Is it so hard to find a sustainable, antibiotic-free chicken?

20/05/2012 / Kaj

An increasing number of people, myself included, are demanding more from what we eat. The availability of eco-friendly, organic products has visibly improved in recent years, as people take a greater interest in what they consume and how it impacts the world around them. Nonetheless, on a recent visit to my local store I found that it is still incredibly difficult to find eco-labeled organic chickens.
Anyone who believes that organic poultry is an unnecessary luxury may wish to read an article the New York Times Arsenic in Our Chicken? that discusses the cocktail of substances, from caffeine to antibiotics, fed to factory-farmed chickens in the US. Aside from ruining my appetite, the findings fueled my mistrust of agriculture, the food industry and the processes that prepare food for our dinner tables.
This is not just a problem for consumers in America. The use of antibiotics and additives in the food production cycle is a major global issue. Regardless of where in the world you live, food producers will use shortcuts to boost profits. In the words of Gunnar Rundgren, the Swedish pioneer of the organic product organisation KRAV ( Interview in the Swedish Environmental Newspaper –  Miljöaktuellt): “As long as it pays to farm chickens in units of two million or to spray agricultural land with a variety of toxins, then that is what farms will do.”
This is not sustainable development.
It is time for both agriculture and the food industry to accelerate a move towards a more sustainable society. A society in which producers work together with consumers to incorporate economic, social and ecological values into their business strategies.
The importance of sustainable food production reaches far beyond the dinner table. It feeds into a complex system of global justice and consumption patterns. It also ties in with climate change, as fossil fuels are used in connection with transportation, heating and fertilizer production.
Public health is another hugely important factor in the food standards debate. Obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and a number of cancers are all on the rise in Europe. The latest studies from the World Health Organization show that between 30 and 70 per cent of the continents’ adult population is considered overweight and between 10 and 30 per cent are classed as obese. Studies have also shown that children’s intake of nutrients is far too low and I wonder how the younger generations will look and feel in the future if nothing changes.
But amidst these worrying trends there are some examples of successful campaigns that have raised awareness about the quality of what we eat and inspired real changes in the food market.
In Jamie Oliver’s TED talk, he describes his encounters with countless American children that could not even name a tomato or potato. It is a worrying thought. But Jamie’s ability to positively influence people’s behavior gives me hope that, with education, individuals will take greater responsibility for what they eat. Having seen his campaigns in both England and the USA, I understand the power of change that he carries.
I was also reminded of a less high-profile, though no less inspiring, example from a trip to Japan a few years ago. Here I visited some local consumer groups that had successfully changed the rules around purchasing vegetables from local farmers. The number of local cooperative HAN (a group involving 6-10 families) groups now total over 1000 and Japan’s consumer cooperatives have more than 14 million members collectively. One of these groups, Seikatsu Club, even won the Right Livelihood Award (also know as the ‘Alternative Nobel Prize’) in the 1990s. The Japanese model is fundamentally changing the relationship between consumers and producers in local markets.
Japan’s success is based on consumer demand and wider global trends also show an evolving marketplace. Organic products sales increased by 8.8 per cent in 2010 and they continue to expand, according to a recent study by the ethical bank, Triodos. The UK appears to have the strongest local growth of organic products, making up between 23 and 29 per cent of sales for dairy products, fruits and vegetables. As many as 8 out of 10 UK households bought organic products in 2011.
But demand for sustainably-produced food is only half the answer. The other half is supply, which currently struggles to meet our changing consumption patterns. To find out more I met with Christina Möller who has been the Head of the Co-Op Sweden test kitchen and Honorary Doctor from Uppsala University for services to public education for healthy eating habits. See the interview.
Beyond the benefits to our health and the environment, there are a wealth of economic arguments that support the development of a sustainable food. A 2009 survey by Stockholm County Council found that consumers’ food costs could actually be reduced by 5,600 SEK (£506) per person a year if they made the switch to more sustainable eating.
If nothing else, perhaps this will provide the motivation needed to bring eco-friendly (and antibiotic-free) chickens to our dinner tables.
And don’t forget to get involved in the necessary work to change the business model - Big businesses risk losing out to social enterprises unless they adapt as Jo Confino wrote in the Guardian the last week
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