When activists want consumers to associate certain “dirty words” with modern food production, what do you suppose is top of mind?

Genetic modification? Antibiotic resistance? Factory farming?

Nope. Try “hybrid chickens.”

That’s right. A group called Farm Forward—the organization better known for pushing a campaign to reverse so-called “ag gag” laws that punish people who conduct unauthorized videotaping on farms—has launched an attack on the concept of hybrid breeding.

“Did you know that in the United States virtually all chickens and turkeys—including many of the birds sold under labels like natural, organic, and free range—are hybridized birds that have been genetically altered to reach market weight as quickly and inexpensively as possible?”

That’s the opening salvo in Farm Forward’s campaign.

“The poultry industry has hidden the problems stemming from hybrid genetics from public view more effectively than the tobacco industry hid the health risks of smoking,” the group’s message continues.“Insiders know it’s the biggest problem in animal welfare today and a threat to public health.”

Now, to the average person who hasn’t grown up on a farm, who doesn’t have a background in agricultural economics, whose only knowledge of breeding technology as it applies to domesticated animals comes from a cursory acquaintance with dog breeding, “hybrid” isn’t necessarily a negative notion.

More to the point, for the approximately 30 million Americans who grow a garden every year, virtually every packet of seeds on sale these days is a hybrid variety. Why? Because they grow faster, larger and deliver higher yields, which is exactly what every gardener prefers.

Isn’t the process of breeding hybrid livestock aiming at the same results? That’s the question most people would ask.

But not if Farm Forward succeeds in its anti-industry campaign.

Demonizing the h-word

Here’s just a partial list of the negative ideas the group wants people to associate with the h-word:

  • Hybrid birds suffer from severe welfare problems, and these unhealthy birds cause human health problems
  • Hybrid birds aren’t adapted to their environment anymore
  • Hybrid birds need feed supplements and antibiotics to survive

Worst of all? “The meat from hybrid birds appears to have many times more fat and a fraction of the protein compared with heritage breeds.”

Really? Does Farm Forward really think that consumers who buy—and prepare—mountains of chicken and turkey each week can be snowballed with such nonsense?

Apparently so, because the group leaders hope that rhetoric stressing the “Frankenfood” nature of modern poultry will be more persuasive than people’s everyday experience. Here’s a sample:

“In the not too distant past farmers needed their animals to be healthy to turn the greatest profit. Breeding lines that were hearty and that worked well economically became what we now know as ‘standard-bred,’ sometimes called heritage breeds.”

Pretty warm and fuzzy. Not so with the hated hybrid birds, though.

“Hybrid breeding refers to a fundamentally different logic and method than traditional breeding. It is accomplished through a complicated process of crossbreeding (breeding genetically dissimilar birds)—often animals that previously would have been considered mutants. These special inbred lines carry specifically identified genetic mutations, for example, genes that promote fast growth, laying larger numbers of eggs, or obesity.”

Isn’t that how the process of hybrid breeding works across all of agriculture? one might ask. More to the point, isn’t that the point of pursuing the “complicated process of crossbreeding” to promote faster growth and better yields?

Yes, but here’s the new ground Farm Forward wants to plow:

“Although the living conditions on factory farms have begun to improve, like the physical space given to animals, [that’s] only one component of higher-welfare poultry production. We must also address the fact that birds with standard hybrid genetics cannot live full, comfortable lives even in higher welfare conditions.”

In other words, no matter how much industry were to change its growing conditions, housing systems and even nutritional inputs, it won’t be enough. No, the use of “fast-growing hybrid broilers” is bad for the “natural development of the animal and cause unnecessary suffering.”

Would the poultry industry benefit from continuing to improve its breeding stock with more emphasis on survivability, meat texture and flavor? Of course. Decades of attention to growth and yield have produced remarkable gains in productivity, but produced a food product that is often judged to be less-than palatable, and improvements along those lines would be a highly marketable consumer benefit.

One would assume that Farm Forward would approve of such a shift.

And how do you suppose farmers and growers would accomplish that?

I’ll give you a hint: It would require breeding what are known as “hybrid birds.”

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.