Chicken Shit 
Cachu Iar

Chicken Shit: Force-feeding along supply webs of the intensive chicken industry in the catchment of the River Wye, UK.

Peter Brooks, 2022
Research Architecture MA Dissertation


Why is the River Wye dense in nutrients, while a cut of chicken sold in Tesco is nutrient deficient? This is an investigation into the supply chain that links them, the most intensive chicken industry in Europe. Thinking outside of the classic Marxist frame of metabolic rifts, the method here is to trace the flow and control of nutrients through critical logistics studies. Taking a forensic, nutritional lens to interrogate the supply chain reveals it as a supply web, hijacking the flows and cycles of a landscape and crossing the boundaries of nature and culture. Nature is not an externality to the supply webs but intrinsic to their operation. We will travel along one strand of this web, visiting the ecological-logistical niches and zooming into the metabolic violence caused by the industrial flows of nutrients. The body of the river and of the chicken are both force-fed by the flow, one risks ecological collapse while the other has collapsed on the factory floor.

Nutrient Dense
River Wye, Herefordshire, England. 52.07714411803558, -2.8583254205279935

Since 2021, activists, campaigners, and journalists have warned that the River Wye faces ecological collapse (Monbiot 2021). The water has turned green over successive summers from algae blooms (right), while the Water Crowfoot has disappeared (left). This trailing Ranunculus plant is a keystone species, providing structure and shelter to the river’s inhabitants.

These algae blooms occur through the combination of a raised concentration of phosphate and higher water temperature. As the algae spreads during the day, it outcompetes other plants for light. During the night, the algae respire, or are broken down by bacteria – causing oxygen levels to plummet. In some cases, this causes fish to have suffocated by sunrise. Residents of the Wye catchment have highlighted that these algae blooms are happening earlier with each passing year and starting further and further upstream.

Nutrient Deficient
Tesco Eastville, Bristol, England. 51.47352780076759, -2.563423189471448

Despite chicken being marketed as healthy, low in fat and high in protein, the majority of chicken bought in supermarkets is now higher in fat than in the past (Purvis 2005). The white striped chicken pictured could have a fat content up to 200% higher than stated on the packet (Spindler 2020).

In normal growth, new muscle fibres are created around existing ones. However, overloaded with nutrients in the factory farm, this chicken’s body had to cut corners. At this intense pace of growth, the fibres in the breast simply grow larger. Due to the density of the muscle fibres and the speed of development, the oxygen supply cannot extend throughout the tissue. The fibres suffocate and die, replaced by fat and connective tissue. For the chicken, this means inflammation, chronic pain, and difficulty moving – and for us an increased risk of heart disease. It is estimated that white striping now affects up to 85% of chickens destined for the supermarket.

Nutritional Attrition

The mechanism that connects these two nutritional conditions, the body of the chicken and the body of water, is the most intense poultry supply chain in Europe. In 2013, Tesco signed a deal with Cargill to increase their supply from its processing centre in Hereford, expanded in 2019, processing being the industry euphemism for slaughter, butchery, and packaging. What followed was an explosion in the construction and extension of intensive poultry units, or factory farms, in Herefordshire and neighbouring Shropshire and Powys. We will trace and shadow the movement of nutrients along the supply chain, zooming in on moments of metabolic violence. First, we will follow the protein within the breast, the live chicken, the feed, and the soy plants that form a crucial ingredient. From here, we will switch our frame to phosphate, from the soy plantations of Brazil, passing through the body of the chicken and following the path of their shit through the Wye catchment to the river.

The violence we trace in this investigation is nutritional, the overload in time and space of specific nutrients, and requires we take a ‘chemical gaze’ to see it (Landecker 2019, 531). This metabolic violence is a slow process, generally invisible to the naked eye (Nixon 2011). While there are moments of visible media spectacle in both the chicken shed, as activists break in and photograph suffering birds, and the of Wye as it turns green every summer, these images both obscure and are the terminal symptoms of an intrinsic and continuous violence. We will use nutrients to parse cognitive scales and track the destabilizing flow and accumulation of phosphate and protein behind these symptoms (Hecht 2018). Taking a chemical gaze to the supply chain reveals it as more of a web: a parasitic logistical web, that hijacks the topography, ecology, weather, cycles, and flow of the ‘natural’ landscape to ensure the commodies flow (Harney and Moten 2021a). This approach complicates binary divisions. Nature is not simply an externality to the industry, not purely nature to society (Patel and Moore 2020). Shit is not simply waste or fertiliser, the nutritional lens highlights the code-switching of materials between these states (Landecker 2019). The approach here is as activist as academic, this chemically forensic detail pins the pressure of the flow back to Tesco, to Cargill and might reveal spaces for countering or co-opting the flow (Harney, Cuppini, and Frapporti 2018).

Supply Webs

The rationale of Cargill’s supply webs, from soy plantations to poultry processing, is highlighted through Tsing’s supply chain capitalism (Tsing 2009). Tsing describes a shift in the 20th Century from ‘big’ capitalism, in which companies sought to own everything, to a model of contracted, out-sourced and disciplined tasks (Tsing 2009). The development of the chicken industry in the UK, imported and influenced from the US, maps on to this logic. Ware describes this through the figure of her father, who among others experimented with different stages of the farming process independently, soon lost out to ‘entrepreneurial’ figures who adopted the American approach of “chickenisation” (Ware 2022, 190). Chickenisation is a method of commodity and nutritional control, centred around ownership of the processing centres and hatcheries. This allowed them to control the specification, price, volume, and frequency of chicken (protein) supplied to and taken from contracted chicken farms (Ware 2022). Today, Cargill and its subsidiaries own every form of protein and stage at which value is added through processing or refinement, they keep the profits and charge any losses (of chicken lives) to the contracted farmer.

Sub-contracting the supply web intensifies modes of production, metabolic conversions, as “labor, nature, and capital are mobilized in fragmented but linked economic niches” which can be controlled and exploited in different ways. This is in part through the diversity of ‘figures’ in the supply chain, subject to particular social, political, and economic pressures within their niches (Tsing 2009). These situated conditions enable forms of “self-exploitation” and “superexploitation” (Tsing 2009, 148), both of which can be identified in the contemporary chicken industry. “Self-exploitation” through the entrepreneurial image of the UK chicken industry encourages the farmer to invest their own capital (and risk) into technology to accumulate and multiply the protein that Cargill owns more efficiently. “Superexploitation” is found in chicken catching and processing, largely conducted by migrant workers on temporary visas, exploitable due to their precarious social position though race, class, and gender, and subjected to high rates of physical and mental injury.

Key to this supply chain is the continuous, reliable, flow of protein across continents, through the factory, to the processing centre and supermarket. In parallel to the shift from ‘big’ firms to contracted chains, Harney and Moten describe a shift, during the 20th Century, in how operations management viewed the flow of the production line. As factories became controlled by contract, rather than owned, this new “supply chain becomes fully integrated with the flow of the line inside the factory gates” (Harney and Moten 2021a, 99). The focus shifts to the efficient flow of protein, the nutrient that Cargill owns, and “operations management comes to that which was moving in and out of the factory as extensions of the flow of the line inside the factory” (Harney and Moten 2021a, 100). Accompanied by a chemical gaze, the byproducts and wastes of the line inside the factory can be sold on, recommodified (Landecker 2019); “paying attention to these extensions can improve the flow inside that factory” (Harney and Moten 2021a, 100). As we will discuss later, the flow of chicken shit (phosphate) is essential to the pushing of protein.

Each niche, space, and body needs first to be entered by logistics, for the nutrients to flow: “modern logistics is not just about how to transport large amounts of commodities or information or energy, or even about how to move these efficiently, but also about the sociopathic demand for access: topographical, jurisdictional, but as importantly bodily and social access” (Harney, Cuppini, and Frapporti 2018, 96). Thereafter comes a spiraling process of measurement and discipline to optimize the efficiency of this flow, as “logistics needs to straighten us to pass through” (Harney and Moten 2021a, 108). As we travel along the supply webs, we will see how the “biochemical unity of metabolism across species” allows logistics access to ecological niches (Landecker 2019, 538). We will zoom into the spaces of straightening, of more-than-human life hijacked, injured, isolated, or killed by the flow of protein and phosphate for profit.

The Logistical Landscape
River Wye/Afon Gwy Catchment, England/Wales.

The catchment of the River Wye has been transformed into a logistical landscape, contracted to Cargill and subjected to its relentless flow of protein (chicken) and sub-flow of phosphate (chicken shit). Here, we see the action of “topographical, jurisdictional” access (Harney, Cuppini, and Frapporti 2018, 96), as Cargill has entered the physical and political landscape of the catchment to expand its network of contracted farmers. As Caffyn argues in her PhD thesis on the impact of Cargill’s pressure, “a changed landscape is emerging as a result of the power relations and the acts of dominance, suppression and resistance that have taken place in the battles over the planning applications” (Caffyn 2020, 269). While I agree with Caffyn that “natures have been put to work as cheaply as possible” this is not “despite mounting ecological externalities and public concerns” (Caffyn 2020, 269, 264). The topographical access that Cargill seeks is to the cycles and food webs of the ‘natural’ landscape, not as an externality, but to ensure the flow of phosphate away from the sheds, to maintain the flow of protein. Public concerns are frictions from the operational model of Cargill (Tsing 2021), resulting from the visible violence of a green river and a catchment that smells of chicken shit.

The cheapening of nature is what Cargill’s access and exploitation is premised on, and why the aftermath of Cargill’s operations is framed as an externality. Nature is devalued, made cheap by the dualist philosophy on which capitalism is predicated (Patel and Moore 2020). This rests both on the idea of the entrepreneur, the capitalist man, and their duty to accumulate wealth, and their perceived right of ownership over nature (Patel and Moore 2020). This ownership “is entwined with the ability to make more productive” for its “first derivative, self-possession” - the position of the ever accumulating and improving man (Harney and Moten 2021c, 29). For the fields, a landscape, to be improved, the “land must be violently reduced to its productivity” (Harney and Moten 2021c, 29) – straightened to nothing more than a resource. The roots of this attitude can be seen in the English enclosures, as “establishing title to land by making it more productive meant eliminating biodiversity and isolating and breeding a species” pursuing a commodity to the extent that “monocultural productivity smothers anacultural generativity” (Harney and Moten 2021c, 29).

Cargill’s topographical access is pursued in parallel to political and governmental access, enabled by a dualist planning system that sees nature as static and aesthetic. During the explosion of chickens, chicken sheds, and planning applications after the expansion of Cargill’s Hereford processing centre, the councils of Herefordshire and Powys looked on blindly (Caffyn 2020). It took the efforts of Caffyn and Hugh-Jones, to trawl the planning portals and count the chickens (sheds) that the councils had ignored. While Cargill has been accused of pressuring councillors, and has ‘invested’ in the social fabric of the catchment (Caffyn 2020), it is perhaps the logic of the planning process that has most enabled Cargill’s access.

In the file for Penrhos Poultry in Herefordshire, the chicken shed we will zoom into in the next section, we find environmental impact assessments and ammonia modelling. All modelling and assessments are done on a case-by-case basis, with no thought to cumulative impacts between chicken sheds. The main topographical view outside of the site is the impact on the landscape as aesthetic rather than functional or metabolic. This has a particular history in the Wye. Premised on the same separation from nature, the illustrator William Gilpin travelled the length of the river – sketching and commenting on the landscape. He searched for the ideal aesthetic image of an idealized, passive nature – and kick-started the conception of the picturesque and tourism in the catchment. In this view, the landscape is purely aesthetic – its entanglements and function are reduced to props on a stage. The legacy of this view lives on in the Herefordshire and Powys planning systems, and the idea of conservation as the preservation of recorded species. This aesthetic gaze of governance, the conservation of isolated beauty for residents and tourists, allows the chemical gaze of Cargill to run rampant, to chase its next protein-fix, so long as the sheds are green.

In the planning process the chickens are erased and uncounted, working in tandem with the aesthetic gaze to facilitate the flow of protein in the catchment. The chickens are missing in planning applications, the inside of sheds are bare, white, and plain in plan and in section. While Caffyn posits that the “invisible chickens have been displaced from nature into an artificial environment” (Caffyn 2020, 273), it is instead because of their allocation to the abstracted realm of nature that the chickens are invisible. The chickens are treated as machinery, as a means of making profit (Harney, Cuppini, and Frapporti 2018). As Kant wrote, “as far as non-humans are concerned, we have no direct duties. They are merely there as the means to an end. The end is man” (Hickel 2020, 71). In the ammonia oudor survey of Penrhos, only the outside of the shed is modelled, the chickens are merely described as the ‘crop’ (Smith 2014), despite breathing in the most polluted air. Planners have no need to count the chickens, no duty of care, “any attempt to enrol” the chickens “in objections is ruled inadmissible by the planning process” (Caffyn 2020, 273). The sheds are the property of the farmer, and the chickens are owned by Cargill after all.

To enable easy expansion, the architecture of the shed is premised on the cutting of entanglements to the local ecology, building on the ontological foundations of dualism. When once chicken farmers would choose the breed of chicken to suit the landscape, their crops, and the weather – now most chickens globally are owned by only two companies, Cobb and Aviagen (Saladino 2021a). These breeds have been adapted, straightened, to their feed, to the shed, and the shed and feed to the breed during the growth of chickenisation (Landecker 2019; Ware 2022). At the core of this expansion, as Tsing describes, is “scalability”: “the ability to expand – and expand, and expand – without rethinking basic elements” (Tsing 2021, 505). The relationships of other breeds of chicken to their landscape was an obstacle to scalability, “relationships are potential vectors of transformation”, and a diverse ecology of the land and complicated genealogy of chickens compounded this problem. The “whole point” of capitalist expansion “was to extend the project without transforming it at all”. The sheds are nominally separated from the landscape by the building envelope, framed as biosecurity as many industry journals and websites emphasise, yet nutrients flow in and out. These flows, tapped into the topographical and ecological cycles of nature can be ignored as external (Harney, Cuppini, and Frapporti 2018), so long as they do not change the line inside the shed.

The Chicken Factory
Penrhos Poultry, Herefordshire, England. 52.19814395 -3.007863839

Inside the shed, the life and soul of the chicken is invisible, viewed instead as a vehicle for protein multiplication though the chicken industry’s chemical gaze (Landecker 2019). As Caffyn notes, “developing [a chicken factory] is about maximizing profit from agricultural land” (Caffyn 2020, 269), and the chicken’s metabolic conversion of protein to muscle tissue is maximized to this end. The services inside the shed - that control the variables of feed, water, lighting, and temperature – straighten the behavior and bodily processes of the chicken to optimize weight gain. As Harney and Moten describe, “the end of man is, in other words, a degradation of means” (Harney and Moten 2021a, 100). Like the false externality of the landscape, the reduction of the chicken echoes back to the dualist philosophy of the Enlightenment. While the chicken is mentioned in industry manuals, they are inanimate, artificial, and faceless commodities, numbers. Often, the literature cognitively butchers the chicken into cuts, discussing breast conditions, leg conditions and if this will still sell at the supermarket (Aviagen 2019). In developing mechanical philosophy, Descartes’ method was to “dig in and peer at the parts, not the whole” (Hickel 2020, 70). Quite literally, this meant dissecting live animals to observe their anatomical reactions. Descartes concluded that “there was a fundamental dichotomy between mind and matter”, that animals and nature “are mere automatons, operating according to predictable mechanical laws”(Hickel 2020, 70). This philosophy, filtered through the development of capitalism, Taylorism, globalisation, and supply chain capitalism, provides the license to the chicken industry to treat life as a means to its end.

While the structure of the chickenised supply chain affords “topographical” and “jurisdictional” access, the shed enables “bodily and social access” to the chickens inside (Harney, Cuppini, and Frapporti 2018, 96). Cargill demands that the protein in its feed has access to the chickens, which it owns anyway, and this access is total. The chicken is a perennial protein crop, there is only one season inside the shed, continuous atmospheric conditions and regimented four-hour nights (Aviagen 2018). During the day, the feed flows constantly down the feed tubes, refilling the ‘Minimax line’ troughs. Harney and Moten reference the line, and the pressure of the flow of the line, “optimizing flow as a mode of worker discipline” (Harney and Moten 2021a, 96). Here, it is exactly that. Lights flash on the feeder lest the chickens get distracted, while atmospheric variables are tuned to ensure the even spread of bodies along the line (Roxell 2013) – that each chicken can be accessed. While the chickens are not caged, the infrastructural plan means there is no need for this:

“Logistics seeks to impose a position, direction, and flow on our movement, our pedesis, our random walk, our wandering errancy, to trap us in this oscillation, this neurotic pacing back and forth” (Harney and Moten 2021a, 92-93).

The stocking density at Penrhos is 17 birds per square metre (Wasley and Davies 2017), and they hardly need to move to survive. As the birds grow, their breasts expand faster than their legs and joints develop, causing immobility and pain (Percival 2022). They are not caged by bars, but by logistics and its force-feeding regime, the minute distance to the next feed pan, the access demanded by Cargill. While “logistics produces access”, “access inserts the metric, in a vicious cycle” (Harney and Moten 2021a, 107). The metric demanded by the integrator, the equation set by Cargill to ensure the efficiency of the flow of protein from feed to muscle tissue, is the feed conversion ratio. “The metric of the economy is a brutal one”, and the focus on feed conversion is a violent one. It demands that the chicken grow faster, more efficiently, while denying the sociality of the chicken and its body’s ability to enable the chicken to live well. It truly is a “chemical gaze” (Landecker 2019, 531), a view framed around protein, the efficiency of its flow in terms of economic expense, at great social and bodily cost for the chickens inside.

The relentless flow of protein and the violence that ensues is imprinted materially into the chicken breast above, highlighting that the flow of the meat is valued more than its nutritional quality. This case underlines the idea that “improvement in quality in operations management is, despite its own rhetoric, not about product but about process” (Harney and Moten 2021a, 94). The white striations, the replacement of failed muscle with fat, are the result of the logistics of the shed overwhelming the bodily logistics of the chicken. As myopathies are, simply put, the death of muscle tissue, we might expect some discussion on the welfare of the animals. Yet the diagnostic document for myopathies remains focused on the impacts on the consumer, and the economics of the supply chain (Aviagen 2019). The chickens are displayed in parts, a Cartesian dissection via the frame of the camera. Diagnoses might be made about deep pectoral myopathy, where the inside of the muscle ruptures and turns green like the Wye, but no mention of the crippling pain this must cause. The decline in nutritional quality since post-war industrialization coincides with the development of operations management, chickenisation, and the commodity flow. So long as the commodity weight remains the same, the nutritional content is immaterial.

The straightening and the social access demanded of the chicken can too be read in its final nutritional content, in their commodified post-mortem. Due to their lack of ecological entanglements, intensively farmed chickens have a lower nutrient diversity than their free range counterparts – who feed on grasses and insects (Percival 2022). Further, intensively farmed chickens also “contain much lower levels of essential long-chain omega-3 fatty acids” (Percival 2022, 13). These omega-3 acids help to reduce inflammation and aid brain development in humans, and perhaps in chickens too. Meanwhile, the intensively farmed chickens suffer chronic pain and inflammation from white striping. The chicken is denied its body as the means to life, it is denied its life as means to sociality with other chickens. Even as a commodity, as food for us, the chicken meat is denied as means to nourish and sustain us, replaced by the capital accumulation as the end.

The Soy Plantation
Fazenda Conquista, Mato Grosso, Brazil. -11.066825188210482, -52.37858253736113

The flow of protein from plantation to feed reveals the forms of control and violence that Cargill leverages over its supply webs, to keep the chicken cheap and profits high in an ultimately inefficient model of agriculture. The soy bean, exceptionally high in protein and fat (Saladino 2021b), is what makes the accelerated growth of the chicken possible. Despite this nutritional composition, it can take “109 grammes of soy to produce 100 grammes of chicken breast” (Monbiot 2022a, 69). One fix to this protein rift is efficiency and minimising loss in the processing of the nutrient. Cargill repurpose “every possible molecule of protein and oil” in their Liverpool refinery (Saladino 2021b, 136). A further fix is that Cargill owns every stage of processing, which like chickenisation, enables them to control prices and profit. The third, violent, fix is again the cheapening of nature. Tsing describes supply chain capitalism as premised on “independent contracting as labor; and stealing, foraging, or salvaging as resource procurement” (Tsing 2021, 521). The soy farms that sell to Cargill are premised on historic and contemporary forms of theft, from colonial land dispossession, to deforestation, and the mining of the soil of nutrients.

While the rhetoric from Cargill’s latest sustainability report has bold claims of transparency and traceability to rid the supply chain of deforestation, if we follow the space back through time, rather than just one batch of soy, every harvest relies on clear-cutting of forest. It is possible to find evidence of contemporary clear-cutting in Cargill’s webs, for example Fazenda Conquista, who grew soy for the multi-national in 2022, on land deforested in 2013 (Repórter Brasil 2022). This violated Cargill’s commitment to an industry moratorium on deforestation-linked soy. Monbiot argues however that “the biggest impact here is indirect: as cattle ranches in the cerrado give way to soy farms, ranching shifts northwards, into the forest” (Monbiot 2022a, 70). The broader, structural view however is that every farm that, like Fazenda, uses a plantation-derived planting arrangement is part of a colonial genealogy of ecological violence. The first wave of industrial deforestation in Brazil was for the expansion of colonial sugar cane plantations and as Tsing explains:
“even now, we see a trace of the plantation in conditions we think of as modern. Modernity is, among other things, the triumph of technical prowess over nature. This triumph requires that nature be cleansed of transformative social relations” (Tsing 2021, 513)

Developed in Madeira and scaled in Brazil, this model of monocultural planting had the potential to be replicated anywhere, and expanded to any extent, so long as “cloned planting stock, unfree labor, and conquered, thus open, land” were available (Tsing 2021, 513). The land in Brazil was claimed as property through the abstraction of nature, deforested to remove all ecological relationships that might interfere with the mining of nutrients for plant growth. Today, the soy “farms look more like sea than land: gigantic fields, unmarked by any feature, stretch to the horizon” (Monbiot 2022a, 69). The moratorium on deforestation-linked soy is an oxymoron, “one must create terra nullius” to operate a plantation (Tsing 2021, 513), and soy farming is the preservation of this. If Cargill was transparent, it would state that it continues to operate under the same methods developed through the legacy of colonial plantations, and the reduction of nature to means to the end of man (Harney and Moten 2021b).

The logic of the soy farm follows that of the plantation, and so plant needs to be straightened, cut from relationships with the natural ecology that might affect the flow of the commodity (Harney, Cuppini, and Frapporti 2018). Here, we switch our focus on protein to phosphate – tracing a less visible form of violence enacted in the soil, through the straightening of the plants, in the pursuit of protein. Phosphate is key to the growth of plants, and therefore the development of protein for the supply web. The soy plants are scalable commodities, like the chicken, “engineered for alienation and control” and would not survive without “terra nullius” (Tsing 2021, 513). The genetic uniformity resulting from an annual crop, with the seed bought each year, rather than saved and adapting to the local ecology, means that chemical barriers need to be enforced through pesticides and herbicides. The straightening of the plant is further emphasised through nitrogen, which the soy plant would be capable of making available to other plants in the soil they share (Monbiot 2022b). Yet in a monocultural system, each crop drains the soil of phosphate and nitrogen, which needs to be replaced. Just as the plantation stole the nutrients of this land for export to the imperial metropole (Foster 2000), so too does Cargill. Phosphate is applied as artificial fertiliser, over-applied for reasons we will discuss in the next space. This overapplication leads to both elevated phosphate levels in the beans, and nutrient run-offs and eutrophication of rivers in Brazil (Monbiot 2022a). The very same phosphate, from the same fertiliser, pollutes both the Wye and the Cerrado. The same logic of over-application, the force-feeding of the soil due to the pressures of the supply web.

The Chemical Catchment
River Wye/Afon Gwy Catchment, England/Wales.

The spaces and cycles of the landscape that surrounds the Wye are stolen, hijacked, not for the taking of resources, but for the flow of phosphate away from the chicken sheds. Phosphate from the feed passes through the chickens, becoming litter as sawdust bedding and shit mix on the factory floor. Rather than waste, this litter has value in the supply web, which organises “different kinds of organisms into novel chains of production for the economic re-use of farm surpluses and manufacturing waste”, enabled by the “biochemical unity of metabolism across species” (Landecker 2019, 538). This metabolic continuity is used by the chicken industry to dispose of the shit legally and efficiently, offloading it into the supply webs as the next ‘crop’ of protein accumulates in the cleaned shed.

While campaigners are adamant that chicken shit from the intensive poultry industry directly pollutes the Wye, companies have consistently responded with denials, half apologies, and commitments to engage with stakeholders or their supply chain. At best, they admit that they are indirectly responsible or only one part of the problem. Legally speaking, this may be true, the contracted structure of supply chain capitalism allows for plausible deniability. However, it is the force from Cargill, from Tesco, that creates the current of protein and therefore phosphate that flows through the catchment and into the Wye. The phosphate from the sheds, “in an inverse way … continue[s] to drive forward the commodities”, the protein, “by ensuring that processing can continue, not buried under its own weight” (Landecker 2019, 536).

The flow of the phosphate is facilitated by regulation and the planning system, that is blind to the accumulation of nutrients across sites, despite its recognition of the productivity and toxicity of shit in the required ‘manure management plans’. It is standard and recommended practice that chicken factories export their shit to farmers directly, or via anaerobic digestors, for spreading on fields throughout the catchment. As Caffyn writes, the “technical planning assessments on IPU [chicken farm] drainage, manure management, flood risk will all suggest that no additional nutrients can enter the river, and yet there is a general understanding that an IPU will increase the likelihood of river pollution” (Caffyn 2020, 272). The council kept no tally of chicken shed application and no calculations of the cumulative shit produced, noticed only by the situated perspectives of campaigners, residents and Caffyn. This is a combination of the abdication of responsibility in a contracted supply chain, and the dualist planning system that sees only the aesthetic links of the chicken industry to the landscape, as it grants Cargill access. The phosphate is accumulated because it cannot go elsewhere, there are technological and economic restrictions on the transport of shit that denies export from the catchment (Withers et al. 2022). While the surface topography is a logistical landscape that support the flow of protein, its underground, its soils are the store for the accumulation of phosphate, ensuring the flow overground.

While the chicken companies and some farmers argue that this is a sustainable practice, sourcing fertilizer naturally and locally (Caffyn 2020), it is the quantity and method of spreading that defines if the shit is more productive than polluting. The pressures of the economic niche that farmers inhabit, force the farmers to administer phosphate to fields quickly and cheaply. The lowering of prices offered to farmers for their produce means corners must be cut, especially since the globalisation of the market and supermarket pressure (Rebanks 2021). Fertilizers ought to be spread little and often, with attention to what the plants require. However, the costs of labour time and fuel mean farmers spread more, at larger intervals, inundating the soil with shit (Monbiot 2022a). Some farmers are so overwhelmed with shit, transforming a valuable commodity into waste, that they use the cycles of the weather to flush the shit from their fields, far cheaper than any technological fix, which generally cost more than pollution fines (Monbiot 2022a). It seems an accumulation of shit on farms, under pressure of the flow of chicken in the catchment, and the subsequent flow of shit, is a threat to their ability to accumulate capital, or at least to survive financially.

The conditions of the ecological niche of the arable field results in a precarious accumulation of phosphate, due to the leaky materiality of the soil and the reduced ability for plants to capture and metabolise the nutrient. A recent phosphate report, detailing the volumes of phosphate that flow into and around the catchment, has calculated the accumulation of phosphate in the soils is high, higher than the agronomic optimum and higher than the national average (Withers et al. 2022). They estimate that crops could grow on this store of ‘legacy’ phosphate for ten years without additional fertilizer. Yet the farmers continue to spread fertilizer, locked into the monocultural model of farming for the commodity specification that supermarkets require, and encouraged by agri-chemical companies. These companies have historically persuaded farmers that fertilisers are necessary (Rebanks 2021), and offer discounts to fertilizers in the wrong season, when farmers more time to buy and to spread (Monbiot 2022a). At the core of this problem is the scalable, plantation model of monocropping, both requiring fertilizer due to the mining of the soil and wasting it as the isolated plants struggle to feed. This is the enforcement of a “crude extractive logic to the land, forcing industrial repetition upon the soil” (Percival 2022, 9), which accumulates more phosphate with each harvest. This is a looming, latent toxicity in the soils of the catchment, threatening to leak into the river. As the report warns, the soil in the catchment is poor at retaining phosphate and worse weather is to come further into the climate crisis (Withers et al. 2022). While the Wye is experiencing temporary ‘dead zones’ as the algae blooms, it is likely to get worse (Clark and Longo 2018).

The Green River
River Wye, Herefordshire, England. 51.965531218714155, -2.5831175409370837

Algae blooms, pollution events, the absence of water crowfoot, and the floating bodies of fish are all indicators of the meeting point of the flow of the supply web, with the flow of the river. The flow of the river in this case is in an expanded catchment-wide sense: the flow of water through the fields, under the fields, from the clouds, and into the Wye, driven by the force of gravity. This flow carries with it nutrients, among them part of the accumulated phosphate stored in the soil and washed off from the surface of wet or frozen fields (Monbiot 2022a). The currents and cycles of the catchment become part of the logistics of the supply web – flushing away the accumulated phosphates, which in their concentration in space and time are transformed from nutrients to pollutants. The River Wye in this case is not an externality, Cargill does not operate despite the ecological damage (Caffyn 2020), but their expanse of operations is enabled by the flow of the river.

The river turning green is of course a hinderance to Cargill’s operations – it mobilized activists, citizen scientists, and journalists to investigate in the regulatory void of neglect left by the Environment Agency and Natural Resources Wales. The seasonal algae blooms however do not point to the dumping of phosphate as a temporally discrete event – point source leaks are not the predominant cause of the blooms. As patchy, inaccessible, and incomplete, as the water quality datasets from regulators is (Withers et al. 2022), it still points to a consistently high level of phosphate. Algae blooms occur when this nutrient density coincides with low velocity flows and high water temperatures. Most of the year, the clarity of the river paradoxically hides its high phosphate levels from our eyes, with brown sedimented shit and algae that can be mistaken for soil at first glance. Even dramatic point source pollution events are covered up by the flow of the river – at the Afon Llynfi tributary, mass fish death occurred, likely due to a leak of a nearby anaerobic digestor (Armstrong and Monbiot 2021). While bodies of the fish were captured on camera, the regulators found ‘no evidence’ of a pollution event. The focus of the regulators on numerical data, combined with budget cuts that contributed to their arrival many, many, hours later – meant that the flow of the river and removed and diluted any officially acceptable evidence of the shit spill. For most of the year, the flow of the River Wye exports excess phosphate from the catchment, for free. Nature is forced into work (Moore 2015), in becoming part of the logistical transport network of the supply web. While transporting shit by road is limited in its economic efficiency, which as the crow flies rarely escapes the catchment, the Wye is the perfect vehicle for the export of phosphate, free of charge. The contractual separation of the supply web aligns with the spatial and species separation of metabolic violence, hijacking the “biochemical unity” of the natural and industrial ecology (Landecker 2019, 538), to continue the flow of nutrients and pollutants while muddying the cause.

Nutrient Synthesis

While the River Wye is overloaded with phosphate, the cut of chicken breast is deficient in protein, and dense in fat. These conditions are caused by the concentration of nutrients in time and space, force-fed into the body of water and of the chicken by the flow of the chicken industry. Specifically, this current is caused by the demand of Cargill for continuous profit which entails continuous flow. When Tesco have ordered a certain quantity of chicken, all that Cargill needs to do is supply the weight of the commodity required in a form that aesthetically looks like chicken. When councils and government facilitate the flow of shit through natural supply webs without checking the rate of flow, Cargill can pollute without anyone noticing, until the river turns green.

While food may look similar throughout the years, its nutrient composition can vary wildly – the white striping on the chicken is just one material signal. The importance of “dissecting the logic of the chemical gaze” is to show “how nutrition and toxicity came to travel together in animal feeding” (Landecker 2019, 531), and travel in the lives that feed us – plant or animal. Attention to nutritional concentration and flow reveals if and when nutrients help or hinder the lives that are lived in the supply webs. We need a nutritional gaze to both highlight the violence on those who are farmed, and on the bodies that eat them – the soy and the chicken, the chicken, and the human. We need a nutritional gaze to demand that food be nutrient dense and diverse, a means for sustenance of body and soul. Ultimately, this demand requires slower and entangled growth, which can and does already feed lots of people, but generally outside of market structures (GRAIN 2014).

The supply web structure is blind to the duality of nature and culture, while the dualist framing of nature as an externality helps maintain the operation of this structure. The Wye catchment is not a simplified landscape (Caffyn 2020), but a straightened one, made complex by the interweaving of industrial and natural nutrient flows and reactions. Through recognising that logistics operates in this parasitic way, we can design ways to revert and divert the flow. While one solution is to stop spreading phosphate and grow grasses to take up excess phosphate (Withers et al. 2022), we could skip steps and move straight to agroecology, an entangled agriculture that does not rely on external artificial inputs. Just as the parasite co-opts the landscape, we can hijack the store of phosphate that has accumulated in the soil, out of reach of Cargill, to grow another model of agriculture which has means both to us and to the ecology of the land.


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