Efficiency, waste, and backyard chickens

I finally read the NRDC’s report on food waste in America, the one that concludes we waste 40 percent of our food, and I noted that most of the report is framed in terms of “efficiency” — we waste food because our food system isn’t efficient enough. Which leads to language like this: “A recent report by consulting firm McKinsey ranks reducing food waste as one of the top three opportunities to improve resource productivity.” Or this gem: “Increasing the efficiency of the U.S. food system is a triple bottom-line solution that requires a collective approach by decision-makers at every level in the supply chain.” Eh, maybe. I mean, sure. Whatever that means. I’m not sure who they’re speaking to, here.

There may well be big solutions worth pursuing. But big solutions tend to create waste; in fact the pursuit of efficiency itself can create new kinds of waste even while limiting other kinds. Let me give just one example of why: Chickens.

Gene Logsdon writes in the current issue of Farming Magainze that while it’s nearly impossible to make a financial profit from a small-scale chicken flock — “I daresay that for every egg enterprise that has started out with high hopes going clear back to the Great Depression, a hundred have failed” — the backyard or homestead-scale flock is another matter, because chickens live off the extras — table scraps, garden grains, and forage:

Chickens are great scavengers and cleaner-uppers. In the barnyard or the fields round about, they can find grain that escaped harvesters or dribbled off of trucks or wagons. They scratch in manure piles to feast on fly eggs. They are even good mousers, as good as cats. No farm animal can graze pastures and woodlots as economically as chickens.

The profit is the eggs, of course, as well as a few pots of soup when the hens are too old to lay. I would add, too, that their composted manure is free fertilizer for the garden, or at least offsets what they’re eating from it, and that by eating parasites from other livestock they can keep disease down. None of this has a price tag, neither the debits nor the credits; it’s simply part of a cycle — a cycle that has no waste. The chickens consume what would otherwise have been waste; their waste isn’t wasted but is returned to the soil; and they produce eggs and meat for you. Through your chickens you are in essence living off the interest of your land, not digging into the capital or borrowing it from elsewhere.

Once you expand your operations, though, everything changes. If you’re trying to make any significant money off the operation, you likely need more chickens than can live off the margins of your land, which means you have to buy feed (unless you also grow grain). And if you take your labor into account and want a decent hourly wage for it, well, good luck. On a small scale, trying to raise chickens responsibly — by which I mean giving them decent food and access to the outdoors, if not actually letting them free-range — it’s extremely difficult to make a profit on eggs. I’ve heard farmers speculate that six or even eight dollars a dozen might cover their real costs, but that consumers would never pay such a price.

An industrial operation can make money, but only by turning what started as a cycle into a completely one-way process. That’s the nature of industry: it extracts materials from the earth, processes them into goods, and sells them off. The industrial chicken “farmer” buys feed and other “inputs,” which are processed by the chickens into “outputs,” eggs, and the goal is to maximize the efficiency of that conversion, because there’s all kinds of opportunities for waste. Now the chickens are eating food that could otherwise have fed people, and now their waste becomes a disposal problem, while the soil that grew their feed has to import its fertility by digging up fossil fuels and minerals.

If I’m defining waste not in terms of dollars and cents or pounds of food but in terms of creature-lives, then the difference is even starker. In the traditional, cyclical homestead model, chickens reproduce themselves, and (funny thing about sexual reproduction) half are male. A rooster or two gets kept around to protect the flock, and the rest are dispatched for the frying pan once they hit sexual maturity and become grouchy. When the rooster gets old and the hens quit laying, they head to the soup pot, and a new generation takes their place. You know this, probably, but note two important things. First, nobody is breeding and selling chicks; nobody has to. And second, that’s all the chicken you eat — the unproductive extras from your laying flock. (Annual consumption of chicken in the U.S. prior to World War II was only about 10 pounds per person. That’s about four chickens a year.)

In the name of efficiency, industrial farming has created a very different system. People need to be fed, and chickens convert grain to meat more efficiently than other livestock. To make them even more efficient at converting grain to meat, we’ve bred them especially for that purpose, and those breeds are no longer useful layers. For eggs we use other breeds that are more efficient for that purpose. But the males of laying breeds don’t put on weight fast enough to be profitably sold for meat, not when the farmer is competing with industrial meat-breed operations, and if he keeps the males around, it adds to the cost of his eggs. That wouldn’t be efficient. So nearly all the males are killed right after they’re born, often by simply being tossed into a dumpster to suffocate under their own weight. Half the chickens are wasted from the start.

That’s what happens when you apply the standard of industrial efficiency to living things: you turn living things, living creatures, into machines; and you create waste — in fact, you create the very idea of waste. You waste not only resources but lives, which, as I will continue to insist, is worse.

So in one example, at least, the way to minimize waste (in fact to eliminate the very concept of waste!) is to work at the smallest possible scale, in a way that’s so thoroughly integrated into other work that it can’t be separately analyzed and quantified, in which the work is cyclical so that everything that might conceivably be wasted is put to use somewhere else in the system. This is not, I want to emphasize, what the ordinary backyard “flockster” does, but it’s what I think we ought to move towards. It’s precisely the opposite of the big-and-efficient approach the NRDC would have us take; it’s precisely the opposite of the approach we take to practically everything. I’m sure they’d tell me that it’s completely impractical to suggest that every second or third household keep a flock of chickens, but it’s been done before: that kind of economic activity was the norm throughout most of human history. And there are plenty more examples like this one. Maybe we should look for them, and focus not on reducing waste but on figuring out how to eliminate the very idea of it.