Lots to get your teeth into in this issue, from public relations idiocy to the idiocy of ideology.
Here are some jaw-dropping numbers from an article about Chicken Farmers of Canada’s claim that their birds are greener than beef:
Though the number of chicken farms in Canada has dropped since 1976, from more than 99,000 to fewer than 30,000, the average number of chickens per farm has increased sevenfold, from fewer than 900 to more than 6,000 today.
Corporate Knights, a magazine that bills itself as “The Voice for Clean Capitalism”, has a long article that seems to me more about Chicken Farmers of Canada (CFC) and its PR operation than it is about chicken in Canada. Most of the improvements in Big Chicken’s climate footprint are the result of greater efficiency; larger operations based on more birds that need less feed and less time to reach marketable size. Just last issue, I pointed to the quickening trend for Big Chicken to become Slightly Slower Big Chicken, so it is interesting to learn that Canada apparently has little interest in slower-growing, less efficient birds, no matter the welfare consequences.
In any case, I have to wonder why CFC feels the need to trumpet its green credentials so loudly. Chicken is already the most consumed meat in Canada. Why push harder, especially when it comes to making claims that are so easily unmasked.
The association also points out that 62% of the entire sector’s total energy use comes from renewable sources, but that’s not because barns are powered by solar panels. The group clarifies that “chicken feed accounts for the bulk of renewable energy consumption” – meaning the grains being fed to chickens are being counted as a renewable energy source for the sector because the sun that helps the crops used as chicken feed grow is a renewable input.
There’s admirable straightforwardness to entitling an article of almost 3,000 words The Problem With Alice Waters and the “Slow Food” Movement. Cards on the table, right there.
I read it, so you don’t have to, and while there are bits of the argument with which I can agree, the overall conclusion seems over-egged. If everyone were forced to eat every meal at Chez Panisse and similar establishments, or to sustain themselves exclusively on items from Slow Food Presidia, no doubt we would “end up with literally billions hungry and more workers hyperexploited”.
The article recognises as much, when it says “Slow food is good. It is elite. It cannot be for the masses.”
That, however, seems not to be enough. The article calls for a genuine proletarian food movement. That too is something I can get behind. But a central plank of the authors’ argument is that food prices in the US are still too high, despite their discovery that an hour of average wages today buys three to four times more food than it did in the 1950s.
That food prices in the US are still too high seems madness to me. It is cheap food that created the current food system, in all its complexity, to which Alice Waters and slow food is just one response among many. The authors conclude that “while the richest may bemoan cheap food, the reality is that the United States has not yet gone far enough to make food as cheap and abundant as possible.”
Maybe they should focus on higher wages for the many, not what the few choose to spend their money on.
Rabobank in The Netherlands is famous for its reports on global trends in agriculture. The latest is entitled Hell in a Handbasket, and warns that “when it comes to agricultural commodity prices, any sense of normalcy looks unlikely, and inflation in this space is almost certainly not just ‘temporary’”.
But please don’t hoard, it only makes matters worse.
I wonder what the authors of that slow food article would make of the people on Sapelo Island, off the coast of the state of Georgia, labouring in mosquito-filled, humid, muddy swamps, to harvest slow food sugar cane, by hand, because they want to. Their story is just one of the fascinating and detailed aspects of a long article in Bitter Southerner about Raising Cane. The article is not new, but then, neither is our taste for sugar, and it offers a fascinating glimpse into the multiple facets of sugar in the American south. Kudos to Shane Mitchell for her skill in navigating the difficult history of cane, even if she chose not to talk about the $4 billion a year in USDA money that keeps industrial sugar sweet. I don’t know whether the people on Sapelo and others for whom sugar is a labour of love and heritage get any of that. Probably not, but it doesn’t stop them doing it.
The flip side of that coin is the people who labour under appalling circumstances not because they want to but because they are effectively enslaved, even if most people don’t call it that. The Georgia Sun shines a light on modern day slavery in Georgia, where a federal investigation has resulted in indictments against 24 people for human smuggling and trafficking, many of their victims working to harvest the onions for which Georgia is renowned. I learned of the story from Sarah Taber on Twitter, who says that handing off labour problems to contractors, and then claiming ignorance of what the gangmasters are up to, is more typical of smaller enterprises than big agribusinesses, who can afford to run their own systems to obtain workers with correct visas.
In 1932, Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov – the man who more or less invented the modern genebank and first understood the importance of crop diversity – visited Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. He was there for the Sixth International Congress of Genetics and it was his final trip outside the USSR, because the forces of unreason were already pouring their poison into Stalin’s open ears.
Ninety years on, The Mann Library at Cornell has mounted an exhibit about Vavilov. Cultivating Silence: Nikolai Vavilov and the Suppression of Science in the Modern Era demonstrates the importance of Vavilov’s work and how he and genetics fell foul of Soviet science in the 1930s. I would be there if I possibly could. Instead, I’ll content myself with visiting The Mann’s Library’s online introduction to Vavilov and Cornell, a marvellous jumping-off point for anyone interested in the subject.
Oh, and, about that proletarian food movement …
p.s. Photograph of Kara Walker’s Sugar Baby by Jason Wyche. Courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co.