Entries in locavores (4)


Hipster chickens coming home to roost

(Image via

“It’s the stupid foodies. We’re just sick to death of it…. People don’t know what they’re doing." Chicken Run Rescue owner Mary Britton Clouse.

Some things are so predictable they are indistinguishable from a natural law. Night follows day, Leafs don't win the Cup, summertime construction on the streets of Montreal. And so it is with the rise in unwanted chickens being dropped off at animal shelters across North America.

It all began early in the previous decade, when forty years of cool-hunting was quickly supplanted by authenticity seeking, and food replaced fashion and music as the primary basis for urban one-upmanship. Organic turned to local became artisanal morphed into a full-blown back-to-the-19th-century self-sufficiency movement. Take a big helping of modern foodieism, fold in locavore-driven moralising, add a double dash of hipster status-seeking, and you got the urban chicken-farming movement. 

And now that the fad is getting a bit tired (the cool kids have moved on to shooting), the chickens are being abandoned by their owners. Chickens, it turns out, are a lot of work. They're also not cheap to own and operate. They are pretty mean animals. They stink and they are gross. And they can live for ten years or so, long long after they've stopped laying eggs. 

A lot of formerly eager chicken owners, having finally done the math, are dropping them off at the local humane society or animal rescue centre. (Why not just eat them, you ask? Good question.)

Anyway, it isn't like this wasn't completely predictable. In fact, the executive director of the Ottawa Humane Society made all of the obvious points three years ago the the fad first came to the nation's capital, in an interview with CBC Radio. It's a fad, he said. It's expensive. It's hard, and it's gross. He predicted that the chickens would be coming his way soon enough, and said "frankly, we don't need the work". 

You could argue, as my colleague David Reevely did at the time, that this is somewhat akin to the fire department objecting to new housing subdivisions: it is more of an argument for changing the funding model of the Humane Society than it is an argument for banning urban chickens. After all, he argued, we should expect the vast majority of urban chicken owners to be just as responsible as the vast majority of cat and dog owners. Why punish the many for the sins of the few?

Except the problem, as I see it, is that urban chickens are nothing like cat and dog ownership. Cats and dogs are domestic pets, while chickens are domesticated livestock. There is a large secondary market for abandoned cats and dogs, while the secondary market for urban chickens is likely to be non-existent (unless the market is the local food bank). But most importantly, unlike the urban chicken craze, cat and dog ownership is not a transient fad that will be supplanted by something even more authentic within a few years. 

Nor does it help matters to concede, as Barbara Cartwright, the CEO of the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies does, that "people who attempt to raise backyard chickens are driven by good intentions — to be more environmentally conscious, humane and to eat healthier." The road to Perverse Outcomeville is paved with these intentions, and it does no good to praise good intentions while ignoring the actual consequences. 

So let's just state it plainly: Urban chicken farming is no more environmentally conscious, no healthier, no cheaper, and no more economically worthwhile than regular chicken farming. And now that urban chickens are being abandoned by their owners like hamsters by five year-olds with ADD, the one selling point of the movement -- that it is more humane than factory farming -- is gone. 

Once we get clear on this truth: that it is consequences that matter, not intentions, we can turn our attention to the more broader problem of people wanting to bring animal husbandry back into our cities. There were sound reasons why we pushed this part of our economy out of the downtowns -- reasons based in public health, animal welfare, and simple economics -- and before we take our city centres back to the 19th century, we should at least make sure our decisions are based on something other than hipster fads wedded to dopey nostalgia. 


Authenticity Watch: The narcissism of indifference

(Picture courtesy of Ryan Davey)


1. A very good Q&A about reason and skepticism with philosopher Stephen Law, author of "A Field Guide to Bullshit"

2. New York performance artist Tania Bruguera is spending a year as a poor immigrant, living amongst illegal immigrants in Queen's. Her new-found neighbours aren't sure what to make of her, and Bruguera herself is having trouble fitting in: "After finding her apartment and roommates in January through a flier on the street, she was surprised that the local gym did not offer yoga."

3. The latest in authentic tourism: An outfit in Turkey will let you come and be "Muslim for a month".

4. The narcissism of indifference: The New York Times finds a couple of hyperlocal fanatics who are actually smug about how their ecolunacy is completely pointless and apolitical.

5. China's assualt on our preconceptions about authenticity continues with Hengdian World Studios, aka "Chinawood," which contains, among other things, a full-scale replica of the Forbidden City.

Hengdian has plenty to offer beyond the Forbidden City. There is the Qin dynasty imperial palace that was the backdrop for the movie "Hero." There are 100 authentic Ming dynasty riverside houses shipped in from southern China, and the largest indoor Buddha in China.

6. And then there is this lovely Austrian town, a UNESCO heritage site, that the Chinese are secretly making a complete copy of. Tyler Cowen gets its exactly right: "It’s funny how a town gets insulted when outsiders start taking its kitsch seriously as proper kitsch."




Afghanistan and Appropriate Technology

Excellent piece by Patricia McCardle in the NYT today on localism in Afghanistan.

One of the biggest disappointments of the way environmentalism has evolved over the past few decades is the way the Schumacher's fundamental insight about appropriate technology got rolled into an all-ecompassing rejection of modernization. It led to a polarization of the debate, where AT advocates got swallowed by the most radical anti-development activists, while any one opposed to anything except a "consumer-oriented, mechanized, fossil-fuel-based economy" is dismissed as a granola-munching flake.

And then there's Afghanistan, a country that is economically and technologically backwards in any number of ways. But it also possesses domestic technologies and practices that are cheaper, safer, more effective, and - yes - more appropriate to Afghan society than what the Americans and their allies (including Canadians) are trying to force upon the country. And as McCardle points out, there is far more at stake here than you might think:

If donor nations dismiss Afghans’ centuries of experience in sustainability and continue to support the exploitation of fossil fuels over renewable energy, future generations of rural Afghans will be forced to watch in frustrated silence as the construction of pipelines, oil rigs and enormous power grids further degrades their fragile and beautiful land while doing little to improve their lives.

And long after American forces have departed, it will be these rural farmers, not Afghanistan’s small urban population, who will decide whether to support or reject future insurgencies.


Math for locavores

As I was saying:

The statistics brandished by local-food advocates to support such doctrinaire assertions are always selective, usually misleading and often bogus. This is particularly the case with respect to the energy costs of transporting food. One popular and oft-repeated statistic is that it takes 36 (sometimes it’s 97) calories of fossil fuel energy to bring one calorie of iceberg lettuce from California to the East Coast. That’s an apples and oranges (or maybe apples and rocks) comparison to begin with, because you can’t eat petroleum or burn iceberg lettuce.

It is also an almost complete misrepresentation of reality, as those numbers reflect the entire energy cost of producing lettuce from seed to dinner table, not just transportation. Studies have shown that whether it’s grown in California or Maine, or whether it’s organic or conventional, about 5,000 calories of energy go into one pound of lettuce. Given how efficient trains and tractor-trailers are, shipping a head of lettuce across the country actually adds next to nothing to the total energy bill.