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The elusive quest for the Perfect Chicken

A team of researchers investigating chicken diseases in Ethiopia has discovered that there is far greater genetic diversity in that seemingly nondescript bird than meets the eye, a discovery that could help boost the productivity of small-scale chicken farms throughout Africa. The study was published in this month’s issue of Nature Sustainability by scientists from the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and universities in England, Scotland and Holland.

Chickens are the most common of livestock, with around 50 billion birds reared annually in production systems ranging from the massive confined cages in North America to a handful of birds pecking at the dirt in villages in rural areas. Yet that very ubiquity has masked a surprising adaptability and variety.

‘Chickens are the unnoticed co-stars of world food production’, says ILRI scientist Olivier Hanotte, who along with his colleague Tadelle Dessie was part of the team that conceived and designed the research. ‘Like a character actor who turns out to be crucial to the plot, there are hidden depths to the chicken that we are only just beginning to plumb.’

Chickens have become a major focal point for development experts seeking to help rural Africans emerge from poverty. Easy to raise and requiring few inputs, they are often owned and controlled by women, giving them one of their only independent sources of income. In the egg, chickens provide one of nature’s ‘perfect foods’, which recent research has shown to be especially important in the first 1,000 days of life. But few of the development interventions centered around chickens have paid off; no one, it seems, has yet found a viable method for turning chickens into sustainable small-scale enterprises.

A big part of the problem, says Hanotte, is that researchers have failed to recognize just how adapted chickens are to the specifics of their environment, production system and particular socioeconomic arrangements. ‘We’ve traditionally taken a top-down approach’, he says. ‘We’ve tried to introduce commercial chicken and send them out for local adoption—but without any recognition of the needs and concerns of the farmers themselves.’

This study helps clarify why so many chicken development interventions have failed in the past and it provides avenues for maximizing successes. ‘There is not a “one-size-fits-all” chicken for Ethiopia or any village system; option by context is key here’, says Dessie. ‘Chicken genetics or vaccinations are important, but so too are local needs and preferences. No intervention can succeed without considering them.’

Too often relegated to a minor role in livestock production, the backyard smallholder indigenous chicken is a true star of the show.

This is part of an article written by David Aronson for ILRI News. The full article can be viewed here

16 October 2018