We Are What We Eat

The sound of chickens squawking is far more menacing than I would have imagined. As we get closer to the warehouse, the cacophony vibrates into a growl.

By | Tue 1 Jul 2014

The sound of 13,000 chickens squawking is far more menacing than I would have imagined. As we get closer to the 90 metre-long warehouse, the cacophony vibrates into a growl.

Inside, the buzzing of flies adds to the unsettling soundscape. As we enter, I have to step over a dead bird lying on the ground, its neck mangled from the suffocation it suffered at the hands of its own wired cage. All around me, and into the long corridors of darkness lined with mesh boxes about the same width and height as a laptop, are stressed egg-laying hens. Some peck at their feed manically, others fight for droplets of water from a tiny dispenser, but none of them can seem to stop moving, their dull claws slapping one another as they scramble around their boxes.

These chickens are not like the ones my grandmother used to keep, who would putter around the yard searching for grains and worms, and close their eyes and purr like cats when stroked. These chickens are machines; their wide eyes bulging with fear, their dirty feet cutting into the rusty bars beneath them, their three or four companions per cage jabbing at one another with blunt beaks. They are mutated monsters, created by a population which has overburdened the food industry. But this problem, contrary to what many believe, is not exclusive to first world, highly developed countries. In fact, the “farm” I describe above sits 17 kilometres outside of Chiang Mai city, where Charoen Pokphand Foods (CP, to you and me) has their name stamped on most of the tambon’s agribusiness operations.

“CP came to the village offering us farmers fixed prices for our goods,” the owner of the egg-laying outfit tells us. “We have to use the food they sell us, and their methods, or else they reject our products.”

I look around in disgust at the “methods” that CP has approved, and the fly-infested feed made up of broken rice and fishmeal – hardly close to a chicken’s natural, protein-rich diet of grubs, greens and seeds. The farmer says, “I’ve been with CP for 20 years now – before that, our family were rice farmers. Now we grow corn instead, and I farm these chickens.”

This isn’t a surprising shift for modern Thai farmers. Massive conglomerate company CP is the country’s leader in intensive, industrialised, corporate farming – poles apart from the traditional family-owned farms that Thailand has prospered from in the past. Their main business lines are in livestock and aquaculture; the livestock comprises of broiler chickens (for meat), egg-laying hens, ducks and pork, while their part in Thailand’s aquaculture trade has made them the largest producer of shrimp in the world.

As well as huge profits, they also attract criticism, with international investigations alleging they are torturous slave-owners and destroyers of the land and ocean. And you can guess what all those factory-farmed animals are being fed: corn and fish (made into fishmeal), both of which could make a much larger impact if fed to hungry humans instead.

Together with Bangkok-based agribusiness Betagro, these companies are snatching up contracts from all over the country, and effectively stripping Thailand of its time-honoured farming culture by creating high-profit industrial agribusiness in its place. “The company has formed collaborative arrangements with farmers to provide contract farming for broilers and layers…” reads a part of Betagro’s mission statement, which basically means these conglomerates are on a mission to dominate traditional “slow farming” until every rice field, pig pen and chicken coop belongs to them.

“My brother also sells to CP,” says the chicken owner. “He’s got 5,000 chickens, and sells them as meat when they reach 45 days old. My egg-laying chickens are expired after about a year, and then they get picked up by a CP van. They turn those old chickens into meat, too.”

A year is a far cry from a hen’s natural lifespan of eight to 12 years, with roosters living anywhere from 15 to 20 years. In the world of factory farming, roosters are virtually non-existent – tiny, chirping male chicks are thrown into high-speed grinders on the same day they are born, which is a process known as maceration. In the agro-industry, these animals are worthless because they don’t lay eggs and are not favoured by our palates. And so the story goes: as our world grows, and our demands rise, we sacrifice the lives of animals, and not just with death, but with cruel confinement and exhausting practices, which render these living beings deflated and hopeless shadows of what nature intended them to be.

A Better Way

But where do consumers fit into this story? Where is our power to choose what we consume, and what we feed our families? To decide what we support, and what we find reprehensible? How can we feel positive about food when the endearing image of individual farmers caring for the animals and vegetables they grow is now just a distant recollection of a simpler time?

“I believe we can make a positive change,” says Phairoj Phatsorpinyosakul, Chief Executive Officer of Rimping Supermarket in Chiang Mai. “It is your choice, even though it might not seem like it. There are ways to eat better, and to know exactly what you are eating.” He goes on to explain a five colour-coded sticker scheme he’s integrated into his stores, where a grade is given to each vegetable product so customers have more information about where it came from and how it was farmed. These sorts of systems, similar to those present in many international supermarkets, are a step towards progressive consumerism: people have more power over what they are eating, and whether it is safe, healthy or ethical.

“There are so many labels on things these days like ‘organic’ or ‘pesticide-free,'” Phairoj continues. “Some products claim to be something, but there aren’t enough regulations on the terminology companies can stamp on their products. It’s actually consumers who are the ones with power – if there is no market for these bad products, then companies will have to improve their practices and offer us something better.”

Phairoj stresses the impact of market-driven change in the food industry. “As Thailand grows, so do our demands. Big agribusinesses like CP and Betagro can answer those demands – I just hope that the future will see more regulations, and that consumers speak up for the sake of their food.”

Surely the answer can’t be so simple? But Phairoj believes it is. “It has to be market-driven. People have to be aware, and educated, and choose what they support,” he says. “It will be interesting to see how the future will be, because I wonder how the world will cope with the growing population. We will occupy more land, and claim more sea, even though the more we grow, the more nature shrinks. Nature can’t cope with us any more – we consume too much. We can’t rely on it for much longer.”

And So, We Farm

A growing number of people believe that the answer to the overburdening of our earth is to get back to nature…literally. “Slow farming” is a snowballing movement encouraging young people to become farmers and restore dignity to the time-old profession. After all, it was farmers who built almost every developed nation in the world, and yet today, it is farmers who are poverty-stricken and struggling under the threat of industrial takeovers.

In the west, ethical, homegrown food is trending even in urban communities, where apartment-friendly hydroponic shelf-gardens, farmers’ flea markets and vertical vegetable farming are just some of the innovative steps that people are taking towards feeding themselves healthily, affordably and ethically. One such attainable goal declared on thousands of Pinterest boards and internet forums is the growing desire to own backyard chicken coops, where hens run around freely and make good friends with the pets and children. Those chickens will happily lay an egg a day each, just like factory farmed chickens, but the difference is obvious in the eggs themselves: natural, stress-free eggs have delicious, bright orange yolks, and are packed full of nutrients we humans crave. Yellow-yolk, cookie-cutter eggs from industrial farms pale (literally) in comparison.

Here in Chiang Mai, there are quite a few people that have come together to form their own shops and organisations that offer organic, sustainable products or teach others how to do the same. One such outfit is Pun Pun, which runs two delightful little eateries in Chiang Mai serving vegetarian Thai and Burmese fusion dishes, sourced entirely from their organic farm. “It’s a myth that you need chemicals to feed the world,” says Peggy Reents, the wife of Pun Pun’s Thai owner, Joe, who was a self-proclaimed “poor farmer” before shifting to organic farming. “You can feed the world naturally, but you just need more people to be involved and care about what they eat. Chiang Mai is the perfect place for this movement – a growing city full of creativity and thinkers.”

Peggy explains what Pun Pun does to alleviate some of the harm caused by industrial farming: “We promote sustainable farming, seed-saving, harnessing hard-to-find vegetables. We work with farmers, and teach them how to farm organic. It’s a long term transition, but it pays off well for everyone involved.”

At the moment, there are only a few organic farms in Chiang Mai, which means there is limited access to organic products, when they should be available and affordable for everyone. “These farmers need understanding and support from consumers,” Peggy says. “We must realise that perfect-looking vegetables in all seasons are unnatural, and we must be okay with that.” The alternative? Seasonal varieties of scrumptious, nutritious vegetables, the way nature always intended them to be. And of course, they taste better, and they are better for us, so that really doesn’t seem like such a bad deal.

“Imagine a world where you go to a restaurant to enjoy good food, and you can be told exactly where that food came from and how,” says Phairoj. “Wouldn’t that be a better world? Wouldn’t it be great if we all had that power of knowledge?”

To get involved or find out more about organic farming, visit www.punpunthailand.org or call 081 470 1461.

To learn more about Rimping’s Green Grocer practices, including their five-colour-coded system, visit their website www.rimping.com or any one of their stores.