Once upon a time, chicken was a luxury few could regularly afford. It was a rare meal reserved for special occasions. Yet since 1965 the per-capita annual consumption of chicken meat in Australia has increased ten-fold from 4.6 kilograms per person in 1965 to 44.6 kilograms in 2012.
The retail price of chicken per kilogram has decreased steadily in real terms from around A$9.67 in 1986 to A$5.67 in 2009. The arrival of Kentucky Fried Chicken in Australia in 1968 coincided with rapid increases in consumption. Today, Australians consume more than 600 million chickens per year.
The vast majority is produced in intensive “broiler” farms. How does chicken production and consumption on such a scale affect the foodbowls on the outskirts of our cities?
Intensive chicken farms need to be within about one hour of processing sites. Farms also need to be close to feed supplies and hatcheries, as they are run as highly integrated systems.
Partly because of this, the chicken meat industry in Victoria is concentrated within about 200 kilometres of Melbourne. Similar patterns occur in other Australian regions.
As the industry has sought efficiencies of scale, the size of farms has increased. Whereas farms of the 1970s might have housed 10,000 chickens, they now routinely hold 80,000 to more than one million chickens, producing five batches of chickens per year. Yet as producers have grown, the numbers of suitable urban fringe spaces – close enough to processing plants, but far enough from neighbours and sensitive land uses – are dwindling.
One reason is the growth in popularity of peri-urban areas to live in. “Counter-urbanisation” or “tree-changing” has been underway since the 1970s. Whether in Germany, the US or the Netherlands, it seems rural and peri-urban residents have little desire to live near a “monster chicken factory”.
In a recent paper we analysed 59 planning appeals related to broiler farms in Victoria between 1969 and 2013. Concerns about the farms have included odour, noise, dust, vermin, truck traffic, impacts on tourism, and water use and pollution.
Broiler farm planning disputes appear to channel more intractable issues than odour control. It is possible that, on some level, having one million chickens not smell is unsettling in its own way.
As more chicken meat is produced, and in ever more technologically intensive ways, conflicts over farm applications inevitably unlock community disquiet about factory farming. The allowable forum for legitimate opposition, however, is narrow.
Intensive farming is often simply inconsistent with community expectations. The “unknowns” of industrialised agriculture are normally hidden from view in bucolic images on food packaging, and in the marketing of rural real estate as a “lifestyle” choice. Responses to the reality of broiler proposals – however technically well planned – sometimes seem rooted in the loss of this comforting, romanticised view.
In Victoria, the solution has been to regulate away the noise, smell and dust of a farm, mandate separation distances and even set aside areas with clear “rights to farm” and those with rights to “the good life”. The recent announcement of an inquiry in Victoria into the industry has a strong focus on resolving conflicts through siting and separation.
Yet the use of such an approach in Victoria has raised concerns about creating “sterilised” regions where no uses but industrial farms are permitted. Opponents to industrial farms also express concerns that proponents exploit loopholes and that a codified buffer distance privileges intensive farms rather than resolving conflicting land use issues.
On the other hand, less control arguably generates more conflict, as in parts of Canada and Texas. There, industrial, corporate-run farming operations dominate vast, generally lower socioeconomic areas. But as farms expand, divisive neighbourhood battles are still fought out.
Our research indicates that the use of buffer spaces around farms, guidelines and rights can achieve only so much. Despite the presence of clear guidelines, a recent proposal for a 1.2 million-bird farm in Baringhup, near Castlemaine, has led to more than two years of planning dispute and may result in Supreme Court action.
Conflicts between opponents and proponents of intensive farming will continue in rural areas. Fanning the flames is the growing demand for low-priced chicken (and an ongoing chicken nugget price “war”).
Local governments and decision-makers in Australia remain under-resourced to deal with opposition to the increasing scale of broiler farms. By advocating for a new understanding of what a rural and an urban area “means”, planning is at the coal face for negotiating politically acceptable outcomes to such conflicts. Yet a look at the images used to market farm products reveals what an uphill struggle this is.