CONSUMER POWER REFORMS CHICKEN FACTORIES -- BUT NOT ENOUGH
According to the rules of the World Trade Organization, governments
the import of a product on the basis of how it is produced. So what if a
rainforest has been cut down or a stream polluted or an animal tortured or
workers paid pitiful wages? That's the concern of the producing
the consuming one. Consumers should care only that they get what they
cheaply as possible.
Of course consumers everywhere recognize the ridiculousness of this
We are not robots who just want to plunk down money, get stuff and take no
responsibility for the consequences. Whatever the WTO or any government says,
we can exert amazing power by refusing to buy things that are made in
violate our values.
Nike, Starbucks, and Home Depot have learned that lesson. Nike found
hard way that we don't want athletic shoes made by people who labor under
intolerable conditions for pennies per hour. Starbucks has agreed to
with organic, shade-grown coffee. (The shade-grown part is to provide winter
homes for migrating songbirds.) We have convinced Home Depot not to sell
anything made by cutting down old-growth forests.
European supermarkets, pushed by consumer demand, are not only refusing to
shelve foods made from genetically modified crops, but are going organic
storewide. Frito-Lay has asked suppliers of potatoes and corn for its
McDonald's has been hit by consumer protests so often that the company is
downright jumpy trying to foresee our next principled protest. First we refuse
to buy hamburgers packaged in styrofoam that contains ozone-destroying
chemicals. Next it was South American beef whose pastures were carved from
rainforest. Now McDonald's has joined Frito-Lay in asking its suppliers to
phase out genetically engineered spuds. They will still be fried in oil from
gene-spliced soybeans; apparently McDonald's hasn't noticed that yet, or hopes
that we haven't.
Recently McDonald's responded to consumer power in another arena. This one
company buys 1.5 billion eggs a year. McDonald's has just asked its egg
suppliers to pay attention to the living conditions of their hens. The birds
must be kept in larger cages. (A skeptical farmer tells me the cages
increased from the size of a Kleenex box to the size of a brownie pan.) They
must no longer be "debeaked," a practice that keeps closely confined
pecking each other. And they must not have food or water withheld to increase
Animal rights activists have forced these changes. They're out to stop the
inhumane practices of factory farms, where calves, pigs, or chickens are treate
more like interchangeable machines than like living creatures.
More power to the animal rights folks. But if we're going to direct consumer
power toward factory farming, there's still a long way to go. We should aim
above all at eliminating the use of antibiotics in animal feed.
When you cram a hundred thousand hens together in Kleenex-box-sized or even
brownie-pan-sized cages, you create a perfect environment for the transmission
of diseases. The same goes for beef and hog feedlots (and people in
The solution to this problem has been to lace the feed with antibiotics.
23 million pounds of antibiotics are fed to animals in the United States every
year -- not used for sick animals, but fed to well ones.
Jamming animals together is bound to spread disease. Keeping them in the
constant presence of low-level antibiotics is bound to spread
antibiotic-resistant disease. Our animal factories are active sources of
drug-resistant Salmonella and E. coli and other microbes, some of which infect
people. In Europe and America, where animal factories are widespread, people
are showing up in hospitals with infections that are resistant to four
different antibiotics. In the U.S. 14,000 deaths per year are
It is crazy to undermine the effectiveness of antibiotics, the greatest health
breakthrough of the twentieth century, just to make cheaper meat.
pleading for the control of antibiotics in the meat industry. Both the U.S.
Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization have
warnings, which in the U.S. have not been turned into government
Meat producers are major campaign contributors.
Raising animals in concentration camps is a bad idea for a dozen reasons,
ranging from cruelty to drug resistance to unmanageable manure piles.
don't end this practice, it will end itself, when antibiotics can no longer
stave off diseases. If we would like to keep antibiotics effective, consumer
action is the only way to go (short of campaign reform).
There are still farms that raise animals in natural, healthy conditions, with
space, light, and movement, and without feeding antibiotics. Turn your consume
power in their direction. Wherever you buy meat or eggs, be willing to ask:
Where does this come from? How was it raised? Ask loudly. Ask at McDonald's.
(Donella Meadows is an adjunct professor at Dartmouth College and
the Sustainability Institute in Hartland, Vermont.)