in Extra Matter

What to do with unwanted offspring

How about deep-fried chick on a stick?

France to ban culling of unwanted male chicks by end of 2021 BBC news told us yesterday, and I could barely contain my disbelief. Unwanted males are the price you pay for specialised breeds, whether dairy cows or layer hens.

If the ban is upheld, the only outcome I can foresee is more expensive eggs. The male chicks won’t be raised for meat because that’s another specialist rôle and they just can’t compete. I can’t see any kind of market emerging for chicken veal, even though the UK has slowly re-integrated male calves into its food supply. What will happen to the 7 billion unwanted male chicks a year that the BBC says are killed? There’s talk of sexing chicks in the egg. Although the chicken industry long ago made sexing newly hatched chicks a doddle, using that kind of technology to deal with an unhatched chick just pushes back any ethical dilemma a couple of days earlier.

Livestock researchers have been working for decades on reliable and affordable methods for sexing sperm, because there would be a huge and immediate market to avoid the “waste” of the unwanted sex. Of course that wouldn’t work for chickens, because it is the egg, rather than the sperm, that determines the sex of the offspring, but that might actually make it easier. Some sort of meiotic drive might be a solution, leading either male or female ova to die. Or maybe chickens could be selected (or manipulated?) so that, like many reptiles, the sex of the offspring is determined by the temperature during incubation.

In the meantime, if you object to the culling of male chicks (or, indeed, the unwanted sex of any livestock) your best bet is probably to seek out old-fashioned farmers who still raise multi-purpose breeds.

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