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Turkeys Shun Business Class For Coach, Cite Exsanguination

August 5, 2009

The organic food movement has become more about marketing and making consumers feel good about themselves than environmental responsibility and health.  Sure, on its face free range chickens and all-natural manure restore harmony between the farmer and Gaia.  Like the people who got us into this mess in the first place, supporters of regressive farming techniques don’t consider the externalities of their proposed move back to the 19th century.

At least, this is according to an ‘industrial farmer’ in Missouri who was fed up with armchair agriculturalists pontificating loudly on airplanes about the conditions of farms just like his.  In The American (journal for think-tank American Enterprise Institute), Mr. Hurst claims not only to be a family farmer, but also that his practices have come from careful reasoning and experience, not some economic inevitability destroying any sense of agency in his decisions (as popular wisdom would have us believe).

The essay is fascinating, ranging from natural gas fertilizer (without it we would need 5 billion more cows or risk starvation of 2 billion humans) to restrictive pig pens (which prevent mothers from trampling or even eating their young). However, one story stands out in particular:

Lynn Niemann was a neighbor of my family’s, a farmer with a vision. He began raising turkeys on a field near his house around 1956. They were, I suppose, what we would now call “free range” turkeys. Turkeys raised in a natural manner, with no roof over their heads, just gamboling around in the pasture, as God surely intended. Free to eat grasshoppers, and grass, and scratch for grubs and worms. And also free to serve as prey for weasels, who kill turkeys by slitting their necks and practicing exsanguination. Weasels were a problem, but not as much a threat as one of our typically violent early summer thunderstorms. It seems that turkeys, at least young ones, are not smart enough to come in out of the rain, and will stand outside in a downpour, with beaks open and eyes skyward, until they drown. One night Niemann lost 4,000 turkeys to drowning, along with his dream, and his farm.

Now, turkeys are raised in large open sheds. Chickens and turkeys raised for meat are not grown in cages. As the critics of “industrial farming” like to point out, the sheds get quite crowded by the time Thanksgiving rolls around and the turkeys are fully grown. And yes, the birds are bedded in sawdust, so the turkeys do walk around in their own waste. Although the turkeys don’t seem to mind, this quite clearly disgusts the various authors I’ve read whom have actually visited a turkey farm. But none of those authors, whose descriptions of the horrors of modern poultry production have a certain sameness, were there when Neimann picked up those 4,000 dead turkeys. Sheds are expensive, and it was easier to raise turkeys in open, inexpensive pastures. But that type of production really was hard on the turkeys. Protected from the weather and predators, today’s turkeys may not be aware that they are a part of a morally reprehensible system.

from The American

In the end of the day, the organic movement is not based on facts, but on imposing human ideas of comfort, cleanliness, and liberty on animals who simply prefer basic survival, shelter, and safety, no matter how they come.  Many of the techniques used by family farmers that seem inhumane are used to prevent greater threats to livestock.  Turkeys don’t care about leg room, they care about not having their throats slit by weasels. It doesn’t make sense to provide them business class accomodation when coach will do.

Of course there are some abuses, and some actions taken by opportunistic farmers really do harm the health of the animal and the consumer for the sake of cutting costs. The mad cow scare exposed ranchers leading sick cows that can’t even stand to slaughter.  Experimental pesticides might cause cancer. I also fear that if I ever stepped into a Goldblum-esque instantaneous teleportation device that the corn syrup running through my veins would meld with my DNA and transform me into a hideous, starchy monster.  On second thought, that might be an issue I need to take up with my therapist, not my agriculturalist.

Some farm-level practices are clearly unacceptable and should be dealt with by transparent regulations, not slick marketing campaigns leaving actual practices up to our optimistic imaginations.  But if industrial food on the whole is proven equally healthy for ourselves and the environment (read links at the top), what exactly is the point of paying three times as much at the grocery store?

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Justin Michael permalink
    August 6, 2009 12:49 pm

    David, I’ve been slowly coming to realize that, in terms of getting actual change done, those slick marketing campaigns are unfortunately the way to go. While me and you could potentially sit and debate the transparent regulation policy that works out the best given numbers, statistics, and a basic set of “Morals for Manimals”, the average John Q.(uestionable rationality) Public is only swayed from his opinion if everyone else in his peer group is swayed, or shamed.

    Smoking’s my favorite example. As marginalized as I am for slowly packing my lungs with roofing material, I think it’s a good thing that we’ve mounted this marketing campaign against cigarettes and the people that smoke them. Do I approve of their shoddy rhetoric, bad arguments, and seriously abusive statistics? Of course not, but it’s very hard talking to an addiction, just like it’s very hard talking to fundamentalism, and sometimes the best course of action is to throw Aristotle’s rules of argumentation out the window and settle for the ad-hominem, exposing a possibly fabricated silliness to the bad behavior.

    With that said, I think the marketing campaigns can benefit from a good, rational debate, and I think that transparent regulations are the way to go. The issue to solve is not people who are on the fence. People straddling that Global Warming hump can usually be swayed in part by either a good science class or a clever commercial (or nineteen). It’s the people factionalized on the far other side of the line, asses firmly planted in the back of the room, which you have to budge.

    Marketing’s the key, but the important thing is that the marketing has to propose reasonable alternatives. No one likes to hear a fundamentalist talk as if people in an opposite circumstance don’t exist, and no one likes to hear a white guy with dreds and Jesus sandals tell them they’d be better off digging their own food out of the ground. So when a commercial involving, say, the disturbing combination of Al Sharpton and Pat Robertson sitting on a couch agreeing with each other comes up, it has to seem like more than bitching or people aren’t going to pay attention.

    • August 9, 2009 1:46 am

      Well, marketing is great for educating/indoctrinating, but I think what I had in mind is that “organic food” marketing elicits this aura of healthiness, sanitation, and independence that simply doesn’t match with reality. There is no difference between organic and ‘industrial’ products, therefore the slick marketing campaign is deliberately misleading people in order to convince them to pay much more than they should for foodstuffs.

      Essentially the main problems we have with ‘industrial farms’ such as contaminated foods still exists, so this is an area where regulation needs to catch up with our perception of exactly what the ‘organic’ label means at the grocery store.

      As far as getting things done goes though, you are right that well designed advertisements and PR is pretty essential for converting apathetic or ill-informed folk.

  2. Justin Michael permalink
    August 9, 2009 6:15 pm

    Organic foods is, in a lot of ways, a sham. It was a movement that was, essentially, for better or for worse, moral. A movement about deciding, qualitiatively, that foods made a certain way were less OK than food made other ways. A lot of their presumptions ended up being at face with reality, of course, which is what happens when you hear “small traces of pesticides” and conclude “horrible, horrible things for my mouth” instead of stopping to ask, “Is there a tolerance? Can there be a level that’s acceptable, thus achieving a compromise between crop yields and food safety?” …Subsequently going about the problem in a statistical cost-analysis way instead of moral judgments. I’m not surprised.

    But, and this may be going into slightly tin-foil-hat territory, I also didn’t expect any different results than what happened when a moral qualitative movement about food purity was co-opted by profit interests. Again, for better or for worse, it is exceedingly rare that principles last the rigors of profit motives. The reason why government co-opting your religion, watering it down, and ruining it is the same reason why, though ‘cheaper’, it’s a bad idea to let qualitative judgments be marketed by Wal-Mart, Kroger, and even Whole Foods. They know for a fact you are more interested in the moral aspects than the statistical, so is it any wonder they fail to stand up to critical analysis?

  3. Heather permalink
    August 13, 2009 1:25 pm

    David, I’ll agree with you that an originally good intentioned idea such as the organic food movement has turned PARTIALLY into a sad, marketing move to make money…however, I’m not so sure of the validity of your turkey example. I have heard this urban myth that (domesticated) turkeys will drown themselves in the rain, but from what I’ve read, the drowning is actually a result of the birds panicking and running for shelter. Consequently, some unfortunate gobblers are suffocated in the process. In nature, wild turkeys are apparently quite good at surviving in or out of the rain. The predator problem would be a non-issue if humans didn’t deliberately breed turkeys to not only be stupid, but also too fat to escape from weasels hoping to slit their throats. If we are imposing our human ideals of liberty and comfort on turkeys, aren’t we also guilty of imposing those same ideals on their preference to choose limited “leg room” over getting their throats slit by weasels? In the end, their destiny is already determined…it’s a matter of flying business class and having your throat slit by a weasel or flying coach and having your throat slit by a human.

  4. Cecilia Kelley permalink
    August 15, 2009 3:09 pm

    David, as you know, I recently spent the past year and a half studying plants, people, and agriculture over in the good ole U.K., and I do agree that the term “organic” is used more as a marketing tool and less as regulated guidelines that food or other agricultural products are produced by. It does really irritate me when I see labels such as ‘organic” or “free-range” that make consumers feel as if they are more environmently friendly but have very little substance behind them.

    With that said, like most academics, farmers always believe the way they farm is the best way and any other way is stupid. There are lot’s of progressive techniques used in agriculture today that limit the use of petroleum based fertilizers and chemical insecticides/fungecides that produce equal and often larger crops.

    The statement that we need “5 billion more cows or risk the starvation of 2 billion people” is just absurd! There are so many ways to fertilize the land on a large scale that doesn’t involve cow manure or gas-based fertilizers. To name a few, there are alternative farming methods including rotational farming and intercroping, there are alternative manures such as green manure, which means planting a nitrogen fixing crops such as clover or soybeans harvesting the good bits and then turning the unused materials into the soil to decompose, and let’s not forget the most abundant source of manure in the world…human poop! These methods are just as viable fertilizing methods to feeds the billions as any gas fertilizer, but there is stigma because these methods are seen as hippy-dippy. The fact of the matter is that 75% of our nations farmers are over the age of 60 and learned to farm using chemicals and are not willing to be trained to learn these new methods. It does take time, and it does take skill.

    If were taking about turkeys, here’s a good example of ingenuity/”recessive farming” that produces truly free range produced birds. Turkeys are not the smartest of animals, but with work they can live outside without having to worry about drowning or being attacked by predators. A good friend of mine in East Anglia is farming turkeys using a sheparding dog. The dog follows with the 800+ flock while they forge for insects, plants, and acorns. The birds have no problem with rain because they are a mix breed of wild and farmed breeds, and they are not attacked by predators because the dog’s presence keeps them away. His farm sees 1 death per 300 birds, which even on an industrial scale is a low death rate and he also supplies ASDA, Walmart’s U.K. company and largest grocery store chain, with free-range turkeys. Did I mention his birds are lower in fat and bad cholesterol, richer in calcium, and are about par in weight with battery farmed turkeys?

    Like I said, terms like “organic” or “free-range” are used as marketing tools, but don’t think you should write them off as a scam that seeks to ruin established farming techniques. Hell, my great-grandfather used to spray his fruit orchards with nicotine as an insecticide, which was an established method from the 1870’s up until 1940’s, and then he used DDT. We have learned that chemicals just are not good for the environment, and the less we can use them the better off we are in the long run. We have new methods that can limit the use of chemicals and produce just as much food.


  1. Turkeys Shun Business Class, Part Deux « Generalissimo

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