In the interest of full disclosure, I want to be clear about my perspective on this issue. I do not eat animals. I believe that all animals must not suffer or be killed unnecessarily, especially for human consumption. I have also read many scientific papers showing that the trend of eating animals in modern days is unsustainable. I cannot pretend that I am unbiased on this topic. However, I am also a professional researcher and welcome an open, honest conversation from all sides on this issue.
It can be very tough to perform your best work when your values do not align with your duty. I am already unsure of my own motivation since the beginning of a student project that I must mentor this year as part of Aalto’s Sustainable Global Technologies course. The project challenges students to propose a solution to blood and feather waste problems coming from abattoirs and slaughterhouses in Zambia, where Aalto University collaborates with two local universities.
Figure 1. Chicken feather waste from the abattoir
“This is a very important topic in the country,” course coordinator Matleena Muhonen explained to me why local partners in Zambia offered this topic.
Poultry and poultry products are important sources of protein and income for most Zambian households (Andersson, 2014). Easy and cheap to maintain, more than 90% of the rural population in Zambia, where the proportion of low-income families is high, raises chickens in their backyard (Andrew, 2011). My biggest issue with this topic is very personal: I do not eat animals. At the very basic principle, I do not believe that animals should be killed unnecessarily for human consumption. Animal rights to live is the main reason why I think that way. Another reason is, of course, related to the environment, especially when I am frequently exposed during my research on food systems to the negative externalities of meat consumption. I have been struggling a lot with this issue. How could I persuade my students to learn when I am myself unconvinced about this topic? I eventually agreed to mentor this project because I want to believe that a circular food system might be achieved in the chicken industry if waste could be managed, considering that people would still eat chicken and other meat for many upcoming years.
On the outskirt of Lusaka, the capital city of Zambia, we visited an abattoir that kills 25 thousand chickens every day. After around one hour of driving on an asphalt road from the city center, our bus maneuvered into a dirt road and continued driving for another ten minutes. It was almost 10 am when we arrived at the gate of the abattoir and were immediately stopped by a guard.
“Ufuna chani?” The guard asked why we were there in the local language Nyanja.
After explaining our intention to the guard that we were researching the abattoir’s waste, we had to wait for written permission to enter the property. While waiting, I spotted a huge white building standing around one hundred meters away from the gate. A giant chicken painting covered its wall. She was smiling above the slogan “The people’s choice.” Later I knew that behind that wall, chickens were being slaughtered.
After the permission was issued, we had to pass one more guarded gate, handed the written permission from the previous guard to another, and finally, we arrived at the white building. We were welcomed by the manager, Henry (not his real name).
“Please wear your lab coats and boots,” Henry requested us. “It is wet and disgusting inside.”
The abattoir is relatively big in Zambia. Every day, five big trucks of stacked crates filled with broiler chickens queue at the abattoir, waiting for their turn to unload the flocks. The abattoir workers grab the chickens on their feet, hang them upside down on hooks at a moving metal conveyor, and slit each chicken’s neck manually with sharp knives. To reach the target, the workers should slit each chicken for no more than 1.2 seconds. The chickens are then let to bleed out for two minutes, boiled for seven minutes, and then a hand robot will pluck the feathers from the body. The abattoir runs very efficiently. Within less than 15 minutes, I saw a living chicken transformed into a ready-to-cook carcass. What was left as waste were the blood and feathers.
“We could use around 95% of the chicken,” Henry explained when I asked how much waste they produce. “You can calculate. If one broiler chicken weighs around 2 kilograms, our abattoir produces 2.5 tons of blood and feathers daily or almost 1000 tons every year.”
Unfortunately, Henry admitted that they did not have any plan on how to manage their own waste. His abattoir and the Lusaka city government adopted an agreement based on neoclassical economic principles: the Polluter Pays Principle. This means that the abattoir, as the party responsible for producing waste, is responsible for paying for the damage done to the environment. In this case, the abattoir pays money to the local government. And regularly, Lusaka City Council and Lusaka Liquid Waste Management come and collect the blood and feathers from the abattoir and dump them into a liquid waste facility and a landfill.
On the following day, we visited those two places. The liquid waste facility was only two days old when we were there, so we could not get information on how it is operated over a longer period of time. But the landfill was overwhelming. It was mountains of trash. The official land area of the landfill is 10 acres, but it looked bigger, especially when it was overloaded with garbage, even reaching local houses’ front yards. The negative health effects of the landfill on surrounding communities in Lusaka have been reported (Chibwe et al., 2021).
Figure 2. Landfill in Lusaka where chicken feathers are dumped
It also did not smell nice. The pungent smell from leftover food was mixed with household cleaning agents and smoke from the burning trash. We could find everything, from diapers, broken glasses, plastic bottles, and of course, chicken feathers. Obviously, the feathers ended up in the same place as other waste without any treatment.
As I stepped on the trash mountain, I noticed small white things everywhere on the surface, which turned out to be maggots. There were also many waste collectors roaming around trying to separate and collect waste that could still be turned into money. However, while we wore basic personal protective equipment, those collectors were without boots, overalls, gloves, and masks.
“Isn’t it dangerous to collect garbage like that?” I asked the landfill officer who was guiding us
“It is. And it is not really legal,” he responded. “If they fell and died there, it is possible that we wouldn’t know. There were many sharp objects as well that could hurt them. But what can we do? The poverty forces them to do this.”
On another occasion, we went to a smaller communal slaughterhouse in Kafue, a town located 50 km south of Lusaka. The slaughterhouse belongs to a cooperative that provides slaughtering services to its members. Depending on the day, the workers could slaughter between 9 to 18 big ruminants every day and showcase them for sale.
As observed in many developing countries (Parlasca et al., 2023), animal welfare does not get enough attention in these slaughterhouses. For example, animals were slaughtered while still conscious or thrown stones if they did not follow orders. I was not surprised knowing that there was no plan to treat the blood waste there as well. Everything was dumped in the backyard.
During our time in Zambia, students were trying to come up with solutions to what to do with the waste. Some recommendations include fertilizer, pig’s meal, and even iron supplements for humans. Unfortunately, because my values clash with the project, I must admit that my motivation in teaching and mentoring my students was not maximal. The story might be different if I liked chicken so much or if I were a chicken farmer.
Julia Sundman, a doctoral researcher on sustainability pedagogy at Aalto University, commented on this.
“As a teacher, we are often encouraged to pay attention to students’ wellbeing and values. On the brink of climate change, young people experience more and more eco- and climate-anxiety. But sometimes, we forget that teachers could experience that as well. Teachers’ values are as important as students’ values.”
She added, “It is equally important to facilitate discussions among teachers to share their values and experiences handling challenging topics. This could help to create a safe teaching environment for teachers.”
So, what should we do when we are not convinced by what we teach?
Based on my experience, it is always necessary to see the bigger picture of the problems and why they exist in this particular context. It will help us understand why people can have different values because of different living backgrounds. What is important for us might not be important to other people who have more pressing issues to face every day.
Second of all, have a conversation with as many people as possible. Most importantly, listen to them. A conversation could connect us with people at a very personal level, even with whom we hardly talk on a daily basis. It could also avoid prejudice against people based on one sole assumption. It may surprise us to know how we are more similar than different from others, even from people who are presumably very different.
Remind ourselves that our responsibility is teaching, so focus on pedagogy. Regardless of the topic, students should learn skills we promise to deliver through the course. In our specific course, we want students to know how to carry out projects, have an entrepreneurial mindset, work in a team, identify problems, and use and see mistakes as opportunities to learn, improve, and change directions when needed. We may not like the topic, but those learning goals still need to be achieved by students.
After we do all the above, remember that it is perfectly fine if we still hold on to our values. It is even possible that we hold them stronger. I remember a quote from Thomas Jefferson that might help interact in a society that possesses many different values, “In matters of style, swim with the current. In matters of principle, stand like a rock.”
Though I screamed and was scared when the chickens were slitted to death, my experience in Zambia was still very nice. I went for a walking and a river safari. I saw elephants, hippopotamuses, giraffes, rhinoceroses, crocodiles, and many other animals in the wild. I also saw Mosi-oa-Tunya, which means “the smoke that thunders” in the local language, known widely as Victoria Falls. Zambia is really a beautiful country.
Daniel Chrisendo is a postdoctoral researcher at Water and Development Research Group, Aalto University. His research interest includes sustainable food systems, gender equality, and people’s wellbeing.