Sunday, 24 April 2016

Free range chicken isn't healthier or more sustainable. It's just tastes better and costs more.

I'm prepared to accept that free range chickens taste better. I also know that the way those chickens are bred means they cost a whole lot more than the chickens produced in batteries or other intensive farming methods. But this argument is wrong:

Despite the fact that sustainable poultry production systems deliver huge benefits to the environment and public health, the producers using these methods have no option but to compete on an unlevel playing field. Worse, we are paying for the damage caused by industrial food production in hidden ways, through taxes, in the form of misdirected subsidies from the common agricultural policy, through water pollution clean-up costs and through national health service treatment costs.

Firstly there's no evidence that intensive farming is more damaging to the environment than traditional or organic methods. In fact the reverse is true - traditional and organic methods are less environmentally-friendly:

Agricultural economists at UC Davis, for instance, analyzed farm-level surveys from 1996-2000 and concluded that there are “significant” scale economies in modern agriculture and that small farms are “high cost” operations. Absent the efficiencies of large farms, the use of polluting inputs would rise, as would food production costs, which would lead to more expensive food.

So far from there being an environmental benefit from moving away from agricultural intensification, the reverse is true - if we want a less polluting agriculture then intensification is the right choice. This is quite simply because that supposedly "sustainable" system is less efficient. We get expensive food and a more damaged environment.

The public health issues are equally misplaced. There is no evidence at all that organic methods are healthier than methods using modern pest control or fertilisers. - it's just that all those healthy looking chickens scuttling about in feels give us the impression that eating them will be healthier.

So when the Sustainable Food Trust tell you their methods are healthier and have less environmental impact they aren't telling you the whole truth. And, when they call for the system to be skewed to support their methods, what they are doing is making you pay more for food with the only benefit going to the organic farmers' bank balances.


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