Farming the Unconscious
The Architecture Department at the Royal College of Art had some thought-provoking projects at the work in progress show. Architectural Design Studio 1's exhibition was looking at how a dense and vertical architecture can bring back food production and consumption in the city.
One of the students of the course, André Ford, looked at the intensification of the broiler chicken industry. Each year, the UK raises and kills 800 million chickens or 'broilers' for their meat. Broiler rearing might be unethical and unsustainable but it is now the most intensified and automated type of livestock production.
Broiler chickens spend their 6-7week lives in windowless sheds, each containing around 40,000 birds. They are selectively bred to grow faster than they would naturally which often causes skeletal problems and lameness. Many die because their hearts and lungs cannot keep up with their rapid growth. Information about the atrocious conditions in which they are raised can be found online.
Philosopher Paul Thompson, of Purdue University is a proponent of The Blind Chicken Solution. Chickens blinded by "accident", he says, "don't mind being crowded together so much as normal chickens do." He adds that while most people would think that creating blind chickens for the poultry and egg industry is an abomination, it would nevertheless be more humane to have these blind chickens.
Sadly, the demand for chicken is rising and methods of production will need to intensify in order to meet this increase. André Ford proposes to adopt a 'headless chicken solution'.
As long as their brain stem is intact, the homeostatic functions of the chicken will continue to operate. By removing the cerebral cortex of the chicken, its sensory perceptions are removed. It can be produced in a denser condition while remaining alive, and oblivious.
The feet will also be removed so the body of the chicken can be packed together in a dense volume.
Food, water and air are delivered via an arterial network and excreta is removed in the same manner. Around 1000 chickens will be packed into each 'leaf', which forms part of a moving, productive system.
The model in the exhibition showed the system in which a chicken would be grown at The Centre for Unconscious Farming. Feed lines provide sustenance, excreata lines remove waste, electrodes stimulate muscle growth.
Questions to the architect:
First of all, i found your project extremely shocking. Shocking because of all the cruelty it reveals -the way chickens are raised in windowless sheds is brutal- but also shocking because the solution you suggest -while it is not as atrocious as the way these poor animals are raised- might sound cynical. So how much provocation is there in Farming the Unconscious? Is the idea mostly an invitation for people to reflect on what they are buying and eating?
The project is almost effortlessly provocative because it is dealing with a subject matter which the majority of people are aware of, complicit in and culpable to varying degrees. The mass media is saturated with documentary films, books and celebrity chef hosted exposé's that document the plight of animals bred for our consumption and I don't wish to add to the plethora of information readily available. The information is there, but the majority of people don't care to know or purport they can't afford to care.
In the past six years we have witnessed an unprecedented increase in the demand for meat. Higher welfare systems are available but this project looks at addressing the inherent problems with the dominant system that produces the majority of our meat - the system that will be increasingly relied upon to cope with the ever-increasing demand for meat.
I think it is time we stopped using the term 'animal' when referring to the precursor of the meat that ends up on our plates. Animals are things we keep in our homes and watch on David Attenborough programs. 'Animals' bred for consumption are crops and agricultural products like any other. We do not, and cannot, provide adequate welfare for these agricultural products and therefore welfare should be removed entirely.
Earlier in the project I was proposing the chickens would be rendered unconscious, or desensitized by complete removal of the head but this has since been revised. Desensitisation will be achieved by a surgical incision that separates the animal's neocortex, responsible for sensory perceptions, and its brain stem which controls its homeostatic functions. The head remains intact.
So in short, I would refer to this solution as pragmatic, not cynical and if the project does cause anyone to reflect on his or her dietary habits then that's great.
How have people reacted to your idea so far? Did they raise the issue that this is not a 'natural' way to raise chicken?
Mostly disgust, but it varies. When meat eaters express disgust I put to them this argument, borrowed from Jonathan Safran Foer, in Eating Animals:
One piece of flimsy logic that we omnivores employ to justify our dietary choice, is that our superior intelligence and greater ability to comprehend the world, verifies our position at top of the food chain. So, if for the sake of the argument, our planet became occupied by a species that was more intelligent than our own, what would our argument be for not being eaten? If you are a meat eater, you might not have an argument, or if you did, you'd run the risk or being a hypocrite. So then you have to ask yourself, how would you like to be farmed?
An ancillary part of my proposal is to use the blood of the chicken posthumous, to hydroponically feed a nursery of rare orchids. The rationale behind setting up this unlikely mutualism is to display the similarities between these two organisms once the chicken has been desensitised. The unconscious chicken is just a different expression of the same chemical elements as in the orchid.
To answer the second part of your question - The project is overtly a hybridisation of nature and machine which is how I see the future of farming. Unfortunately, there is very little that is natural about the way the our food is currently produced. The monocultures and intensive farming systems upon which we rely are technological landscapes, harvested and processed using high-tech, and increasingly robotised machinery.
Could you describe the system the new farming system would be based on?
The system does not subscribe to contemporary intensive farming models, which are not nearly productive enough and are incredibly wasteful with regards to land and resources. This system would be closed-loop and looks to achieve density through verticality and a layering of programmes within these productive spaces.
Did doing the research for this project influence your relationship to animal products, whether it's chicken, eggs, ham or dairy?
Absolutely. I have had a full reassessment of the choices I make as a consumer, in all products that have a welfare factor. I am in denial about my impending return to vegetarianism but I could never be a vegan.
How do headless chicken produce the muscles that will end up on people's plates?
The brain stem of the chicken which remains intact, is responsible for the metabolic systems involved in muscle growth. The muscles will need exercising in order to grow and this could be done physically by providing some sort of resistance, or as I am proposing, using electric shocks as in 'in-vitro' meat production.
Last question is about a detail really. you wrote on the blog of Naturoids that the coloured light used in batteries 'has a calming effect on the birds and reduces cannibalism.' Cannibalism? Why does that happen?
The exact etiology is unknown, but essentially they are bored. There is a greater propensity for it to occur in barren environments that restrict or limit natural behaviors like nesting, perching and foraging. This coupled with overcrowding and/or a lack or resources and flock behavior takes over.
Thank you André!
Related story: The Meat Licence Proposal.