Sunday, August 13, 2017

Pecking Order and Your Food (They are Related, Really)

 You've probably heard the term "pecking order," it usually means something about corporate  or social hierarchy, also expressed as "Sh*t rolls downhill."

Except there's an actual reality to pecking order. They're called chickens.

You know, those pink, small pieces of meat you buy from the grocery store? That chicken. My daughter was 4 before she realized that a living chicken was the same thing as a roasted chicken breast on her plate.

Long ago, back when farmers were farming for their families mostly, and hoped to sell a few items on the side to support their family, they raised chicken by what we now call "free range" methods.

Chickens could roam freely through the farmland. They could go anywhere they wanted, eat anything they wanted. And they established a pecking order, because that's how chickens work as a species.

The strongest chickens would "peck" the smaller and weaker chickens for food and water, which would peck weaker chickens in turn, and a social order was established. Chickens were hurt. Many had wounds, lost their eyesight, their mobility and their lives.

Cartoon of a chicken pecking another because showing an actual photo would be graphic and cruel.
Farmers got frustrated losing so many of their chickens. The birds had clearly suffered. It was expensive. So they started putting the chickens in cages.

In cages, the strongest chickens could not get to the weakest. They could not establish a "pecking order," and they had no need to. Their world was as small as the cage they were in -- they didn't give two clucks about the chicken in the cage over there.

Mortality decreased. Production increased. And farmers could finally sell more eggs than their families consumed.

Yes, this is simplistic. Yes, this does not take into consideration all that is known about animal science today. But...the clamor for cage-free eggs does not take animal science into consideration either. Because guess what: forcing farmers to raise chickens in the old way, the "cage free" way, is forcing them to have more chickens die. Do they get paid more for eggs raised from cage-free chickens? Not necessarily.

As a matter of fact, in California, where legislation has required that shelled eggs, the kind most of us know from grocery stores, must come from cage-free farms. Instead of paying, say, $2.00 a dozen, they cost $4.00 a dozen to cover the losses. (And by "losses" I mean the higher chicken mortality rate.) The people who advocated for and voted this into law order their groceries online, get them delivered to their house, and pay twice as much for eggs as they paid before, and don't think twice about it.

In the meantime, the family that is barely scraping by, the one with a single parent working two jobs, can no longer afford eggs. At all. Since the $2.00/dozen eggs are no longer available due to legislation, they are left with what is available at the food bank; powdered eggs, which are not required to come from cage-free chickens, if they purchase eggs at all.

Then the price of eggs drops, because the demand did not keep up with supply. The cage-free farmers don't actually get $4.00/dozen, they get more like $2.50, because people without the means to buy $4.00 eggs stop buying them. Now the farmers are in a lose-lose proposition, and because this is the law they can't go back to raising chickens the way they used to. Some choose to raise some other livestock, thus reducing the supply of eggs, permanently keeping fresh eggs from the lowest socioeconomic people in our society.

This is not a free capital market.

I am not an economist, nor a food producer. I am a consumer, seeing and hearing the news, and listening to people who don't know what "GMO" means clamor for non-GMO food. (FYI, "honey crisp" apples exist because of GMO practices. So do poodles.)

We are not them. They are not us. 
I am sure there are more factors pressing upon the market than the one I just described. I just ask that people listen and be open to more possibilities than the one being spooned to them by advocacy groups, no matter the intention. Being organic, cage-free, non-GMO is not necessarily better, just different. Choose wisely.

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