With a country as spatially large and demographically diverse as India, it would be reductive to attempt to understand its culture or its relationship with animals and animal meats through a single perspective. The pattern of meat consumption in any given area depends considerably on local culture, tradition, and rates of urbanization, with trends highlighting that the consumption of meat rises as people migrate to urban areas. That being said, it’s undeniable that the poultry industry has not only grown at an amazing speed, it is also now a significant source of jobs and profit for the Indian economy.
Prior to the late 1900’s, India’s poultry production mainly took place within the confinements of people’s backyards. While poultry farming in India initially started out as just a backyard activity, the rising demand in poultry products has pushed poultry production to become a full fledged industry, where India now stands as one of the world’s largest producers of eggs and broiler meat. In just about four decades, India has transformed their poultry farming industry through major investments in breeding, hatching, rearing, and processing of chicken, with hybrid birds such as Hyaline, Shaver, and Babcock overpowering indigenous birds that were once used in poultry farming. Two types of poultry farms remain dominant in India: developmental and commercial poultry farms. Developmental poultry farms are also referred to as village/unorganized poultry production because they operate on a low scale, using less capital and less traditional technology. This type of production is very relevant in India’s rural areas, as the livestock sector plays an essential role in supplementary income generation, family nutrition, and raising the living standards of rural households. Across India, it is estimated that about 30 million farmers are still involved in backyard poultry farming. Therefore, the demand for livestock and poultry products can play a major role in the income and employment status of some rural households. While backyard poultry farming is more common in the rural areas of India, the majority of poultry is currently being produced on commercial poultry farms and contracted to major companies such as Venky’s. Commercial poultry farms are also referred to as the highly organized commercial sector, characterized by large-scale enterprises where the number of birds per unit is maximized, ranging from 200 birds to more than 50,000 birds per farm. Commercial poultry contributes to 80% of the total egg production and are mainly established in urban and peri-urban areas in southern states.
The driving forces behind the rapid development of India’s poultry industry are government support and an increasing prevalence of non-vegetarianism among the population, perhaps due to per capita income growth. The national Nutritional Advisory Committee advises annual per capita consumption of 180 eggs and 10.8kg of poultry. Combined with the low pricing of poultry and eggs compared to other animal protein sources, poultry consumption has doubled in the last decade. However, despite government encouragement and the continuous increase in the supply and production of meat, India’s consumption of livestock products remains low.
Throughout the years, the development of India’s poultry industry has experienced rapid growth, with egg production and broiler production growth rates at 8.51% and 7.52%, respectively. Currently, India has successfully become completely self-sufficient in its poultry supply and demand. However, with rapid growth in the poultry industry and rising demand for chicken, it is predicted that antibiotic use in livestock will also surge in order to promote growth and keep the potential spread of diseases under control. Experts predict that India’s consumption of antibiotics in chickens is predicted to rise fivefold by 2030 compared to 2010, while the global amount of antibiotic use in animals is expected to rise by 53%. Indiscriminate use of antimicrobials in poultry production is a leading source of antimicrobial resistance, which poses risks to human health and economic losses if bacteria become more resistant to treatments. Additionally, low availability of resources in a growing industry can lead to less safety regulation in facilities and increasing levels of intensification have also resulted in increased risk of zoonotic diseases, exacerbating public health risk factors.
Ironically, despite liberal antibiotic use, widespread rumors about the possibility of poultry meat as transmitters of COVID-19 caused demand to plummet in the early phase of the pandemic in 2020. These rumors were just the first of many pandemic-caused factors that have crippled the industry, at least temporarily. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, transport routes between suppliers to urban markets, restaurants and rural villages all ceased to be functional, creating ripple effects to both the broiler and layer industries. Backyard poultry was also affected due to the inaccessibility of nearby markets. However, backyard poultry has been an important meat source for these families raising the chickens during the COVID period, even if it is no longer a reliable source of income. A loss of 3,053 million USD is estimated, not to mention the millions of chicks and hens that had to be culled due to unsold surplus.
India’s poultry industry has become one of the fastest growing parts of the country’s agricultural sector. This growth has been further expedited by India’s growing urban population, higher disposable incomes, rising demand for exports of Indian poultry products, and falling poultry prices. Although poultry farming poses a tool for rural poverty alleviation, it is also worth noting challenges surrounding safety, disease risk, and antimicrobial resistance that come with growing commercialized meat industries. With added public health concerns stemming from COVID-19, the poultry industry will need to tread carefully to effectively and sustainably rebound into the self-sufficient and profitable industry it was just until recently.
Ryan Tseng is a summer college intern at FFAC.