The epic begins 10,000 years ago in an Asian jungle and ends today in kitchens all over the world ... The chickens that saved Western civilization were discovered, according to legend, by the side of a road in Greece in the first decade of the fifth century B.C. The Athenian general Themistocles, on his way to confront the invading Persian forces, stopped to watch two cocks fighting and summoned his troops, saying: “Behold, these do not fight for their household gods, for the monuments of their ancestors, for glory, for liberty or the safety of their children, but only because one will not give way to the other.” The tale does not describe what happened to the loser, nor explain why the soldiers found this display of instinctive aggression inspirational rather than pointless and depressing. But history records that the Greeks, thus heartened, went on to repel the invaders, preserving the civilization that today honors those same creatures by breading, frying and dipping them into one’s choice of sauce. The descendants of those roosters might well think—if they were capable of such profound thought—that their ancient forebears have a lot to answer for.
The race is on to breed better birds as chicken emerges as the protein of the masses ... Unlike the roughly 60 billion chickens world-wide now slaughtered for meat each year, these birds are raised for their DNA. Paul Siegel, professor emeritus of animal and poultry sciences, studies how their genes influence the way they pack on pounds and fight off disease. The research helps companies seeking to breed chickens that will grow faster on less feed and require fewer drugs to stay healthy. ... Food producers face a monumental task. At current consumption rates, the world would need to generate 455 million metric tons of meat annually by 2050, when the global population is expected to reach 9.7 billion, from 7.3 billion today. Given today’s agricultural productivity, growing the crops to feed all of that poultry, beef and other livestock would require every acre of the planet’s cropland, according to research firm FarmEcon LLC—leaving no room for raising the grains, fruits and vegetables that humans also need. ... Chicken’s rise already is changing time-honored habits. In Argentina, where grass-fed beef has long been central to daily life, per-capita poultry consumption is projected to climb 7.5% this year to a record level, while beef consumption is expected to decline 6.3%. Even in pork-loving China, the government has subsidized large-scale poultry farms and breeding operations over the past decade to increase output.
Avian vision works spectacularly well (enabling eagles, for instance, to spot mice from a mile high), and his lab studies the evolutionary adaptations that make this so. Many of these attributes are believed to have been passed down to birds from a lizardlike creature that, 300 million years ago, gave rise to both dinosaurs and proto-mammals. While birds’ ancestors, the dinos, ruled the planetary roost, our mammalian kin scurried around in the dark, fearfully nocturnal and gradually losing color discrimination. Mammals’ cone types dropped to two — a nadir from which we are still clambering back. About 30 million years ago, one of our primate ancestors’ cones split into two — red- and green-detecting — which, together with the existing blue-detecting cone, give us trichromatic vision. But our cones, particularly the newer red and green ones, have a clumpy, scattershot distribution and sample light unevenly. ... Bird eyes have had eons longer to optimize. Along with their higher cone count, they achieve a far more regular spacing of the cells. But why, Corbo and colleagues wondered, had evolution not opted for the perfect regularity of a grid or “lattice” distribution of cones? The strange, uncategorizable pattern they observed in the retinas was, in all likelihood, optimizing some unknown set of constraints. What these were, what the pattern was, and how the avian visual system achieved it remained unclear. ... Determining whether a system is hyperuniform requires algorithms that work rather like a game of ring toss. ... Hyperuniformity is clearly a state to which diverse systems converge, but the explanation for its universality is a work in progress.
Steve Easterbrook doesn’t seem like the sloganeering type. He’s cool, a rational technocrat rather than a fiery head coach. Yet Easterbrook has two slogans he regularly employs. The phrases—“Act first, talk later” and “Progress over perfection”—hint that beneath his reserved exterior he’s aiming for real change. ... In a year and a half at the helm he has begun paring costs and decided to move McDonald’s MCD -1.81% headquarters from the suburbs back to Chicago. More important, in the U.S. market he launched McDonald’s successful All Day Breakfast, removed high-fructose corn syrup from the company’s buns, ended the use of key antibiotics in the company’s chickens, and embarked on a 10-year plan to liberate the birds that lay its eggs from the cages in which they have long been confined. The latter two changes are potentially transformative not only for McDonald’s—where chickens and eggs now account for 50% of the items on the menu—but for the entire American food industry. ... The Golden Arches are touting purity and provenance rather than solely relying on product launches—Shamrock shakes! the McRib!—to generate buzz as the company did in the past. The new approach allows McDonald’s to tap into the nation’s health zeitgeist in a way that it never has before. ... McDonald’s isn’t waiting for the supply—it’s creating it. But the seemingly simple change to cage-free eggs involves complex and expensive logistics, as we’ll see, and there’s a long, long way to go: Right now only 13 million of the company’s 2 billion U.S. eggs are cage-free.
For decades, poultry had been volatile in a frustratingly predictable way: When times started getting good, companies flooded the market with chicken, causing prices to crash. ... At first the transformation puzzled industry watchers. Some speculated that a merger spree during the 1980s and 1990s was responsible—with fewer decision-makers in charge and fewer competitors, the remaining companies could more easily survey and predict the landscape. But Sanderson’s conference call suggested another source for the shift: Agri Stats, a private service that gathers data from poultry processors, produces confidential weekly reports, and disseminates them back to companies that pay for subscriptions. ... Many industries, such as health care and retail, make use of information-sharing services, but Agri Stats provides chicken producers with a rare level of detail, in uncommonly timely fashion. ... Agri Stats has for years maintained that its reports don’t violate antitrust laws, in part because the information provided is historical. A typical report doesn’t say how much a company plans to charge for a cut of meat, only what it charged last month or last week. ... In 2013, according to SEC filings, Eli Lilly purchased Agri Stats for an undisclosed sum and folded it into its farm animal drug division. ... Illegal collusion occurs when companies plan with one another to cut production ahead of time with the specific intent of raising prices.