The moral cost of cheaper chicken

Francis Schaeffer, in Pollution and the Death of Man, wrote that “we should treat each thing with integrity because it is the way God has made it” (chapter 4, p. 54). He went on to write about trees:

“The tree in the field is to be treated with respect. It is not to be romanticized… When you drive the axe into the tree when you need firewood, you are not cutting down a person; you are cutting down a tree. But while we should not romanticize the tree, we must realize God made it and it deserves respect because He made it as a tree.”

So how do we treat a chicken with respect? Or a pig? Eat them, but also treat them in a way consistent with how God has made them.

Leslie Leyland Fields writes about The Grim Realities of Factory Farms in Christianity Today:

Factory farms, also known as CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations), contain half of the nation’s meat, egg, and dairy animal populations, operating on a scale inconceivable to previous generations of farmers. Sanderson Farms, the fourth largest chicken producer in the United States, annually processes 397 million chickens. Circle Four Farms in Utah annually raises more than 1 million hogs for slaughter. CAFOs are characterized by the following conditions:

Confinement: Animals are strictly confined to prevent any unwanted, energy-wasting movement. Chickens are kept in “battery cages” so small (50 square inches) that they cannot turn around or open their wings. Calves raised for veal are kept in “veal crates” that prevent turning around during their 16- to 18-week lives. During pregnancy, hogs are kept in “gestation crates” typically 2 feet wide. Just before birth, they are moved to “farrowing crates” that are equally small.

She continues with a description of drugs, unfit feed, and disease in these massive meat factories.

The motive behind having chickens spend their entire lives in a cage no larger than your dinner plate is simple: cheaper chicken. However, “cheaper chicken” is not a very strong moral argument.

Treating each part of creation with the respect it deserves, on the other hand, ought to be compelling to us as believers.

My personal moral decision on this has been to purchase cage free eggs and chickens when I can. I haven’t done anything about pork yet.

Grace and Peace

10 thoughts on “The moral cost of cheaper chicken

  1. Ericfromcowtown

    What many people who criticize intensive farming fail to comprehend is that without intensive farming a much larger percentage of our countries would have to be allocated to farming. In other words, without that Tyson chicken factory many thousands of acres of land that may otherwise be left for flora and fauna would have to be converted to agriculture. Things rarely are as black and white as we’d like them to be.


  2. geochristian


    Thanks for your input. I was actually hoping someone would come back with something like this. I am quite aware that issues such as this are incredibly complex, with all sorts of consequences, many of them unforeseen.

    However, there has to be a better solution than chickens packed in like sardines. Any suggestions?


  3. WebMonk

    I don’t happen to think that larger plots of land used for farming is all that great of a disaster. I’ve heard estimates that go anywhere from a couple hundred thousand extra acres all the way up to a couple hundred thousand extra square miles. (the second sorts of estimates tend to be a bit suspect, IMO, and include just about all the types of meat) A few hundred thousand acres is way too small IMO, too.

    If I may posit a middle sort of estimate of 10,000 sq mi (6.4 million acres). That’s a lot of land, but scattered around the country, I haven’t seen any reason why it would be ecological disaster.

    IMO, the bigger challenge to getting rid of “CAFO”s is the increased cost of meats if everything went to free range-style growing methods. This starts getting into an even larger mess of complications involving food prices, subsidies, health consequences, and a million other things.

    My very unprovable opinion is that it could be made to work, but it would require a total overhaul of massive swaths of society, standard practices, general expectations, and government behavior.

    In other words – not a snowball’s chance in hell.

    Though, that doesn’t stop me from doing my own small part to encourage and patron free range and local farms as much as possible. All of society won’t be reshaped, but perhaps a few more farms can continue to use more responsible and respectful methods. (though I can’t say my conscience bothers me when we do get chicken or steaks from the supermarket)


  4. Carol K

    I don’t know where the balance should be between cheaper food which benefits the poor and more humane conditions for the animals. But, here is an interesting statistic of how cheap food has become:

    Stewing chicken in 1919 sold for $0.45/lb. In today’s dollars, that would be $5.68/lb. Today I can buy a whole chicken for around $1/lb.

    Butter was $1/lb. That would be $12.63 in today’s dollars. I buy butter for $3-$4/lb.

    Sources: My grandmother’s high school Home Ec notebook &

    As an interesting aside, in light of the recent “country of origin” labeling push, the list of foods in my grandmother’s notebook (from a field trip to the Reading Terminal Market in Phila.) includes price and where the food came from. Much was local, but there was food from such places as Greece, Turkey, the Bahamas, and Ireland even back then. (Home Ec was no wimpy easy-A, learn to make meatloaf type of class back then.)


  5. ahumanoid

    Carol K: “I don’t know where the balance should be between cheaper food which benefits the poor and more humane conditions for the animals.”

    Same question I have.


  6. Eric @ 1: Some of the most productive farmland (in terms of food/acre) in the US is Joe Salatin’s land in Virginia – which is as organic/localist/agrarian as they come.

    The argument you give is common, but has its origin in corporate propaganda.


  7. WebMonk

    #7 – the techniques used in small farms which gain productivity in food/acre measurements are not usable in the scale necessary to generate a million pounds of chicken instead of 1000 pounds.

    Do you know how many acres it takes them to produce their meats? I couldn’t find it on their site. I suspect that an industrial chicken farm produces WAY more meat/acre than they do. I could be wrong, but that’s my guess.

    If Joel Salatin’s farm produces 10,000 lbs of meat with a square mile of farmland, then a typical chicken factory producing a 10 million lbs of meat could use up 1,000 square miles of land and still have the same meat/acre ratio as Salatin’s farm.

    I don’t know where you heard that small farms can produce meat at a better lb/acre ratio than a large factory, but I’m afraid that doesn’t even come close to passing the sniff test. There is such a thing as small-farm propaganda too, I’m afraid.

    Price is another of those issues that make it seem that factory farms are probably here to stay short of revamping massive swathes of society.

    For example, their (Salatin’s farm) Boneless Skinless Chicken Breasts cost $13 per pound and are only available May through October. Chicken Tenders – $14/lb. Legs and Thighs – $4.50/lb. Hot dogs – $6/pkg. Pork Tenderloin – $15/lb. Ground Beef – $4.50/lb. Large Eggs – $3.65/dz.

    Most of those cost at least four or five times more than the cheap-stuff price at the supermarket, and are still about twice the price of the premium-stuff at the supermarket.

    Now, I have no doubt that the quality for those things is through the roof, and I dearly wish I could afford to buy them, but there’s no chance in hell that I could afford to feed my family off those prices, and I have a decent job. For a near-minimum wage person, there’s no way they could eat any meat at all. And getting meat for more than six months out of the year would be nice too.

    Obviously, that increased efficiency in meat/acre and lower price comes at the cost of denser pollution sources, lower quality meat, greater risks of certain types of diseases, and horrible animal conditions.


  8. Webmonk – yes their prices are prohibitive. But remember, the chicken farm down the road is not a stand-alone. It requres some massive corn farm in Iowa .. you see where this is going. Also, Both the factory chicken farm and the corn farm in Iowa are likely recipients of much of YOUR tax dollars. Joe is not. Furthermore, both require extensive transport networks, roads etc. Heavy trucks are the prime destroyers of ashphalt – and guess whose pocket pays for that too?

    I myself buy directly from small and large farmers – wheat, beef, pork, lamb, oats, rye, berries etc. I buy berries, fiddleheads and mushrooms directly from a foraging operation. I pay less all round.


  9. WebMonk

    Even with the corn farm in Iowa taken into account, there is still much less land used. Take a quick small-scale example.

    You can get roughly 2-4 acres per cow if they are range raised. Call it 3 for the middle.

    In a square mile, there are 640 acres, so a range farm can put around 210 head of cattle on there. What a factory farm would do is put those 210 cattle in a single acre lot and farm the rest. And acre can produce around 10,250 lbs of corn per acre plus 2-4 tons of silage (3 for average), call it 16,250 lbs of feed per acre.

    A cow eats around 90 lbs per day in a feed lot environment (they eat a mix, not just corn and silage, but we’re simplifying here to get rough orders of magnitude figures, and this simplification will heavily benefit the small farm side of the comparison) and so that is 365*90*210=6,898,500 lbs of feed needed for the feed lot.

    The 630 acres of corn can produce 10,257,500 lbs of feed (630*16,250). Basically, they could get by on 430 acres instead of 640 acres – that’s roughly a 30% savings in land.

    If we go with a more realistic mixed diet, including hay and haylage, the figures get even more lopsided because hay/haylage can be gotten at an even better ratio per acre than corn for what cattle eat.

    If we start factoring in things like roads and special diets, things get more complicated and start moving the figures more toward favoring the small farms, but the amounts are fairly small and don’t come even close to countering the 30% to 40% land savings with which the comparison starts.

    As far as the subsidizing with tax dollars, that is definitely a major issue, but it doesn’t come close to doubling or tripling the price of factory farm meats.

    Total agricultural subsidies are approximately $20 billion, including things like cotton, wheat and rice (almost $4 bn just for those 3). But let’s give it all to meat/corn (ignoring those for ethanol production) to make up for the approximately $5 bn per year in indirect subsidies (again, not all of which go toward supporting meat).

    The US produces over 95 billion lbs of meat per year. That’s less than $0.25 cents of subsidy per pound of meat.

    I realize there are all sorts of additional details which can be added in, such as road repairs ($64 bn per year), but the agricultural percentage of road damage is hard to estimate and is a very small percentage of the total – single digits. So, even if we add in a full 10% of that road repair costs just to meat-involved trucking, it’s only another 6 or 7 cents per pound of meat. Ditto for fuel subsidies used in the meat-involved trucks, and those would need to also be applied to the small farms too.

    The short of it is that while it is a frequent claim put out by small farm advocates that small farms are more land-efficient and are of a comparable price when subsidies are taken into account, it’s just not a truthful claim.

    In their defense, most people have never done any research on the topic and just pass along what they hear. I had to do a full year of debate on the topic of Agricultural Subsidies, and learned WAY more than I ever really needed to know.

    Basically, there are a lot of ways to improve things, but moving away from factory farms in the large scale is not an even remotely feasible possibility without changing almost every aspect of society, and land use would go up significantly (though not to a damaging level, and would be arguably better for the environment) and prices would definitely go up for almost all agricultural products, especially meat.


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