The Great Chicken Debate
Ruffled feathers, anyone?
“He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.”
- John Stuart Mill
Catoosa County's great chicken debate has been ruffling the feathers of residents and officials alike for months. This issue has transformed county commission meetings into a barnyard bonanza, complete with:
Acapella musical performances & original compositions
Stump speeches from former and future political candidates
Custom merchandise related to the politically ambitious
Bizarre (and counterproductive) legal intimidation tactics from a former defender of blood-soaked big tobacco companies
Symposiums on constitutional theory
18th and 19-century philosophy seminars
and much more!
Amidst all of the theatrics and performances, many of which serve to advance the political ambitions and agenda of a vocal few, there are genuine and heartfelt concerns that many citizens have brought to the discussion. With this in mind, I endeavor to address a common question heard at several meetings: why regulate backyard chickens at all?
Let’s start with an uncomfortable fact. Catoosa county is an exurban county now, folks. We can't go back to the good ol' days, no matter how much we might want to. We cannot un-ring the bell. In fact, the county is only going to become more urban and densely populated in the coming years.
In the past few years, backyard flocks have rapidly increased in popularity and prevalence nationwide, with proponents singing the praises of fresh eggs, charming pets, and a sense of self-sufficiency. However, studies and surveys repeatedly show that these well-intentioned backyard farmers often lack knowledge about the biosecurity and health risks that come with tending to their chickens. Lax health practices and little health surveillance of backyard chickens leave the general public vulnerable to a myriad of negative impacts. They fall into two categories generally: health and economics.
The Health & Economic Risks
Every year from 2019 to 2022, an average of 1,200 people contracted Salmonella illnesses directly linked to backyard flocks each year. Five died—one of whom was a Georgian—and over a third required hospitalization. These numbers are almost certainly lower than the actual illness figures because of the lack of surveillance and reporting with backyard chickens. Salmonella is but one of the many pathogens that backyard flocks are routinely found to be infected with.
The specter of avian influenza—bird flu—looms large as well. Since February of last year, the disease has wreaked havoc on poultry farms and backyard flocks alike, with backyard flocks implicated in numerous outbreaks. Avian diseases can be transmitted in a variety of ways.
Wild bird interaction with backyard flocks was studied by researchers last year in north Georgia, highlighting the risk backyard flocks with lax biosecurity practices pose to commercial poultry flocks.
Since the current bird flu outbreak began early last year, an unprecedented nearly 60 million birds have been infected and subsequently culled. If you want to know why egg prices skyrocketed, this is why. These risks concern not only the food supply and poultry health and safety; they concern the health of people as well. A strain of avian influenza caused the well-known 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. The 2009 H1N1 outbreak was due to avian influenza, which jumped to pigs and eventually to humans. These and numerous other instances demonstrate why this should be taken seriously.
Salmonella and avian influenza represent two of the many pathogenic threats to the poultry industry and global food supply. Due to the unique place chickens hold as a leading protein source for billions every day and the position of Georgia in the global food supply chain, chickens cannot be considered like any other livestock or domesticated animal.
Georgia's poultry prowess was evident in 2021, when it produced 1.3 billion broiler chickens, claiming the national top spot. Combined with egg-laying hens and production figures ranked in the top ten, poultry is Georgia's most valuable agricultural commodity by far. If Georgia were a country, it would be fourth in the world in poultry production! Poultry farming accounts for billions in economic activity for the state, with Catoosa ranking 63rd in farm gate value in the state. Neighboring Walker County, with a greater number of commercial farms, ranks 20th and has grown in recent years.
What To Do
Considering the vital role Georgia's poultry industry plays nationally and internationally, the documented evidence of disease transmission between commercial poultry and backyard chickens, and considering that backyard flocks may be regulated very differently from one community to another (as with Walker and Catoosa), the issue of backyard flocks must be addressed at the state level first and at the local level after.
As it stands, the ordinance being considered by the Catoosa Board of Commissioners approaches the issue primarily in terms of nuisances rather than addressing the more pressing and vital individual and community health and biosecurity concerns. This ordinance would be inadequate.
As backyard flocks proliferate across Georgia, the risks to public health and the economy cannot be ignored. The state should step in and provide guidance, and minimum standards, establish a surveillance framework to monitor poultry health in backyard flocks better and promote education to ensure best practices.
Final Note #1
I should add that I have been on the side of allowing chicken with as few restrictions and requirements as possible since first hearing about it. Only after researching the topic in-depth did I develop a better understanding of this contentious issue. Given the stakes, this issue cannot be a black-and-white issue. I am still in favor of placing as few requirements on backyard chickens as possible, but the health and economic risks make it clear that there is more to the issue than property rights or individual rights. A little more tolerance and trust by all will go a long way to reaching the best solution.
Final Note #2
A little humor always helps. The video below is a parody I created using a fictional tale involving the chicken issue in Catoosa to test a new artificial intelligence voice cloning tool. I was staggered by how accurate the voices sounded and how easily it could be done. Expect this, and coming AI tech developments to have wide-reaching impacts.
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