‘Chicken Shit’ Transcript
Peter 01:31 In a Tesco in Bristol, I find a packaged chicken breast. The label is stamped with a circled “4014”. The meat is covered in white lines. These are stripes of fat that have replaced failed muscle fibres, triggered by an overload of protein and fat in the factory farm.
Peter 01:54 The industrialisation of UK chicken farming began in the 1950s. The meat was, and still is, marketed as a food that’s low in fat and high in protein. But since then, the fat content of chicken has more than doubled. It now supplies more energy and fat than protein, even without striping.
Peter 02:18 The stamp “4014” places the slaughter, butchery, and packaging of this chicken in Avara Foods’ processing centre in Hereford. Avara is co-owned by Cargill, who source protein and fat from soybeans grown on plantations in Brazil. It’s a cost-effective feed made cheap by historic and ongoing practices of deforestation and dispossession. Soy is exported to Liverpool, refined by Cargill, driven to the River Wye catchment, processed in Avara’s feed mill, and supplied to contracted farms.
According to the National Egg and Poultry Awards, one such farm…
Josh 03:01 Has four sheds of 45,000 birds, growing Ross 308 broilers under contract for Avara Foods. Over the last eight crops, the averages were as follows. FCR, 1.50. EPEF, 404. DLWG, 63.75 grams. Mortality, 4.56%. Growth, 101.37%. Average age at depletion, 35.84 days. (National Egg and Poultry Awards 2020)
Peter 03:44 Photographs from inside the farm show water lines alternating with feed tubes and suspended yellow pans marked with three red lines. This is the logo of the supplier, Roxell. According to their user guide…
Liz 03:59 The last feeder pan on the line, the control pan, is the most important one. It must be emptied first because it starts the next feed supply. (Roxell 2013)
Peter 04:13 Feed flows constantly down the tubes, aside from during regimented four-hour nights. The feed flows because the chickens eat, and lights flash on the feeder lest the chickens get distracted, while atmospheric variables are tuned to ensure an even spread of bodies along the line.
Peter 04:31 There are two seasons inside the shed: eating and cleaning. Eating lasts 35 days, as the chicks grow to slaughter weight while still juvenile. The stocking density here is 17 birds per square metre. The maximum distance from water to feed is 4.5 metres. These chickens, Ross 308 broilers, are supplied by Aviagen. Aviagen’s Breast Muscle Myopathy Guide describes the effects of white striping…
Danny 05:04 An increase in cooking loss and marinade uptake. A lower shear force, indicating more tender meat. Slightly harder and chewier. (Aviagen 2019)
Peter 05:15 Inside the chicken’s chest, muscle fibres suffocate and die as they grow quicker than the bird’s blood supply. Sudden movements can tear tissue. Both leave gaps that are filled by inflammation and fat. Autoimmune responses are triggered, causing further injury to muscle.
Danny 05:33 There is no compelling reason why the consumer cannot eat chicken breast with white striping, although this will have to be balanced against a loss in broiler performance. (Aviagen 2019)
Peter 05:45 This shed houses 42,000 chickens. The whole farm houses 168,000. In 12 months, 1.2 million lives pass through the factory, accumulating 547 tonnes of protein per year, and excreting 35 tonnes of phosphate. There are around 20 million chickens in the Wye catchment at any one time, so in theory it could have hosted 140 million chickens last year. That’s 66,000 tonnes of protein and 4,000 tonnes of phosphate.
Wales is the shape
of an oak leaf,
its rivers are veins,
in supernatural greens
The reefs in the river, its gravel swales
were here before England and Wales.
Peter 06:44 Turning ever more green with algae blooms, the river Wye is on the verge of ecological collapse. Caused by an overload of phosphate, these blooms starve plants of light and fish of oxygen, creating frequent but temporary dead zones along the river.
Peter 07:01 Water crowfoot is the river’s keystone plant species. Its tissues become saturated with phosphate, inhibiting growth. 95 percent of water crowfoot plants have disappeared in the past five years, removing shelter for some lives and food for others.
Peter 07:24 The soybean holds phosphate too, applied on plantations in the form of mined and fossil fuel-derived fertiliser. Like the Wye catchment, the rivers and soils of the Brazilian Cerrado are phosphate dense.
Peter 07:38 While most phosphate enters the Wye catchment as animal feed, the packet in Tesco does not contain phosphate. It parts ways with protein and fat in the bodies of chickens. Phosphate is not metabolised, but instead excreted. Shit and sawdust mix on the factory floor and are sold on as fertiliser for arable fields.
while Wye sips
from a thousand wellsprings
for every tide is an incantation
ceaseless from the source….
Dewch yn nes…
Come closer. Much closer.
Peter 08:17 There are technological and economic restrictions on the transport of shit, preventing its export from the catchment. And so the soils of the catchment accumulate phosphate. Grass could grow for ten years on this nutrient density. It’s referred to as legacy phosphate. Phosphate moves with the weather, and as the seasons become more unpredictable, and the weather more intense, more phosphate will be released into the Wye.
Peter 08:45 More green, more brown: a legacy in algae. The green river indicates the confluence of supply chains with the cycles of the catchment. In the absence of official monitoring, Twitter provides a record of the state of the river, tracking changes in colour and smell. Arranged according to time and space, images show the river becoming more green, more brown, for longer, each summer. Each year since 2019, the blooms extend further upstream.
This first drop
a rice grain that soon becomes a flood.
Then as the Wye wends
Both countries are crossed
by its courses,
algae floes its crown,
cray and caddis and kingfishers now
the coming vacuum.
Peter 09:47 The Cargill, Avara, Tesco symbiosis does not operate despite the ecological damage, but because of it. It’s enabled by the flow of the river.
Peter 10:03 The metabolic continuity between lives is harnessed so that chicken shit can be disposed of legally and efficiently. It’s offloaded into the supply webs while the next crop accumulates weight in the cleaned shed. Cheapened chicken produces inflammation and fat. This is marketed as affordable protein at every body’s expense.
Peter 10:27 The body of the river and the body of the chicken are force-fed by nutrient flows. One risks ecological collapse, while the other has collapsed on the factory floor.
My thanks to Robert Minhinnick for his permission to use Gwy and for the generosity to allow us to edit the text to suit our audio piece. Gwy has been published in ‘Menhenet’ from Clutag Press, and the poem can be found in full via the Friends of the River Wye.
Aviagen. 2019. ‘Breast Muscle Myopathies (BMM)’. Handbook. https://eu.aviagen.com/tech-center/.
Minhinnick, Robert. 2023. Menhenet. Clutag Poetry New Series 4. Clutag Press. https://www.clutagpress.com/product/no-4-menhenet-robert-minhinnick/.
National Egg and Poultry Awards. 2020. ‘Grower of the Year’. https://www.nationaleggandpoultryawards.co.uk/2020-winners/grower-of-the-year/.
Roxell. 2013. ‘Minimax Line Use and Assembly Guide’. Instruction Manual.