The True Cost of a Cheap Meal

Issue 303
July/August 2017
The Pilgrim's Path

Reviews

The True Cost of a Cheap Meal
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Cover: Painting by Richard Cartwright

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Almaz Gaere applauds a thoughtful exposé of agro-industry. Chickenizing Farms & Food: How Industrial Meat Production Endangers Workers, Animals, and Consumers by Ellen K. Silbergeld. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016. ISBN: 9781421420301

A public health disaster is brewing. Unsafe food is being produced faster than we can even consume it. Workers’ rights and safety are being neglected, and animals are being confined in hazardous, unsanitary conditions. Meanwhile, marketing and advertising encourage us to tuck into our burgers and nuggets in blissful ignorance. In Chickenizing Farms and Food, Ellen K. Silbergeld reminds us what we have been encouraged to forget: where our food actually comes from.

It’s not a topic that most of us want to hear about. “Why is it so difficult to talk about agriculture?” Silbergeld asks. “Largely it is because we don’t perceive the reality of agriculture and making food; our vision has been clouded by a carefully selected and fostered set of cultural memories.”

Silbergeld shatters this image, replacing it instead with the reality of food animal production: thousands of animals caged into suffocatingly small spaces, sleeping in their own faeces, with barely enough space to move, slowly going mad.

How did we get here? Silbergeld traces the roots of modern industrial chicken farming to Delmarva, Maryland in 1923, when a woman named Cecile Steele was mistakenly delivered 500 chickens instead of the 50 she had requested. This blunder forced her to rethink her poultry-raising programme, expanding from 500 chickens in 1923 to 10,000 in 1925. Her breed of broiler chicken is now used worldwide and has allowed for a vast expansion of the industry.

While America was happy to tuck into its increasing supply of cheap chickens, the industry thrived on a lack of regulations and no monitoring. As Silbergeld notes, there are only recommendations. And she translates recommendations for factory workers as “have a cup of coffee and pray”.

What regulation does exist shields the public from appalling standards of sanitation, cruel treatment of animals, and a complete neglect for workers’ rights. While excrement from the animals floats around in unregulated cesspits and the animals are routinely given regular doses of antibiotics to keep them alive, the public are exposed to antibiotic-resistant variants of bacteria such as Salmonella and Campylobacter.

Despite these revelations, Silbergeld has not lost faith in industrial animal production. She rejects the view of agro-ecologists that we need to return to a less intensive form of agriculture, with two important questions: how can we feed the world? And how can we make food affordable? “Affordability”, she writes, “is the most problematic and the least directly acknowledged issue in much of the current writing about food and food systems, which is often directed – consciously or not – at a small segment of the population that can afford extraordinarily high prices for the products of older methods in an era of cheap food.”

In addressing this point, Silbergeld presents a powerful, resonant argument: sustainability is about human society as well as the natural world. So, she argues, we need to acknowledge that agriculture is a technological endeavour. Ultimately, “there is no road that returns us to what may never have been, but there are ways forward.”

While Silbergeld refers in much of the book to conditions in the US, there is a reason the book is titled ‘Chickenization’. These methods have been transported and replicated around the world, allowing countries such as Brazil and China to become world leaders in poultry production by confining up to 100,000 birds in one building. In the UK, the poultry industry is regulated by stricter standards of food safety, with a lengthier list of food additives and growth hormones that are not permitted in the industry, and a ban on practices such as dipping chicken carcasses in chlorine (which is legal in the US).

However, many of Silbergeld’s criticisms are still applicable in the UK, as antibiotics are routinely overused, there is still the issue of waste, and thousands of birds are confined in their own excrement, feathers and dead carcasses, leading to the spread of harmful bacteria and other pathogens. Therefore, whether your perspective is in support of industry or of agro-ecology, Silbergeld’s message is still a crucially important one: we need to make radical changes to our current food system.

Almaz Gaere is currently working with the organisation Farms Not Factories.

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