Just before Christmas, I asked our favourite butcher if he had any organically grown turkeys — meaning any that had never been given growth hormones, antibiotics, or grains grown with pesticides.
« Nope,’’ he said.
What about free range turkeys, I asked, thinking that they, at least, would not have been confined to cages?
No, he said, they all came from big corporate farms in Manitoba and the States.
None from local farmers, I asked?
« Sorry.’’ he said. « They can’t compete.’’
It was a depressing start to the holidays, because the choice he offered was the grotesque, or nothing. I chose the nothing.
The birds produced on corporate farms hardly qualify as turkeys. They’ve been bred to such a size that they’re too big to mate. The males are so heavy, they can’t mount the females. Every turkey you buy at a supermarket has been conceived through artificial insemination. I know of students, hired for the summer, whose job has been to milk semen from gobblers for later use in artificial insemination.
What’s more, 90 to 95 per cent of all domestic turkeys raised for sale now come from only three lines of breeding stock.
This situation is just as bad with chickens. Ninety per cent of egg-producing hens are White Leghorns. And broiler chickens are now being bred to be ready for market in 38 days, instead of the 90 days it used to take. And soon it will be 36 days. If for some reason they are not slaughtered and live to 60 or 80 days, they can’t walk. Their muscles can’t sustain the weight.
A similar narrowing of the gene pool has occurred with dairy cattle, where 95 per cent of our milk comes from Holstein cows. But 60 per cent of these cows come from only four breeding lines. And, thanks to artificial insemination, nearly half of all the Holsteins in Canada come from the semen of just 12 bulls. Two bulls are each responsible for 500,000 cows. One bull that recently died fathered one million.
This is not farming. This is hot-house, monoculture manufacturing. The animals are bred for fast growth and high production. These are high-cost operations, because of the need for enriched diets, drugs, and climate controlled buildings. One company, Tyson Foods, Inc. in Arkansas, produces more than 40 million chickens each week. High volume means low selling prices.
The danger in monoculture production is that when disease, or some other natural calamity strikes, an entire species can be wipe out because it lacks the genetic diversity necessary to give it resilience.
In the preoccupation to breed for fast growth and high production, what gets left by the wayside are disease resistance, longevity, hardiness, and a whole range of other genetic characteristics.
The same kind of narrowing of gene pools is happening with plants. In the hundred years leading up to 1904, there were 7,098 varieties of apples grown in North America; now there are 977. There used to be 2,683 type of pears; now there are just 329. India used to have 30,000 varieties of rice; now only 12 per cent remain.
« We’re doing some incredibly stupid things, and we keep on doing them,’’ says Tom Hutchinson, a biologist and professor of ecology at Trent University, who is also at the forefront of Rare Breeds of Canada, a charitable organization trying to maintain livestock diversity. Farm animals are becoming resistant to antibiotics, he says, defences against disease are being lost, and he fears devastating consequences.
He points to butchers in England who have organized under a program called the Rare Breeds Survival Trust to offer customers choices from a list of rare cattle.
Hutchinson would like to see that being done here. « We want to keep the old commercial breeds going. We’re not interested in animal museums, or nitrogen banks of rare semen storage.’’
I’d like to see it being done here too. It would allow everyone to exercise choice. For all the corporate ballyhoo about free markets and free choice, food giants are narrowing choice drastically. And as Hutchinson warns, the consequences will probably be daunting.