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Sunday, August 12, 2007

Square peg, round hole

Erin had posted about locally-driven efforts to find alternatives to industrial agriculture. Today in the NY Times, there's a reminder about how hard it is to get fundamental reform within the context of the existing system. It's about the rise of "cage-free" eggs, which even Burger King, of all companies, has recently pledged to move toward. Chickens in most egg-laying operations live in a cage "about the same area as a laptop computer" where they pretty much can't do anything except sit there and hope that if they lay enough eggs, someone will let them out of this damn cage. So no cages = good thing. But, here's the Times' picture of a well-respected cage-free operation:

Not exactly chicken heaven, and not what most people picture when they give a small self-congratulation in picking up cage-free eggs at the store. But, of course, the problem is that there is basically no way that the same industry structure that brings you zombie-chicken eggs can bring you eggs from chickens who get to live like we'd like them to be able to. And there is no way that Burger King can deliver 350 Enormous Omelet Sandwiches at each of its 7,600 US locations every morning made from eggs from farmyard-roaming chickens raised a few counties away. That whole system and business model speaks in terms of units per dollar, and nothing we currently have at our disposal can meaningfully reform it, so for the time being you're going to have to opt out entirely to make more than a marginal reduction in your impact.

Which is why the best option is to buy eggs from your boss Ted, who has a bunch of chickens behind his house out in the country...

4 comments:

ReeD said...

I don't know if you watched any of the episodes of This American Life, the TV Show, but there was an interesting one a little while back about the evolution of the pig industry, looking at Iowa and how the life of a farmer has become that of a factory owner. I think the issue is called "Pandora's Box." While it's not the same issue here, it does highlight some of the modern-day constraints that we're forced to deal with given our desire for certain goods or ways of life.

This also reminds me of not too long ago when it came out that Whole Foods' "local farmer" program was in good part bogus: they'd highlight a local farmer at the store, but end up having only < 5% of the produce being sold from that farmer...indistinguishable to the consumer. Not to mention the exclusive contracts they would often sign.

It's so hard trying to do the right thing, you know?

teague said...

It is hard trying to do the right thing -- and the percent of the time that good-faith effort doesn't yield the desired effect can make it hard to keep making the effort.

Regarding the This American Life TV show on the pig industry: My friend Louise's dad, who's a swine geneticist at Iowa State, was interviewed in that episode, though I've not seen it. (I think this goes with my "Small Worlds" post, don't you?) And just last night I saw the Simpsons Movie with Louise, which happens to center around a pig that Homer adopts whose crap catastrophically contaminates Lake Springfield...

Quigliscious said...

Hey, thanks for the link!! I've heard similar things about "cage free" eggs... Opting out entirely is really the only way to go, but it's so hard, as ReeD says, especially when marketing campaigns like the Whole Foods thing are solidly in place. For a peach pie I made the other day, I had to buy those "cage free" eggs from the grocery store -- because the farmers market wasn't until Saturday but I wanted to make my pie *now*. Silly Erin...

teague said...

I can certainly understand your urgent need for pie.

And if we need any more confirmation that Whole Foods is not a benevolent force out to save the world, there's this article today from the Associated Press.