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The future of food can't be all or nothing

(post, Sarah Gilbert)

primary-image, l

Yesterday, I finished writing a long and wonky argument against the practice of killing baby boy chicks via grinder. The practice is accepted by the USDA and by many veterinarians and scientists, who say, basically, "this is as good as it gets." I ran through the economics of the poultry industry (much of which I learned from Kookoolan Farms' excellent email newsletters); because only one breed is raised for meat in the U.S., and that breed is unsuitable for commercial egg laying, the industry has become severed. Sixty or 70 years ago, chickens would be raised together until the roosters started to crow. At that time, most of the roosters would become dinner and the hens would be kept for eggs and to raise future flocks. The male chicks in non-Cornish Cross breeds aren't raised for meat because, due to their slower growth rate and smallish size, the American consumer is unwilling to pay a price high enough to make feeding and housing them for 16 weeks tenable.

At the end, I make the analysis that the only way to fix this problem is to change the industry back to the way it once was. And in order to do this, we'll have to pay way more for our food.  I used $4 or $5 per dozen for eggs and $5 or $6 per pound for chicken as an example. This may actually be more at first, but would likely become a little less as time went on.

The piece I wrote was promoted on AOL's welcome screen today and by the end of the afternoon had received thousands of "forwards" (people sending the link on to their friends via email) and many hundreds of comments.

I was sad, though, to see that many of the comments both in emails and on the blog post were a variation on a few themes. One was "I'm never eating chicken or eggs again!" One woman even wrote into the general Daily Finance email to say I'd made her a vegan. Certainly, I'm pleased that my call to action was heard --  but this isn't my goal. Another was "who cares, animals are for eating and they're going to die anyway! Give me some chicken." (This is essentially verbatim from dozens of comments, I left out the crude language and the spelling idiosyncrasies.) A few commenters said they'd only buy organic from now on; a few more said they'd choose free range (neither of these actions would address the problem at all).

Then there were, of course, the substantial set of commenters who accused me of being a liberal with a PETA bias. (Actually, I disagree with PETA's methodologies and message, but that's an argument for another day.) And those who were angry we didn't care more about aborted human fetuses. And the rants spiraled out from there.

But the future of food can't be about liberal vs. conservative, virtuous vegan vs. ignorant-blissful omnivore. The future of food must be much more nuanced... and much more simple and rational than that. 

The future of food must be more expensive than it is today.

I don't believe, however, that we can't get there; that this must be elitist; that it's a choice between human and animal welfare (or, as in many arguments, between limitations on population and covering our eyes with our hands and using up the earth, full fossil fuel-powered speed ahead); that I have to hitch my wagon to either PETA or the NRA. That my refusal to eat supermarket chicken and eggs shows my bias.

It will be hard and lots of us are going to have to demand it and (as they say) vote with our dollar. I have very few dollars with which to vote; that's why I'm not eating chicken. But in the coming year, I'll be spending what little money I have to buy a few chickens from friends and small farmers who are raising other breeds slowly and sensibly. I'll be making alterations on my chicken coop to raise a continuous stream of young layers and, if I can figure out a way, buy my baby chicks from local farmers, not hatcheries. My goal is to one day have enough eggs so I can share with neighbors who agree that this must be changed.

My point was missed by many of the AOL readers. But you understand, don't you? Yes, we'll have to eat less chicken. The days of $2 pieces of fried chicken at KFC and Popeye's may be numbered. (The days of KFC and Popeye's may be numbered. I wouldn't mourn.) We'll have to use more parts of the chicken. We'll have to learn to cut one up, if we don't already know; more of us will have to know how to cook. Not everyone; oddly, the elite will still be able to afford to have chefs remove the skin and bones and serve them just the breasts. Ooh la la! 

What most of us are missing is that this -- the skinless, boneless chicken part wrapped in plastic doubly and sold singly -- should be the elite thing. Not the whole chicken raised on food scraps and worms and dandelion greens in someone's small farm, that you have to roast yourself, and of course you'll save the bones for broth because only rich people can waste food like that.

I'm not -- I don't want to be -- elite. I'm not biased on behalf of PETA (that's the other Sara Gilbert). I don't believe veganism is a healthier alternative.

But I believe we can change the future of food, vegans and bacon-lovers, liberals and conservatives, those who believe in a mother's right to choose an abortion and those who find the death of a fetus abhorrent. I shouldn't have to choose sides to believe in humane and sustainable chicken and eggs. I shouldn't have to kill hundreds of millions of baby boy birds to eat a soft-boiled egg.

And I won't. Here is my call to action: eat with your eyes wide open. Know where your chicken came from, know how it was raised and what sacrifices were made to get your breakfast to your plate. Don't rationalize this. Don't accept it. Don't mix it up with other issues.

Eat inconveniently. It will cost a lot. Money. Time. Knowledge-seeking. Brutal honesty with your internal ethical self. 

It will be worth it.