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Local Economy

Wanted: A Perfectly Local Chicken

For a truly sustainable breakfast, which comes first? The tofu or the egg?

Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon 13 Jul

J.B. MacKinnon is an independent magazine journalist and writer. He is the author of Dead Man in Paradise (Douglas & McIntyre, 2005), which won Canada’s highest award for literary nonfiction. He is also coauthor of The 100-Mile Diet (Random House, 2007, with Alisa Smith), a bestseller that is widely credited as a catalyst of the local foods movment, and I Live Here (Pantheon, 2008, written with Mia Kirshner, Paul Shoebridge and Michael Simons), a unique “paper documentary” about displaced people.

J.B.'s Connection to BC: Born is Sheffield, England, but raised in Kamloops, B.C., J.B. loves this province. (He has been down nearly every highway and a lot of the dirt roads, too.)

Reporting Beat: Environment, food.

Website: J.B. MacKinnon

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[In the interest of preserving the environment, the authors are on a '100-Mile Diet'. They have vowed to eat nothing originating more than 100 miles from their home in Vancouver. This is the second in series.]

Does vegetarianism make ecological sense? For more than 15 years, the answer, for us, has been yes. We accepted the now-familiar sustainability formula: on any given tract of agricultural land, it is almost always possible to produce more vegetable foods than animals to eat. Add in the question of cruelty (which seems to increase with every "efficiency" added to animal husbandry), and for us the issue was no contest.

These days, however, we’re asking a new question. Does vegetarianism fit into a local, sustainable diet?

Now things are getting complicated.

Alisa and I were near-vegans when we began our 100-Mile Diet three months ago. Suddenly, everything we could eat or drink at home had to come from local land and waters, and immediately an unexpected ethical question loomed. What the hell are we going to eat for breakfast?

The neighbourhood chickens

Consider: we knew of no locally grown and milled cereals or flours. It was too early in the year for fresh fruit. We couldn’t eat rice pudding, or scrambled tofu, or that nice Egyptian fava bean breakfast called ful medames. What we had were potatoes and . . . more potatoes.

Well-meaning friends offered the following advice: "Buy eggs, you idiots!" Sorry, well-meaning friends, but it’s not that easy. Yes, there are local, organic, free-range chickens busy producing local eggs. But what are the chickens eating? The answer, typically, is feed that has travelled the same kinds of distances as most grocery-store products—an average, according to World Watch, of a whopping, globe-warming 2,500 to 4,000 kilometres.

Then we discovered the UBC Farm.

Tucked among the conifers that spread south from the central university campus, UBC Farm is home to an organic market garden as well as 83 Hy-Line Brown chickens. Beyond raising our own, this is about the closest connection to local food that we could ask for. Alisa and I can ride bikes to the Saturday public market (9 a.m. to 1 p.m.), where we are free to walk the grounds and visit the chickens (though they never seem to remember us). We can see for ourselves the birds' living conditions—500 square metres of free range in which the handsome, rust-coloured hens forage for bugs, eat at feeders, or peck at organic waste from the farm. We even know, roughly, the birds' birthdays: the whole brood was born in December 2004 and will be kept three years before slaughter.

Much of what the chickens eat, then, is as local as can be. Their cereal feed is not. According to Mark Bomford, program coordinator for the farm, the organic feed comes from Alberta. It is, however, brought to Vancouver via a transshipment arrangement, by which trucks that deliver steel to Alberta return with loads of chicken feed.

More importantly, UBC Farm is working toward all-local feed for the chickens. The students and staff have experimented with growing grain on-site, and plan to revive old threshers and other farm machinery from a former agricultural teaching and research complex on campus. While Bomford admits it’s "mostly lunchroom talk" right now, the ultimate vision is to grow, harvest and blend a complete chicken feed on the farm. Meanwhile, Bomford adds, the chickens do more than simply lay eggs—they contribute to the sustainability of overall food production. Chicken manure is a potent fertilizer, and the Hy-Line Browns are also being tested for pest-control duty.

Global vegetarianism? No thanks

As for the eggs—we'll take a dozen, thanks. When it comes to eating locally, we've had to abandon strict vegetarianism.

The strange fact is that vegetarianism as commonly practiced is, like the rest of the industrial food system, propped up by the globalization of food and everything that it entails, including a total disconnection between food consumers and producers, and the cataclysmic ecological costs of shipping food around the world. At its worst, global vegetarianism is still cleaner and greener than global meat-eating, and is certainly more humane. On a local level, though, the questions are more complicated.

Why were the UBC Farm eggs so important to us? Because vegetable-based protein sources aren't exactly abundant in these parts. There are hazelnuts; unfortunately, Alisa is allergic to them. The most readily available protein sources are all animal-based: fish and shellfish, eggs, dairy, meat. It is increasingly clear that local, sustainable eating is not always going to be vegetarian. Imagine attempting a 100 Mile Diet in Whitehorse (a brother of mine is considering exactly that—and picturing a lot of meals of fish and game).

I can hear the carnivores cheering now. Well, don’t roll out the coupons for Memphis Blues Barbeque House just yet. UBC Farm may be committed to principles of local sustainability and humane stewardship, but they are far from the norm. When it comes to food choices, the line-up of questions facing animal products is long. Where did the product come from? Where did the feed for the animal come from? Was the feed genetically modified? Was it organic? Was the animal "improved" with a biomedical soup of hormones, stimulants, antibiotics? Were its living conditions acceptable? Can we live with the conditions of its slaughter?

So much complexity, and it’s still only breakfast time.

Delta wheat

The good news: asking these kinds of questions led Alisa and me in surprising directions. By making inquiries about chicken feed, we eventually found locally grown Red Fife wheat, a heritage variety almost forgotten by industrial farming. Once we’ve milled the grain generously given to us by a Delta farmer, we’ll have breakfast options beyond hash browns: like, say, pancakes smothered in seasonal berries from the U-pick operations on Westham Island near Ladner. A search for other heritage grain growers led us to Dan Jason of Salt Spring Seeds—who also stocks seed for regional soy, black, pinto and other dried beans and legumes, and who has made his own 100-percent-local tofu. In theory, a vegetarian or even vegan diet could be supplied by local farms.

"It’s time, it’s really time," said Jason. "Even on [Salt Spring] island here there's talk of growing beans and grains on a larger scale, owning a combine cooperatively or something like that."

If and when it gets to that point, I suspect the chickens and their eggs will still be with us. I recently spent half a year researching a book in the Dominican Republic (shameless plug: Dead Man in Paradise will be published by Douglas & McIntyre in October), where self-sufficiency remains a grand tradition. In the city of Santo Domingo, a modern urban capital of more than two million people, it's no surprise to wake up to the rooster's crow and see hens foraging on the boulevards. According to Bonita Magee, project manager with Farm Folk/City Folk, there is no current local campaign to roll back Vancouver's prohibition against raising chickens, bees and other useful animals in the city, but she knows there is a quiet upwelling of support for the idea. She knows, in fact, of chickens being kept illicitly among us.

It’s one kind of grow-op the neighbours don’t seem to mind.

Next time: The pleasures of local eating, recipes included.

Read the rest of the 100-Mile Diet Series.

Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon will be writing twice a month for The Tyee about their attempt to eat well on the 100-Mile Diet. For more information on finding locally produced food visit the web site of FarmFolk/CityFolk at  [Tyee]

Read more: Local Economy

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