America's Chicken Wing Shortage is Bad for the Planet

America's demand for chicken wings continues to shape the food industry, as some restaurant owners find themselves shelling out more $3 per pound for wings.

Increased demand for takeout and comfort food put wing consumption on the rise in 2020, The National Chicken Council reported. That demand, coupled with the biggest day for wing eating—Super Bowl Sunday—and devastation from the winter storms in Texas, has shrunken the popular poultry product to a relatively short supply.

chicken farm
A U.S. chicken farm. Sascha Schuermann/Getty

"One of the biggest challenges in the industry is to get the optimum value for the whole chicken produced," Fabian Brockötter, editor in chief of Poultry World magazine, told Newsweek. "The question is; if you order a bucket with 20 wings, who will eat the rest of those 10 chickens that were needed for your wings?"

The answer, he says, lies in international trade.

While Americans are devouring wings, Brockötter says Europeans pay a premium for the breasts, while the Chinese market shows greater demand for the feet. Unlike in the U.S., Russians prefer dark meat, and in the world's second most populous country of India, people particularly enjoy the leg.

The National Chicken Council reports that Americas consume 60% of dark meat produced in the country, with much of the rest going overseas. Of the nations to which the U.S. ships chicken, 60% of them are outside North America.

This exacerbates the industry's problem with its larger-than-chicken-size carbon footprint.

"Shipping produces carbon and costs a lot of energy, leaving an environmental print," Xin Gen Lei, an animal science professor at Cornell focused on environmental sustainability, told Newsweek. "If you're talking about the environment and carbon neutrality, this is something that has an impact."

The United States exports $2.7 billion worth of frozen chicken, while Brazil leads all exporters, sending out $6.3 billion in product. On the receiving end, China leads all nations in imports, bringing in $1.97 billion worth of chicken. Saudi Arabia comes in second, bringing in $1.29 billion worth of birds.

Shipping chicken requires the meat to be stored in temperature-controlled containers. While food is generally shipped by sea instead of by air, saving some emissions, maritime shipping accounts for nearly 3% of all carbon emissions, equal to the output of Germany. While the demand for chickens abroad facilitates the increased carbon footprint of the food industry internationally, it also produces visceral fresh water problems domestically.

The demand for U.S. chicken abroad increases production at home, production which Karen Davis, president of United Poultry Concerns, said devastates its surrounding environment. In the United States, 8 billion chickens are consumed each year, and American chickens produce nearly 86 million tons of manure a year.

Davis says this manure does not just create toxic environments for the chickens, but it also presents major disposal problems. While some can be used for fertilizer, much ends up in runoff. According to a report by Environmental Integrity Project, the chicken industry contributes about 12 million pounds of nitrogen to the Chesapeake Bay each year. Today, 82% of the bay is partially or fully impaired by toxic contaminants, the Chesapeake Bay Program found.

"The environmental issue is very important, because the plight of the chickens again spills out into the larger environment," Davis told Newsweek. "One of the effects of the chicken industry is the destruction of wildlife and wildlife habitat. It just ruins every place it opens for business."