Belgian artist helps Ethiopia engineer the perfect chicken

Researchers in Ethiopia are working with a Belgian conceptual artist to crossbreed indigenous chickens for African farmers. The chickens, which tend to be stronger and more resilient to disease, may help fight against malnutrition across Sub-Saharan Africa.

Rogan Ward/Reuters/File
Chickens escape from the rain in South Africa. Researchers in Ethiopia are trying to create the perfect chicken for African farmers with the help of Belgian conceptual artist Koen Vanmechelen who has spent 20 years crossbreeding indigenous chickens all over the world.

Researchers in Ethiopia are embarking on a quest to create the perfect chicken for African farmers with an unlikely ally – a Belgian conceptual artist who has spent 20 years crossbreeding indigenous chickens, from China and Egypt to Senegal and Cuba.

Incubated Worlds, a research and breeding center in the capital Addis Ababa, will also house a permanent art installation showcasing the work of Koen Vanmechelen, including photographs, videos, and books of chickens' genetic codes.

"It's the most sexy chicken coop in the world," said Mr. Vanmechelen, whose Cosmopolitan Chicken Project set out to create a chicken carrying the genes of all the planet's breeds.

The artist told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that each successive generation of Cosmopolitan Chickens is more resilient, lives longer, and is less susceptible to diseases, proving the importance of genetic diversity.

At the center, scientists from the Nairobi-based International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and local partners will compare different types of Ethiopian chickens and crossbreed them naturally with others, including Vanmechelen's.

A quarter of the world's 815 million undernourished people are in Sub-Saharan Africa, and climate conditions are worsening hunger, says the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation.

Feeding children an egg a day could prevent stunting, a condition resulting from poor nutrition which hinders cognitive growth, learning, and economic potential, research shows.

Some 58 million children are stunted in Africa, costing $25 billion a year, according to the African Development Bank.

Olivier Hanotte, a scientist with ILRI in Addis Ababa, said crossbreeding Vanmechelen's highly diverse birds with local varieties could result in a breed that is healthier and more resilient – but they must also be productive.

"What we want is ... an animal who produces eggs, which would grow relatively fast and can reach a weight of two to three kilos in a minimum amount of time," he said.

Mr. Hanotte praised Vanmechelen for doing what scientists could not – creating a unique population of chickens that gives a snapshot of the genetic diversity of birds outside Ethiopia.

"That is a fantastic resource for us," he said.

"There's no way that as a scientist I would have gotten a grant for 20 years to do this sort of experiment."

Chickens can also empower women, who are often their custodians in rural areas, as they reproduce quickly – hatching after 21 days incubation, he said.

"If you provide better chicken for these people, you give them a new way of income and empower women, who often reinvest in the children," he said.

This story was reported by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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