Jaime Bouvier, Co-Director of the Academic and Writing Support Program, Senior Instructor in Law at Case Western Reserve University School of Law.
I. The Food Movement and Urban Agriculture: The Popularity and Mainstreaming of Urban Animal Husbandry
Rasing livestock is increasingly becoming an urban phenomenon. Books helping people to grow more of their own food in the city, often called “urban homesteading,” have blossomed in the past few years. While many of these guides concern vegetable gardens, there are also books targeted to keeping goats on city-sized lots and keeping bees on rooftops and backyard balconies.1 There are numerous books about raising backyard chickens, including installments in the popular Dummies series — Raising Chickens for Dummies.2 And, many, many books are designed to help people grow more of their own food by creating an urban homestead. Backyard Homesteading3 and Your Farm in the City,4 for example, include guidance on keeping forms of livestock that many urban homesteaders agree can be especially well-suited to city life: chickens, goats, and bees.
The popularity of these books does not exist in a vacuum. They are a reflection of an expanding group of people who want to grow and raise more of their own food, but want to do so without leaving their homes in the city. The growing interest in producing one’s own food can be tied to what Michael Pollan has deemed the “food movement.”5 Michael Pollan, an instigator, catalyst, and documentarian of this movement, states that the food movement is about more than just eating:
What is attracting so many people to the movement today (and young people in particular) is a much less conventional kind of politics, one that is about something more than food. The food movement is also about community, identity, pleasure, and, most notably, about carving out a new social and economic space removed from the influence of big corporations on the one side and government on the other.6
Pollan notes that the movement has many facets, from national agricultural issues like advocating for organic food and against genetically modified food, to regional and local issues like increasing availability and access to local food through farmers’ markets and community gardens.7 Although the food movement has many facets, one of the basic tenets of the food movement is dissatisfaction with our current industrialized food system and a desire to increase the connection between eaters and growers of food.8 There is no closer connection than for the eater and the grower to be the same person.
While having a closer connection to their food is a central reason why people seek to raise livestock in the city, others concerns central to the food movement also contribute to the decision to raise livestock in the city. These include the sustainability of our current food system,9 the cruel and inhumane treatment that many animals being raised for food experience,10 the safety of eating those animals,11 and food security.12
Much of the dissatisfaction with the industrialized food system concerns the methods we are increasingly using to raise livestock for food. Popular books like Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma13 and Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation,14 as well as documentaries like Food, Inc.,15 have introduced to a popular audience the conditions under which many animals are raised for meat, milk, and eggs. Pollan, in the Omnivore’s Dilemma, chronicles how the overproduction of corn has led to a host of environmental and sustainability issues, including the inhumane treatment of livestock.16 The United States’ current agricultural policy has led to growing crops like corn and soy beans in a monoculture environment, heavily dependent on petroleum-based fertilizer, herbicides, and pesticides that are toxic to the local wildlife.17 Overproduction of corn has led to its use as feed for livestock, even though some livestock — including cows — are not meant to eat corn.18 Such an unnatural food source may fatten them up quicker, but also makes them more susceptible to illness and disease.19
The abundance of corn, moreover, has led to keeping livestock in Controlled Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), where many animals are kept in tight quarters for their entire, short lives.20 For instance, hens may be kept in battery cages with up to six chickens in a 12 by 18 inch cage with no access to sunlight or fresh air.21 Because so many animals are kept in close quarters, many of them are fed antibiotics as a preventative measure to keep them from getting sick.22 People can then become exposed to these antibiotics, and the antibiotic resistant bacteria, from eating chickens raised this way.23
In his book, Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser has documented abuses in how animals are slaughtered, showing that animals are slaughtered even when they are sick or unsuitable for consumption.24 He has also shown that many jobs in the meatpacking industry have gone from being respectable, middle-class jobs to dangerous, minimum-wage jobs.25 And Pollan has documented that the industrialization of our food system is unsustainable because it is so dependent on fossil fuels to grow, harvest, and transport food.26
Other concerns with the current food system stem from food security issues. Because our current food system is based on importing foods from faraway places,27 there is a concern that if an extreme weather event or an act of terrorism disrupted the transportation system many cities would quickly run out of food.28 Grocery stores operate on thin profit margins29 and, through intelligent and exact calculations, do not seek to keep more food on hand than generally will be sold before it perishes.30 Because of the way our current food system is structured, there is no more than a three- to four- day food supply in many cities at any one time.31 In the case of a food supply disruption, there is concern that conditions could quickly lead to widespread famine.32 Having one’s own food source — even if it is only supplemental — can be viewed as a hedge against this possibility.
Another aspect of food security is retaining the diversity of our food sources. The conventional food system has turned livestock into a commodity — it often uses just one or only a few breeds of animal.33 These animals have been bred to fatten quickly, give the most milk, or lay the most eggs — often at the expense of the health of the animal.34 Other breeds are simply ignored. Thus, if a certain popular breed of animal (or vegetable or fruit for that matter) becomes susceptible to a certain disease, because of the similarity of the genetic background, the entire breed could be wiped out.35 Retaining a broad diversity of animal breeds can keep the food system more secure by making sure that other breeds still exist if one were to be decimated or even become extinct due to genetic susceptibility.36 It is the proverbial hedge against our current food system’s decision to put all of its eggs in one basket, so to speak.
An additional central aspect of the food movement is a spiritual one — simply seeking a closer connection to the food we eat. It is a rejection of a mechanical view of life, thinking of food as a mere fuel for an engine, and instead embracing the connections between our physical health and mental well-being and the health and well-being of the plants and animals we eat. The international Slow Food movement is a prime example of this way of thinking. The Slow Food movement began in Italy as a protest against opening a McDonald’s restaurant in Rome,37 but quickly grew to an international movement for slowing down and finding meaning in and appreciation for our food.38 It also asserts that in appreciating our food and caring about where it comes from, we preserve and strengthen our communities.39
Some political scholars view the food movement as no less than the means to strengthen civil society.40 In her book, A Taste for Civilization, Food, Politics, and Civil Society, Janet Flammang asserts that the values of the food movement, placing appreciation for the way our food is grown, prepared, and shared at the center of our lives, is necessary to reverse the decline in civility.41 She asserts that as our culture has increasingly viewed food as a convenience, devalued food work by industrializing it, and abandoned mealtime rituals of sitting together as a family, we have concomitantly lost the “foundation for a proper education of the values, of civility, the importance of the common good, and what it means to be a good citizen.”42 This is true in both the family unit and on a community level.
And much of the food movement is concerned with building community. This is not confined to community gardens — which are centrally about community.43 Many groups dedicated to urban livestock exist, both on the national and local level.44 These groups provide much needed support for people who are new to raising livestock. Also, small livestock, like chickens, goats, and bees, require community to be successful. The community helps it members to procure animals, to breed the animals, to solve problems or illnesses, and to help with ways to take on animals that are not wanted — like extra chicks, goat kids, or a departing swarm of bees. Once developed, a community can help to sustain a healthy and diverse population of animals that are well-suited to city life.
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