Warmer temperatures can create huge problems for animals farmed for food. Turkeys are vulnerable to a condition that makes their breast meat mushy and unappetizing. Disease rips through chicken coops. Brutal weather can claim entire cattle herds.
"It’s a big problem when it happens," said Gale Strasburg, a professor of food science and human nutrition at Michigan State University whose quest is to develop more robust turkeys. "Within a day or two after the heat wave hits, you will go from there being no problem at all on a farm to 40% of turkey breasts having a problem."
"If we start seeing a lot more shifts in summer temperature extremes, there is going to be more of this," he said.
Strasburg’s research involves turning up the heat lamps several degrees on hundreds of turkey chicks, as well as on turkey eggs before they hatch. Researchers will then study the animals’ muscles and attempt to parse out genes that could help the animals endure hotter environments. The hope is ultimately to enable the industry to breed turkeys resilient to heat waves.
“Even if you believe we should be conserving our resources and putting more emphasis on eating plants, the reality we deal with is that worldwide the demand is growing for meat,” he said. “There will be more and more pressure to produce it more sustainably and of consistent quality.”
Some climate experts, however, question the federal government’s emphasis on keeping pace with a projected growing global appetite for meat. Because raising animals demands so many resources, the only viable way to hit global targets for greenhouse gas reduction may be to encourage people to eat less meat, they say.