By Rob Symons
This is an article I wrote for the Mercury Food and Wine supplement and it also appears on “Verdant Life.”
Since a child, one of my favourite dishes has been Chicken peri-peri. Chicken is the main ingredient in most of our favourite meals and their eggs are an essential ingredient in our cuisine. Chicken is ubiquitous in the supermarkets – available in pieces or whole dressed birds, all temptingly wrapped.
Eggs are packaged and labelled with a bewildering range of options. Free range, grain fed, and omega 3 enriched. The labelling evokes images of country life, family farms, sunshine and happiness. This is just a sham. The truth behind chicken farming is disturbing.
The chicken is an omnivore and if allowed to run free is an opportunistic feeder. As anyone who has kept free chickens will know chickens will eat anything from seeds and vegetables to insects. They will even eat snakes, as one of my fowls did the other day. Chickens have always filled a recycling role on the traditional mixed farm. They will keep a farmyard clean, dispose of household waste and keep the insect population in check. They will return this bounteously in the form of meat and eggs.
A keen observer of chickens cannot fail to note that this is an intelligent social bird. Each fowl has a distinct personality and is very definitely a sentient being. In fact the European Union has recognized them as such. What has gone wrong is the elevation of chicken farming from being just a component in a mixed farm system to being the primary aim of farm production.
Chicken farming on its own is unsustainable. No longer are they recyclers of waste food but primary consumers of grains grown for humans. Industrial farming is a methodology to produce chickens in an economically efficient way. To do this, however, costs have to be externalised. Those costs are borne by the environment and animal welfare.
Intensive livestock operations have a severe effect on the environment through both the greenhouse gas emissions and through the effect on our water by their effluent. Chickens are not treated as sentient, feeling beings but as units of production. They are kept confined in crowded unhealthy conditions and undoubtedly suffer.
Their diet is unnatural and they are medicated to allow optimum growth and the shortest possible time to slaughter. Egg layers are disposed of after one year of their miserable lives.
However there is hope in the form of ethical farmers who are making a great effort to make their farms humane and healthy. They however suffer a great disadvantage in the market place as their ethical stance precludes them from externalising the environmental and welfare costs that their competitors are able to do.
There is no way they can match the prices. What we need to do is level the playing fields.
In the UK, celebrity Chefs Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall campaigned for, and achieved more humane conditions for farmed chickens. I would like to appeal to chefs in South Africa to take a similar stand. There are concerned citizens out there campaigning right now for ethical treatment of laying chickens. They need celebrity support.
If we farm our chickens in an environmentally sound and humane fashion, chicken will cost more. However we should be eating less meat, both for human health and for the health of the environment.
In a world facing its limits we need to farm more sustainably to maintain our food system, and for our moral well-being we need to farm with compassion. The industrial system will not live up to those ideals and will fail us.