Russia of a ban on U.S. chicken imports due to the perceived ‘toxicity’ of antibiotics and chemicals in the broilers imported from the U.S. may be an indicator of sentiment more wide spread and represented an unexpected consequence of globalization for the poultry industry.

to top D. Economies of scale and verticalization of the industry.

The postwar development of mass-produced, inexpensive chicken as daily cuisine has coincided with the promotion of this model abroad as a standard farming ideal. Concurrent with mass-produced chicken has been the growth of vertical integration and ‘contract farming’ in the industry. Nearly two-thirds of all farm sales are captured by 163,000 large industrial poultry farms, of which nearly two-thirds are tied to large corporations by contract. Our conference will explore the consequences of these changes and their implications for diet, family farming, economic concentration, and oligopoly. Furthermore, what has been the implication for human labor in the (now standardized) regimes of catching, slaughtering, and processing chickens? Has verticalization led to such predicted outcomes as loss of biodiversity and increasing industrial pollution?

Throughout our conference, we intend to provide a certain historicity to chicken farming, by looking both forward and backward. The emphasis might usefully be placed on how certain forms of modern production circle back and effect the kind of chicken that is selectively bred, the families, communities, and workers who raise and process it, and the culture that surrounds its sale and consumption. For example, what can we learn from first-hand accounts of workers in the contemporary poultry industry and from an examination of the small-scale henhouse typical of rural American families (farm women in particular) in the 1930s?

to top E. Animal welfare concerns.

In concert with growing concern over the rights of animals, the emphasis in recent years has moved away from not only ‘cuddly’ animals (treatment of pets, cosmetology tests on rabbits, endangered tigers and other photogenic mammals) to concern for animals raised for their meat and other products – chickens, beef cattle, and hogs. What “rights” might the chicken or domestic animals in general be said to possess or deserve? The often crowded and inhumane conditions under which much of the domestic animal sector is raised have not only raised animal welfare concerns, but also economic and other concerns (chickens kept in crowded battery cages can become highly aggressive and often kill one another). Ultimately, can poultry be bred and grown on a large scale under humane conditions and economically viable conditions?

to top F. Alternatives to the industrial model.

Related to all the above points, is perhaps the most pressing question for this conference: What do we know about the alternatives? What are the consequences for the health and well-being (of the chicken, of agricultural andprocessing workers, and consumers) of the industrialization of poultry rearing?

Rather than despairing over the present dilemma, our conference intends to highlight a number of positive developments that may transform the way chickens are raised and consumed, including examinations of pastured poultry and the raising of heirloom breeds of endangered chickens. Furthermore, several companies are now being set up to provide chicken in sustainable, healthy, and community-positive ways, and our conference will highlight these efforts, such as a current alternative proposed for the Delmarva Peninsula.


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Conference Graphics: Details from A Rooster and a Hen by Yang Shanshen. Yale University Art Gallery. The Clyde and Helen Wu Collection of Chinese Paintings. Gift of Dr. Clyde Wu.
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Program in Agrarian Studies
Yale University
Box 208300
New Haven, CT 06520-8300 U.S.A.
campus address: 204 Prospect Street, Room 204
tel 203/432-9833 fax 203/432-5036
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Yale University Program in Agrarian Studies
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