Can chickens save the world?

The author with his prized Cuckoo Bluebar a intelligent, calm, and precocious bread. Photo by Mercedes Diaz

  Can the humble chickens save the world? Well maybe not the world, but they could help save us from ourselves. Chickens are much more than an egg dispensing vending machine that you cram into a tiny cage and pump full of soy, hormones, and antibiotics. They are  dynamic creatures that offer more services and products to humans than any other animal. There is good reason that since the early days of modern human existence these animals have been kept in close proximity, more so than dogs and cats. In a world of processed, sterilized, and homogenized food, chickens are the gateway animal that get us back to an existence where we not only know our food but interact with the processes of life once again.
    The chickens I’m describing are not the factory farmed battery hens bred for short term production without regard for their health or well-being. The chickens I’m referring to are majestic heritage breeds descended from jungle fowl whose bloodlines have been meticulously managed for generations to ensure traits like hardiness and an ability to adapt to adverse conditions.
    So what about that world saving you ask? Put simply, chickens do two major things to this end: First of all, they close the loop between our food, our waste, and soil fertility. Our mismanagement of these three elements, along with energy, are at present the greatest threat to life on this planet. Secondly, chickens teach us to respect the cycles and processes of nature. More than any other domesticated animal, chickens bridge the gap between the natural world and our true selves. They give us a vehicle with which to rejoin the flow of life from growth to death to decay to growth.
    Poultry are the great converters. They have the remarkable ability to take products we humans deem undesirable and convert them into desirable products. The most obvious of these; kitchen food scraps, insects, and weed seeds are almost magically transformed by poultry into eggs, low fat healthy meat, and fertilizer for crops. When we reconnect with our food, we become conscious of, even intrigued by, our waste stream. With over fifty percent of landfill waste being organic matter and packaging and forty to fifty percent of food produced in the U.S. going directly to the dump, it is imperative that we preempt or redirect these materials to productive systems before the environmental impacts are too great to reverse.

WWII propaganda poster published by the U.S. government as part of their Victory Garden Program.

 Home economics:
     Simply redirecting kitchen food scraps from the trash to a few backyard chickens would have an enormous effect on the environmental impact of the average western household. Coupled with a kitchen garden, the average family in the developed world could greatly improve their health while dramatically decreasing their carbon footprint. I might seem like a bit of an extremist but I firmly believe every household should be required to have at least two chickens before they are allowed to own a dog! In fact, pet chickens require less space and maintenance than the average domestic dog. Additionally, there is no plastic pet food packaging associated with domesticated household chickens.
    Of course, the USDA and the Center for Disease Control, at the behest of big Ag and big Pharma, would like you to believe that if you keep backyard chickens you will be dead within weeks of bird flu and E. coli contamination. But this wasn’t always the case. During WWI and WWII, Uncle Sam encouraged backyard chicken keeping as part of their Victory Garden campaign  going as far as to say that it was an American’s patriotic duty to keep chickens.  By the 1950’s, the war effort had ended and the factory farming industry was giving millions of dollars to political campaigns at which time the government had completely reversed their stance on the matter.

USDA poster from WWI encouraging Americans to help the war effort by keeping chickens.

    In a society where many children are unaware that milk comes from a cow and child obesity is rampant, pet chickens can be a powerful educational tool for kids and parents. It should be mandatory that every public school have a flock of chickens which, along with a school garden, sparks children’s interest in their health and reconnects them to nature. Learning early in life to respect the animals and plants that give us life is imperative if we are to survive as a species going into the twenty second century.
Sex link and the city:
    There is no other animal better suited to urban farming and market gardening than the chicken. The intimacy of urban farms and gardens under two acres coupled with the low cost technologies of electric fencing and chicken tractors make chickens the obvious choice for urban food production. Positioned correctly, chickens with their innate need to scratch can supply services like tilling and weeding while at the same time boosting fertility. Chickens, with built in pitch forks for feet, scratch out weeds, work their manure into the soil, and break pest cycles more efficiently than any machine and farmer combined. Gardening behind chicken tractors preparing soil cuts labor costs and creates an almost endless cycle of production and fertility with very little inputs.
    In very small spaces, intensive urban chicken compost systems produce copious amounts of compost for market gardens while making use of kitchen and restaurant waste streams from the very establishments supplied by the garden.On a larger scale, boutique chicken compost operations like Vermont Compost  can be setup to handle municipal waste while simultaneously producing hundreds of eggs per day without inputs of grain feed. Operations like this eliminate millions of hectares of grain monocrop for factory egg production and the need to landfill factory manure waste. This compost can then be used to plant food forests
throughout cities turning them from carbon factories to carbon sinks!
    By reintroducing the chicken into the local food system, roof top farms, urban food forests, and market gardens can grow most of the produce and a portion of the protein cities consume as well as address all of their organic waste with the help of poultry. Peri-urban areas employing sensible land management techniques like cell grazing and agroforestry can supply the rest of the cities food deficit at the expense of very low food mile energy. With urban areas supplying one hundred percent of the food they consume, a substantial amount of the carbon emitted by industrial soil abuse since the 1950’s can be drawn down in as little as a decade. And it all starts with our partner Gallus domesticus.
    As the supply of fossil fuel declines and food production returns to where it belongs: small holdings and backyards, chickens will claim their position as man’s true best friend.

Barred Plymouth chick taking a dust bath. Photo by Eric Vocke

Writing: Eric Vocke
Editing: Mercedes Diaz
What can you do:
  • Not interested in keeping backyard chickens? Perhaps you could assist a neighbor who wants to keep chickens, or start a school aviary. In exchange for your food scraps, you could receive eggs.
  • Want to gain experience with chicken keeping but don’t have a yard or space for chickens? Schools, churches, youth groups and community gardens could offer alternative spaces for your aviary.
  • Check local laws and zoning rules in your area pertaining to keeping chickens. If chickens are prohibited get involved with or start a group petioning to legalize backyard and urban chicken keeping.
  • Educate yourself and your family. I’ve included links too some helpful books and videos below to get you started. You may also follow my day to day journey as an urban homesteader here.


No minimum chicken hatchery catering to backyard chicken owners  My pet chicken
In wet and tropical areas ducks and geese may be a good alternative in some situations Metzer farms
Educational links:
Books to get you started by Lisa Steele
Geoff Lawton’s chicken tractor on steroids.
Homesteading with Permaculture chickens.
Chicken keeping Masterclass.
More from Rob Greenfield on food waste and what you can do.
From the mind of Joel Salatin
Getting started growing your food:
Geoff’s instant garden
No dig gardening.
More good reads from Milkwood Permaculture