Technology and Culture 42.4 (2001) 631-664
[Access article in PDF]
Science, Technology, and American Poultry Production
In his 1948 classic, Mechanization Takes Command, Siegfried Giedion posed the following question: "What happens when mechanization encounters organic substance?" 1 Well aware of the application of mass-production techniques to agriculture and of the role of genetics in facilitating "the structural alteration of plants and animals," Giedion nevertheless held to a basic distinction between "living substance" and mechanization. The idea of nature as technics, of biophysical systems as technological systems, would have seemed inappropriate in his framework. For Giedion, interventions in the organic growth process were qualitatively different from efforts to subject other aspects of modern life to the dictates of the machine.
In the half century since Giedion posed this question, numerous scholars have explored the relationship between nature and technology in a variety of areas, emphasizing the difficulty of making hard and fast distinctions. Environmental historians such as Donald Worster, William Cronon, and Richard White have interrogated some of the ways in which nature is incorporated into technological and political-economic systems. 2 Historians of science such as Robert Kohler have explored how experimental [End Page 631] creatures (drosophila in his case) are constructed as research instruments and technologies. 3 And several historians and social scientists have investigated the role of science and technology in the industrialization of agricultural systems. Jack Kloppenburg and Deborah Fitzgerald, for example, have both demonstrated how a particular biological organism (hybrid corn) has been refashioned as an agricultural commodity and a vehicle for capital accumulation. 4
Following these leads, this article focuses on another organism, the broiler or young meat-type chicken, asking how science and technology have subordinated its biology to the dictates of industrial production. By looking explicitly at those technoscientific practices involved in making the industrial chicken, it offers a perspective on the course of technological change in agriculture that further blurs the distinction between nature and technology. 5
A product of key innovations in the areas of environmental control, genetics, nutrition, and disease management, the industrial broiler emerged during the middle decades of the twentieth century as a very efficient vehicle for transforming feed grains into higher-value meat products. By the 1960s the broiler had become one of the most intensively researched commodities in U.S. agriculture, while complementary changes in the structure, financing, and organization of leading firms created an institutional framework for rapidly translating research into commercial gain. The resulting increases in productivity and efficiency led to falling real prices, despite [End Page 632] growing demand, and successfully brought chicken to the center of the plate for many Americans. 6
Like hybrid corn, the story of the industrial chicken must be seen as part of a larger process of agro-industrialization, which has not only transformed the social practices of agriculture, food production, and diet in twentieth-century America but also facilitated a profound restructuring of the relationship between nature and technology. This article explores the various and ongoing efforts to intensify and accelerate the biological productivity of the chicken--asking how nature has been made to act as a force of production. Like Jack Kloppenburg's analysis of how capital intervenes in and circulates through nature in the case of plant breeding and biotechnology, the following story focuses quite specifically on the role of science and technology in incorporating biological systems into the circuits of industrial capital. 7
Yet where Kloppenburg offers an institutional analysis of how the "commodification of the seed" serves as an accumulation strategy, this essay focuses more broadly on a variety of technologies involved in accelerating biological productivity. While breeding and genetic improvement were clearly central vectors of technological change in making the industrial chicken, they were by no means the only ones. Intensive confinement, improved nutrition and feeding practices, and the widespread use of antibiotics and other drugs also represented important aspects of a larger technology platform aimed at subordinating avian biology to the dictates of industrial production.
Given the unpredictable nature and emergent properties of biological systems, however, any program aimed...