Image via WikipediaI’ve been resisting, but push (that’d be the wife) is coming to shove (that’s me) and we may be keeping chickens again by springtime. Why bother? Because we can, and because we really should–the former is easier to explain.
Our neighbor down the road is making and selling hen houses that are well built, far more secure against chick-and-egg varmints than our barn, and more or less portable for free-range relocation around our pasture. So there’s the how of the poultry enterprise: the task is relatively easily do-able, accessible and affordable.
But the moral and ethical imperatives that lead us toward backyard poultry have to do with bigger issues: eating locally, eating lower on the food chain, and the matter of personal accountability.
We like the idea of eating locally grown meat. We’ve been willing to drive from the eastern to the western ends of the county to get it. But the time-energy-carbon costs are just too high to keep this up. So if we could convert our sunlight and pasture into protein without the drive to Willis, that makes sense.
That we (all of us carnivores) should eat less meat and more locally grown fruits and vegetables is not up for debate in today’s world. The cost in required water, land and energy to produce a pound of beef versus a pound of grain are easy enough to compare, and difficult to ignore in a crowded world. The health impact of too much animal fat in the diet of an obese nation is also an inconvenient truth in the discussion of shoulds and oughts.
Protein’s component amino acids are vital and we can get them from animal or vegetable sources. Globally, far too many humans have too little protein, and baby brains grown without enough in their diet don’t fare so well. To feed the world’s population of 6.7 billion (July 2008 figure), we will need to change both our dietary preferences towards less red meat per capita and our methods of obtaining animal protein overall. (The discussion of more humane husbandry and especially of how many humans is too many for sustainability certainly need to enter the global conversation very soon.)
Add to these thorny issues the fact that, as America (123 kg per person per year meat consumption) and Europe are recognizing the need to eat less meat, those who have never until now been able to afford much meat want much more if it in their diets (read: China, India–5 kg per person per year–and Indonesia). The Big Mac attack is going global–Amazonian rain forests are being converted to pastures to grow more Beijing Burgers.
The solutions to this serious environmental and vexing personal conundrum, present and future, range from the sublime and simple (the path that Push and Shove are looking for) to the more far-fetched high-tech options. Some are seriously advocating that insects and other invertebrates like earthworms might provide a certain portion of our diet. I’m thinking nightcrawlers might be tasty with those fresh eggs we’ll be gathering come spring.
Even more Star-Trekian, “meat without feet” can be grown in laboratory vats using the same tissue culture methods that makes new skin for burn victims. I’m not making this up (as Dave Berry used to be fond of saying.) And with so much meat with two feet treading the planet in our day, it makes me think the dystopian movie Solyent Green (1973, starring Charlton Heston) might be worth watching again.
Beef and pork cooperatives seem ripe to happen in communities like ours where one family has the fenced pasture; another can do the butchering. Several families share and the small, well treated, grass-fed, chemical free meat is enjoyed in small portions from time to time rather than being the central item in every meal. (How much? MyPyramid.gov recommends 5.5 oz of meat and beans in a daily 2000 calorie diet.)
So I suppose my wife is right: having our own source for eggs and meat fits nicely with our efforts to grow more of our own vegetables. And working harder for our protein, we’ll settle for meat as a treat, not a habitual entitlement. And our hearts and blood vessels and the planet will be a little better off for the effort.