High-tech chickens are a case study of why self-reliance is so hard

High-tech chickens are a case study of why self-reliance is so hard

For China, rearing the meatiest poultry is surprisingly difficult

It takes an effort—a small hardening of the heart—to see day-old Jinghai Poultry chicks for what they are. These, for all their plaintive cheeping and soft, fuzzy plumage, are tiny, high-performance meat factories. The product of decades of genetic research in American and European laboratories, they hatch in China thanks to global supply chains, involving the air-freighting of eggs and chicks between secure breeding sites on five continents.

Those chains are more fragile than once supposed. Animal diseases, the us-China trade war and covid-19 have all disrupted, or threatened to disrupt, industrial chicken supplies. That makes those chicks a window onto something interesting: China’s increasingly complicated relationship with high-tech globalisation, a force that has made the country more prosperous, but also reliant on the outside world in ways that trouble Communist Party bosses.

The unsentimental logic of high-performance poultry-rearing is easy to grasp. Standing this week in the loading bay of a factory farm in the coastal province of Jiangsu, Chaguan heard Jinghai executives explain how “white-feather meat chickens”, as they are known in China, grow to 2.5kg in 40 days. Homegrown varieties of “yellow-feather chicken”, descended from backyard fowl, take twice as long to mature and will only ever weigh half as much. Clients collect cardboard trays holding 102 chicks, peeking through slats in the sides. Four trays can generate a tonne of chicken.