Perhaps you’ve heard some organic food advocates say, “We should just roll back the clock and farm the way we used to” — before modern science gave us factory farms and genetically modified ingredients.
Others disagree, saying that we’d all starve if we didn’t use science and technology in farming.
It’s a big debate. But maybe the turning of a clock isn’t the right metaphor.
Instead, I thought recently of an old Chinese saying: “Draw snake, add legs.” It refers to when someone gets so carried away in doing something that they carry it too far, ruining it by adding extra, useless things.
A study of how our food system developed over the last century appears to be a clear case of drawing a snake and adding legs.
My master’s thesis is on chickens. I’ve dug into historical documents going back to the late 1800s to learn how Americans raised chickens over time. It’s not a pretty picture.
At the start of the 20th century, breeders bred chickens for aesthetic qualities that would win chicken shows. They took no notice of whether their chickens were any good at laying eggs or valuable for meat.
That might be nice if awards from chicken shows put food on the table, but I think eggs and meat taste better than blue ribbons.
It wasn’t a great deal for the chickens, either.
A 1918 study found some American city dwellers keeping up to 200 chickens in their backyards as for-profit ventures. The researchers reported that each person interviewed claimed to take good care of their chickens. Yet examinations found the birds covered in lice.
In one instance, a woman had 60 more chickens in her yard than could fit in her coop. In another case, some of the chickens died and the owner left them to rot in the yard. A few times, the researcher noted the smell was so bad he could barely tolerate staying long enough to conduct the interview.
As late as the 1950s, scientists still didn’t know everything there was to know about chicken nutrition. Chickens survived because they foraged outside to meet their nutritional needs. Diseases that are now rare were common. Early incubators served to spread germs, so that one infected chick spread disease to all of the others as they hatched.
Have science and technology improved these conditions? Absolutely.
Did we take it too far? Did we draw legs on a snake? I would say so.
Once scientists figured out how to cope with disease and provide for all of a chicken’s nutritional needs in a manufactured feed, they found they could keep them in confinement. The cooped-up birds went from having four to five square feet each in the early 20th century to just half a square foot apiece by 1966.
Stressed by confinement, chickens began pecking one another — sometimes to death. A solution, devised in 1942, was de-beaking. Breeders found that if they removed the tip of each bird’s beak, this kind of stress-induced pecking became less lethal.
The answer to science that leads to animal cruelty and environmental degradation, however, isn’t less science. It’s better science. There’s no need to turn back the clock on progress, or to erase the snake and start over.
Today’s science tells us that eggs are more healthful when hens are allowed to forage on bugs and grass. And odds are, if you want to keep backyard chickens, you’ll be grateful for a century of work eradicating parasites and disease. So will your neighbors.
If we use our judgment, we can find a way to move forward sustainably, healthfully, humanely — and scientifically.
OtherWords columnist Jill Richardson is the author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It.