Thursday, November 27, 2008

A little Thanksgiving food for thought

It's Thanksgiving morning and Boyfriend is getting ready to cook a modest feast for four - a fairly traditional assortment of turkey, stuffing, taters and the works. But when I looked at the turkey on the counter this morning, I gasped: It cost a decidedly untraditional $46.

Then I got over it.

We could've gotten a cheaper turkey, but we wanted free-range and organic. The closer we've gotten to our food supply by hunting (and in Boyfriend's case, gardening too), the more we've wanted to disconnect ourselves from factory-farmed food, not just because of some of the cruelties inherent in packed living conditions, but because it just doesn't have the same nutrition and flavor.

And producing food like this is more expensive - it takes more space and more care.

America, though, is enamored with cheap meat, so much so that we as a culture are willing to overlook its true cost, the poor living conditions for animals, lack of flavor (because everything's corn-fed) and a host of unwanted appetizers such as hormones, antibiotics and pesticides.

Up to a point, anyway.

On Nov. 4, Californians overwhelmingly passed Proposition 2, a ballot initiative that would require more living space for veal calves, pregnant pigs and egg-laying hens. The vote was 63.5 percent to 36.5 percent. Eight million Californians stood up for the factory-farmed animals.

Click on image to go to interactive map of vote results.

Sounds great, right?

Wrong. I call bullshit on these people, and here's why:

Californians have always had the power to change the living conditions of the animals that either produce or become our food. We didn't neet a ballot initiative to do it. We needed to pay more attention to where we spent our money at the grocery store.

Let's consider eggs, which is where we expect to see the most impact from this initiative. You can buy organic eggs produced by free-range hens any time you want. The more you buy them, the more farmers are going to produce them, and the more laying hens will be living in better conditions.

The problem is they cost $4.50 a dozen, when eggs produced by hens who live in those horrible little battery cages where they can't turn around cost $2 a dozen.

And guess what? Californians don't want to spend that much - they want their eggs cheap. The best estimates for the so-called "specialty egg" market are that it's anywhere from 5 percent to 10 percent of the market. That means, very broadly, that no more than 10 percent of egg consumers are paying to support an egg industry that provides better living conditions for hens.

But 63.5 percent of Californians voted to get rid of battery cages.

See the disconnect? I know this is a statistical reach, but for the sake of discussion, let's say this means about half of Californians want egg producers to treat their hens better, but they're not willing to pay for it.

What we know will happen now - and what we knew before the initiative passed - is that production of cheap eggs will move out of state, and all these people who hate cruelty but don't want to pay for kindness will keep getting their cheap eggs, which now will have the added environmental benefit of even more pollution being pumped into the air to transport this crap back into California.


OK, I know that Boyfriend and I are blessed with salaries that actually give us the choice of buying eggs for $4.50 a dozen and a little 13-pound turkey for $46. I know that's not an option for people with small herds of children, and people living on minimum wage. I guess what I'd like to see is a little more awareness that cheap has a price.

If the Humane Society - which backed Prop. 2 - gets its way, that awareness will come sooner rather than later. The Humane Society knows that Californians will continue to buy eggs produced by hens in battery cages in other states; its goal is to get this law passed in all 50 states so that's no longer an option.

And when that happens, then suddenly everyone who felt pity for the hens but more pity for their wallets will understand the true cost of better food.

OK, I know a rant like this isn't your traditional Thanksgiving post, but this issue has been bugging me since Nov. 5.

And on a day that we celebrate all we're thankful for by eating a feast, it seemed appropriate to spend a little time talking about the true cost of that feast. Today, I am grateful that hunting has caused me to think more about deeply my food than I ever did in the first 41 years of my life. And I am grateful I can afford to align my grocery store spending with my values. In this economy, I know that's no small feat.

© Holly A. Heyser 2008


Josh said...

Great post! I do have a couple of comments.

We are blessed to live in a country where we get to make social decisions as communities. The real beauty of this is that we get to make these decisions while taking everything into consideration, including, but not limited to, economic affects.

The market is a constricting force. People are trained and almost required to make the economic decisions that provide the biggest return on value, all other things being equal (which they rarely are). Rarely can (or do) people vote with their dollars. Thank goodness that we can make these decisions outside of the mere economic sphere.

Second, Prop. 2 was a political move, you are correct, but it isn't nefarious. Could HSUS have gotten this law passed at the Federal level, or in Arkansas (home of Tyson), they would have done that instead. This is a start for them.

As for price increases, the law is so minimal that it should only raise prices by about a quarter/doz. I really think this is a first step for HSUS folks, testing the political waters. Expect bigger bills with more bite, and as you say, more cost.

One last note: The Sacramento food co-op sells its cage-free eggs for about $2.50/doz. You are getting ripped off.

NorCal Cazadora said...

Yep, we go to a farmer's market in Citrus Heights, and a Raley's in Fair Oaks.

As for the social decision making, my disgust with the Prop. 2 outcome is tied closely with my disgust with the electorate in general, when it comes to the initiative process.

Example: A few years ago, there were two tax measures on the ballot, one to tax cell phone service to provide funds for trauma care, another to tax millionaires to provide mental health care. Both were worthy causes (and both had zero nexis between the source of the problem and the source of the solution, but that's another issue).

So which one did voters pass? The millionaire tax, because someone else would foot the bill. Trauma care got shafted, because no one wanted the funding to come out of their own pockets.

I see Prop. 2 the same way: We could pay to solve the problem right now, but most of us don't. We'd rather pass a law that, down the road, will make most of us pay anyway, but because there's no immediate personal price tag, we think it's OK.

I totally agree with you that people are required to make the best economic decisions. When it comes to food, that means they can get more calories per dollar from processed crap at Walmart than they can from buying healthy, organic, unprocessed food. Though this was not the intended outcome of pushing for a cheaper food supply, it's the outcome we got.

While I normally hate everything the Humane Society does, I think the goal here is laudable (even though it's disingenuous, because HSUS is run by a bunch of vegans who ultimately would rather see no one eat even eggs). It's just that I've already been voting that way with my wallet. I know not everyone can afford to, but I just wish they'd think about it a little more.

Interesting thing? Boyfriend recently did a brief stint as an agriculture reporter, and he talked to a lot of these egg producers. None of them like doing this to their animals; they're forced to because people want their cheap eggs.

Prop. 2 treats the producers like they're the guilty parties; reality is, we're all culpable.

Othmar Vohringer said...

Great post Holly. Having grown up in the food industry I can vividly remember when “organic” was the norm. As a kid I use to accompany my father when purchased livestock from farmers for our meat processing plant. All livestock was keep outside on big pastures and they feed with grass, hay, corn and bran.

Today organic is a specialty product monitored by strict laws and regulations to the point that it becomes laughable if it weren’t so crippling for the organic farmers.

You’re absolutely right about that we do not need more laws and that the consumer has the choice. My brother owns and operates a meat processing plant in Brazil. He makes sausages the way we did them in the good old days with real 100% meat, fresh selected spices and herbs. These sausages are expensive and customers complain. He also makes sausages for the masses to which he refers “garbage sausage” they are dirt-cheap and a hot selling item. The ingredients of these sausages read more like out of a chemistry book then a sausage recipe book. Less then 20% meat the rest is made up with filler (soybean), water (lots of it, all soaked up by the filler), liquid smoke, taste enhancer, coloring agent, artificial preservatives and the list goes on and on. It’s not meat, it’s not natural, but at the end it looks, feels and tastes vaguely like meat. It’s a sausage my brothers says he wouldn’t feed to his dog but people want them because they are cheap and he has to pay his bills.

Unfortunately most people choose cheap over good and wholesome nutritious food any day if given the chance, and new laws will not change that but make live for farmers even more difficult then it already is.


ironman said...

I understand your frustration Holly, But you expect to much of people. By and large people are idiots. the kind of thinking you are talking about just doesn't exist on any statistically relevant level. the laws that get passed in this state are all the proof anyone should need of that. btw cage free organic eggs 3.10 @ win co foods 4.50 @ farmers market here in the valley.

NorCal Cazadora said...

You're both right - Ironman, I do expect too much of people. And Othmar, I see so many cases where people have convinced themselves they really want the highly processed and artificial crap.

The thing is, you're right - it wasn't that long ago that organic and free-range were the norm, certainly within living memory of many people in America today. (I'd say Canada too, but I know nothing about the food-industrial complex of Canada.) The overuse of corn (high-fructose corn syrup, corn-feeding cows whose bodies literally can't digest it) began when I was a kid.

Dan said...

Rejoice! I glad someone else have some serious consideration to prop 2 and what it really means.

When the UC Davis study came out and slammed prop 2, I became embroiled in an online discussion on the blog following the news article. I pointed out that caged egg production would move out of state and if effect, would have no bearing on the health of the chickens. Some of the comments were "At least californians have put our foot down." When I countered with the question, "Will you buy out of state eggs?" The answer was universally yes.

People are voting emotions rather than bothering with the facts. They didn't understand that they already had the market power to effect this change without the benefit politics. They didn't understand that prop 2 does nothing except move egg production out of state and put their neighbors out of work. Folks could care less that chickens will still be cages in AZ. They just don't want them in their own backyard.

Now they can sleep better at night knowing the connection with their food has had an additional layer of anonymity added to it.

I hope I don't see Solyent Green in my lifetime.

Josh said...

I understand the frustrations with the effects of this decision, but, what is the alternative? Allow a process which even the producers are uncomfortable with, just because we're fiending for a fifteen-cent egg? If it's true that the producers don't even like their practices, and I have every reason to believe Holly and boyfriend, then it sounds like Californians have done them a favor, while salving their consciences - why is that bad? I don't see how 'let-it-keep-happening-in-my-backyard-even-though-I-find-it-repugnant' is morally superior to NIMBY, especially in that this is how we've organized our Republic.

You are right, Holly, about the HSUS disengenuousness, and that is something we, as hunters, should keep in mind. The political capital they have built from this can be targeted at us.

Brandon Darnell said...

Interesting post, but I disagree with your saying that Californians didn't need a ballot measure to enact the effects of Prop 2.

It is my true belief that Americans will always do the considerate thing if the costs are equal. Many will do it if it costs more, and I applaud all the people who put their money where their mouth is (literally). Unfortunately, the vast majority are slaves to the dollar, and are furthermore uneducated.

If people can't be bothered with learning about the attacks in Mumbai (pretty big news, if you ask me), then how can we expect them to take the time to focus on something other than canned reality TV shows and what Paris Hilton wore for Halloween to learn about the opportunity cost of eggs?

Put it on a ballot, and at least some of the voters will educate themselves on it.

Native said...

I do believe that the "majority Voters" have shown their intelligence levels quite well as of late.

When Glenn Beck interviewed a few people on the street and asked them why they voted for Obama?
The overwhelming answer was "Change!"
When asked what kind of change they were voting for there would be answers like: Obama is gonna' pay for my mortgage or Free Health Care! etc. etc.

When asked the question: How do you feel about Obamas running mate "Sara Palin" (l.o.l.) those very same people replied, I think that is a really great move!
Obviously, they did not educate themselves about the candidates before they blindly voted someone into office.

These same people also, obviously did not anticipate their very own income being "Further Taxed" in order to pay for these "free" programs to be initiated.

Unfortunately, it is these very same people who voted prop 2 into law and in just a couple short years, we will see the rewards of their "emotional voting spree", blossom into a rather unsightly abscess.

"Soylent Green might not be too far off Dan"