By Sandra Frangiadakis, KFPC Food Action Lead
We’ve all seen the images -- chickens packed together in closed poultry houses, pigs lying in cages so small they can’t turn over, and massive feedlots crowded with cattle wallowing in their own waste. Industrial agriculture is not pretty. Animals are valued only as commodities with little or no regard given to their well-being other than to ensure they fatten up and make it to market.
Many small-scale farmers want to raise animals in a more ethical way and care about each and every member of their flocks or herds. They want to ensure their animals have ready access to the outdoors, the freedom to behave according to their instincts, and only have one “bad day”.
The small-scale farmers I talk to are also concerned about the land they occupy and the environment in general, and try to run their farm operations in a way that is actually regenerative. When managed carefully to prevent overgrazing, animals can have a positive effect on the land -- cultivating the soil and enriching it with their manure. Small-scale mixed farming provides many opportunities to create cycles that improve biodiversity and decrease pest and disease issues, such as running chickens in a pasture after cows have grazed there. The chickens dig through the cowpats spreading manure and eating bugs and larva along the way. They provide a service while helping themselves to a high-protein diet.
Many consumers today are also concerned about animal welfare and the environment, and would like to support local, small-scale farmers, but government regulations make it very difficult and expensive for those producers to get their products to market. We all want to have safeguards to ensure our meat is safe, but the current system was designed for industrial-scale producers, and creates multiple hurdles for small-scale producers who are trying to make a living by producing good quality meat while improving the land and raising livestock humanely. Access to abattoirs is just one of those hurdles. Some abattoirs are so booked up that farmers have to schedule their animals to be brought in a year in advance -- if they can even get in. Some abattoirs only deal with huge numbers of animals and won’t process smaller orders. Different processors deal with different animals, with some only handling large animals and some only handling poultry. Farmers are often compelled to transport their animals long distances, putting the animals under stress, adding to the cost of production, and increasing the carbon footprint of the operation.
Mobile abattoirs could provide a creative solution to this issue, and they do exist, but because of a lack of available inspection services, they are only licenced to process animals for farmers’ personal consumption. In order to process animals for retail or direct-to-consumer sales, each animal must be checked by a government inspector and there must be a separate, inspected, on-site water supply. Numerous other regulations make it difficult to establish mobile abattoirs as an option for farmers wanting to market their products.
Some small-scale producers have found a measure of success by being very creative in finding niche markets for their products, such as upscale restaurants, or high-end butcher shops, but that market is limited and doesn’t help the average person looking to buy some ethically produced meat from a local farmer. Industrial producers know there is a demand for those specialty meat products and try to entice the consumer by putting pictures of red barns or green fields on their packaging, or using words like “farm-raised” or “all-natural” to describe their products, creating the illusion that those animals were somehow raised differently. In reality, there is little difference between those meat products and any other factory-farmed animal products.
What can the conscientious consumer do to support small-scale meat producers? To start with, it’s important to educate yourself and not be seduced by misleading packaging and labeling. If you can, buy meat directly from the producer, including at Farmers’ Markets, or sign up for a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program that includes meat products. Contact your MLA and let them know you want the option of purchasing meat from a local farmer.
For more information about the Kamloops Food Policy Council, please visit our website: kamloopsfoodpolicycouncil.com