September 18, 2011
A couple of years ago I was enjoying some bean tacos at the East Lansing Chipotle TM down on Grand River when I looked at my iced tea and saw a picture of my old friend Bernie Rollin staring back at me. Chipotle was running a series of paper cups with short bios of people that reinforced the humane and sustainable image that the company was trying to associate itself with. I recall cups with Bill Niman and Temple Grandin, as well as Bernie. Chipotle was celebrating Rollin, a philosophy professor at Colorado State University in Ft. Collins, for his role in advocating a return to norms of husbandry in livestock production. Bernie’s message has been that the ascendancy of large scale production systems and the ideal of science-based agriculture have caused animal producers to forget their traditional ethic of stewardship for the animals under their care.
Now I wouldn’t necessarily think that being small naturally inclines someone to have a strong ethic of stewardship for their animals. There are plenty of small-scale farmers who largely leave their animals to fend for themselves, and this is not generally conducive to good welfare. This kind of small-scale husbandry economizes the farmer’s time. Animals getting less than optimal care generally return less to the farmer than those whose feed, water and health are closely managed. But animals eating organic diets and getting little veterinary care can still meet criteria for organic certification, so they can still command a price premium. Livestock can be pastured on fallowed land on diversified farms. To the extent that they really do take care of themselves, such livestock provide an income stream requiring relatively little of the farmer’s time.
I don’t think Bernie would disagree with me here. He buttresses his scale message with the argument that society is simply expecting more from farmers with respect to animal welfare than we used to, and this “new social ethic” (as he puts it) applies to small as well as large. But Bernie and I do have a disagreement about the price of eggs.
I argue that an increase in the price of animal protein matters ethically, and I think that eggs and milk are especially significant in this regard. Bernie has pooh-poohed my argument in national forums. He just can’t see that paying more for eggs matters much from an ethical standpoint. According to Bernie, people who insist on paying a buck or so a dozen when the hens producing four dollar eggs have better welfare are just favoring a trivial personal interest in pinching pennies at the expense of better welfare for the birds.
Now Bernie and I are college professors, and though this won’t make you rich, it does put you in a position where you can easily pay $4 a dozen for your eggs. I envision Bernie hopping off his Harley at the local Ft. Collins Safeway surrounded by people who can pay more for their eggs. As for me, I live in the Westside neighborhood, where the average household income is around $35,000—and this is the upscale neighborhood in northwest Lansing. Since the L&Ls closed last year, we don’t have a full scale grocery operating for miles around. Again, not really a problem for me, since I can stop at Goodrich on my way home from work.
But I see neighbors on the street who are not pinching those daily dietary pennies so they can pour the savings into a vintage Harley they ride for fun on the weekends. Some of them are shopping at QD (our local version of the 7-11) to save gas money, and others do so to save bus fare. The difference between a 10¢ egg and one that’s almost half a buck matters to them. And when I look around the shelves of your average 7-11, I don’t see anything that represents a healthy alternative to eggs. Even our better-than-average QDs (which have made an effort to stock fresh fruits and vegetables) don’t have many options for protein. There’s the milk, of course, but after that you’re looking at processed sandwich meat, frozen dinners or beans and rice.
“Beans and rice!” my nutrition-junky foodie friends exclaim.
Well, yeah. I love beans and rice. I eat them at Chipotle and I cook them up with some seasonings and it takes a bit of time to do that. The working parent feeding three kids may be able to do that, too, but a three-egg omelet is quicker and the egg salad sandwich goes down nice, too. And unlike the tempeh and bulgur my nutrition-junky foodie friends would throw in for variety, eggs are something that all my low-income neighbors and I both know how to prepare.
I apologize if this theme seems repetitive to regular readers of the Thornapple blog. My disagreement with Bernie may also have been mooted by the agreement that the United Egg Producers reached with the Humane Society of the United States this summer. But getting your picture on an iced tea cup? That makes you a mini-icon in my book.
Paul B. Thompson teaches philosophy and sustainable agriculture at Michigan State University in East Lansing.