Saturday, November 29, 2008

Chickens, pollution, and sustainable ag

While reading this article in the New York Times today, it occurred to me that I have not eaten commercially-produced chicken in almost 20 years. For the past five years, I have eaten chicken and other poultry that was raised on our farm. So, what's the difference? My husband and I became vegetarians in February 1989 after I read an article about factory farming. We decided to raise our children as vegetarians also. We simply could not support an industry that was so focused on greed while essentially torturing animals for their entire lives -- forcing them to live indoors, in cramped conditions, and being fed a steady diet of drugs so they could survive in those conditions.

The NY Times article is about the pollution being caused by the poultry industry in Maryland, but it includes basic information about the system of confined animal feeding operations (CAFO) that provide close to 100% of the meat in the U.S. Here are a few of the facts from the article:

Just inland from the shore, the scope of the farms overwhelms the senses. The 500-foot-long chicken houses stretch from the roadways like airplane hangars.

Inside each house, 20,000 to 35,000 chickens cramp the floors farther than the eye can see. Feed and water are delivered in automated pipes that stretch the length of the houses.

Corn and soy fields separate the houses from the roads, and three quarters of the state’s crop go toward feeding the birds.

Gigantic fans suction ammonia from the birds’ waste, filling the air for miles around.
I have met people who have worked in such places, and they cringe when they hear we have chickens. They start to tell me how much they hate chickens ... "They stink worse than anything you've ever smelled," "It was the worst job I ever had," etc., etc. I tell them that chickens don't stink. Their manure stinks -- but so does ours. We wouldn't smell too sweet if we were forced to live in our manure either. It's too bad the Times decided to run a picture of chicks only a couple days old. When you look at that picture, imagine each one of those birds weighing 3-5 pounds rather than a few ounces, and you'll realize how cramped they will be before they're butchered in 6-8 weeks.

The pollution problem in Maryland is a logical result of a non-sustainable system. Raising chickens in buildings is not sustainable. Chickens poop. Duh! And if they're inside, someone has to eventually remove the poop, or it will just get higher and higher. When chickens are outside, they poop on the ground, where it can be eaten by earthworms or washed into the soil by rain where it fertilizes the grass. Then the chickens eat the earthworms and the grass. It's a perfect system.

But BigAg will be quick to respond that they couldn't produce enough chicken for everyone if they were growing all of them free-range. The problem with that argument is that they're assuming there is a real need for people to eat as much chicken as we currently consume. We don't. Humans are completely capable of thriving on a vegetarian diet, and I have a couple of vegetarian daughters (ages 15 and 21) to prove that even children can grow up healthy on a vegetarian diet. I'm not suggesting that everyone become vegetarians -- just that they understand that Americans eat far more meat than is necessary or healthy. I think it's healthier to eat a piece of free-range, organic chicken that to eat some bizarre 21-ingredient vegetarian faux meat. I firmly believe that if you can't pronounce the ingredients, you probably should not be eating it.

Whenever I hear Corporate America's arguments about why they do things, I am reminded of Ian Malcolm's line from Jurassic Park when he says, They were so busy trying to figure out how to do it, they never stopped to ask if they should do it. He was talking about bringing dinosaurs back to life, but I think that a lot of what BigAg does is certainly as unwise as bringing back the dinosaurs. I once knew a young girl who contacted Jello to ask why they use artificial strawberry flavor in their gelatin. They told her that there are not enough strawberries in the world to naturally flavor their product. Okay, but we don't need to eat strawberry Jello, nor do we need to eat meat (or fake meat) every day. But the food industry needs to make a profit, and the bigger the profit, the better.

It's frustrating that no one in this country is interested in educating consumers about healthy eating. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is staffed mostly by people who have worked in BigAg for years. They don't understand sustainable agriculture, but they know what needs to happen for maximum corporate profits. As Michael Pollan said in an interview with Bill Moyer recently, the school lunch program should not be run by the Dept. of Ag if we want our children to eat healthy diets. Currently school lunch programs are used as the dump for excess ag products, such as butter and meat. There is no emphasis on fresh, local fruits and vegetables. It would make more sense if the school lunch program were run by the Department of Health and Human Services or the Department of Education.

But what's wrong with giving the people what they want, you may ask. If people want to eat lots of meat and junk food, why not give it to them? Pollan had an excellent response to that. As food has gotten cheaper and more plentiful in the U.S., we are consuming an average of 300 calories more per day, and we weight 10 pounds more than we did before. And what's wrong with that? Pollan says:

And lo and behold, we have a serious epidemic of obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, diet-related cancers. All these chronic diseases which is now what kills us basically pretty reliably in America are adding more than $250 billion a year to healthcare costs. They are the reason that this generation just being born now is expected to have a shorter lifespan than their parents, that one in three Americans born in the year 2000, according to the Centers for Disease Control, will have type 2 diabetes, which is a really serious sentence. It takes several years off your life. It gives you an 80 percent chance of heart disease. It means you are going to be spending $14,000 a year in added health costs. So this is about how we're eating.

This is just the tip of the information iceberg on this subject. I hope you'll take the time to watch Pollan's interview and perhaps read his books, The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food.

4 comments:

Kara said...

Deb, we were thinking of raising a few chickens and turkeys next year. Our layers were given to us. What hatchery would you recommend? How many would you think is manageable if we are doing it just for our own family (5). We have all winter to figure out the housing and fencing I suppose, but any advice on that would be great too. I have so enjoyed your blog and glad I know about it (thanks Michelle). Sustainability was not a conscious decision for us that led us to the country but is just sort of evolving here after moving to our 43 acres. It just makes so much sense. I just bought the book "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" by Barbara Kingsolve. My husband snagged it and is reading it first. I will let you know how it is once I can get my hands on it. :)

Jody said...

It breaks my heart when I think of how animals are treated in those food factories. It's horrifying!!! How can we call ourselves civilized people?

Deborah said...

Kara,
If you want chicken for meat, just figure out how often you want to eat chicken and do the math. If you want one chicken once a week, then 50 chickens would do. If you want two chickens a week, go for 100. It's really not hard to raise 100 cockerels. The question is processing. When we raise birds for meat, we take them to a processor, because they're faster, and their packaging keeps the birds in great shape for a year or longer in the freezer.

My mind is racing with all sorts of additional info, so I'll post a blog on this topic soon.

Michelle at Boulderneigh said...

I haven't had the chance to read Pollan's books (shoot, I don't have a chance to READ!), but I have heard several interviews on public radio and everything I've heard is powerful. Most people are happy to keep their heads in the sand; it's a shame. (And you are welcome, Kara.)

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