Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Future of Livestock

I've been revisiting livestock issues in preparation for an invitation to speak at next week's American Livestock Breed Conservancy conference in Kalamazoo.

I first became aware of the livestock breed conservancy back in 2005 when I was writing about avian flu, and watching TV footage of culled flocks in Hong Kong headed for the incinerator.
Keeping chickens is a sort of window to the wider world. The everyday chores of caring for poultry is something that humans have been doing in similar fashion for most of recorded time. It is also something that is done, with little variation, almost everywhere that people live.

It was hard to stop thinking about those first bird flu reports from Asia. I saw fleeting images of beautiful birds on the evening news as they told of killing all poultry in whole provinces. At first I wondered how many interesting breeds of chickens were going extinct.
Later, I became worried that we were destroying the generations of intellectual property, and the secret to the avian flu problem, in this wholesale culling effort:
Each breed is the result of generations of breeding. I suspect the smarter, thriftier birds are the result of breeding that spans human generations, not poultry generations. There are countless more varieties of chickens, a different variety living in each little corner of the world, bred for centuries to best suit the microclimate and needs of the people who live there.

This is the old-fashioned method of genetic engineering: selective breeding and cross breeding to secure the traits that are favored. In good times, you might breed for a fancy tail. In bad times you might breed for survival in famine or resistance to the latest disease.

Now, confident that the only answer is in gene splicing, we are depopulating the country sides of their locally-bred chickens, in a losing battle to contain the virus. The disease is devastating to flocks; the birds look fine one day and the next morning 80 to 90% are dead. One wonders if the clue to flu resistance in poultry lies in that small sliver of surviving birds, the ones that are being culled with the rest. Or maybe it lies with the flock next door that appeared untouched by the disease but was culled anyway.

The first images of avian flu showed us armloads of chickens, held upside down by their feet, on the way to incineration. As someone who has catalog shopped chicken breeds, I wanted to shout: "Wait! What kind of chicken is that? Show me again, right side up! What a cool bird!"

Just those few short years ago, it seemed that, except for a few of us hobby farmers and the tiny boutique foods market, the trend would continue towards out-of-sight, out-of mind, larger and larger factory farming operations. All cows looked alike because they all were alike; in 1997 it was estimated that 60% of our dairy cows came from the same four breeding lines. Every commercial specie of livestock had been bred to be the most efficient at turning cheap corn into edible protein. Traits like ability to forage, curiosity, even the common sense to get out of the rain took a backseat to feed conversion or disappeared altogether.

That was then. These days, avian flu takes a back seat to bigger problems. Cheap corn is no longer cheap -- beyond the lunacy of trying to run automobiles on corn-based ethanol, there is a new awareness that corn yields depend on large doses of nitrogen fertilizer and that nitrogen fertilizer is made from ever more pricey natural gas. Feedlots are implicated in the rise of new, deadly E.coli strains. Climate change, and the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and sequester CO2 is front and center, and we are looking at the role of pastures and grasslands in global carbon sequestration. In the US, our current food production is dependent on the rapidly depleting aquifers of the western states; we use our expensive fossil fuels to move food long distances to the food producing areas of the 1900's which are now covered with homes on one or two acre lots where the fertile soils and abundant rains now grow shrubs and lawns.

I'm intrigued by a comment that I read in a discussion of home food production. A person familiar with the history of her suburb noted that the original lot size was meant to provide a family with the land they would need to raise most of their own food in gardens, orchards, and with some small livestock. Last summer we saw many families return to gardening in response to higher food and fuel prices. If trends continue, we may see many more backyard poultry flocks, rabbits, or even milking goats.

If you see suburban poultry, goats, or even pigs these days, chances are it's a 4-H project. 4-H has fostered the relationship between kids and livestock for all of its 100 year history, even as the bulk of us have moved away from the traditional farms. Rabbit and poultry projects are ever popular for small yards, and there are new projects like Horseless Horse, Small Pets and Goldfish for kids with no yards at all.

The traditional large animal projects prosper around here. Northwest Michigan Fair's livestock auction signed up 125 new buyers this year, not surprising considering the renewed interest in eating local, and knowing what you are eating. Where else can a person choose meat for the table by perusing growth, feed, exercise and medical records of each animal and interviewing the person who raised it?

Kids learn responsibility, business skills, grace under pressure, time management, teamwork, and a host of other skills from working with livestock. 4-H folks have been extolling these character building themes for years as the rest of the world asks why we want to keep doing something as old-fashioned as raising livestock in our backyards.

Lately I've been rethinking the purpose of making sure that kids get experience raining livestock. When I think of the challenges facing us, I want to everyone -- our leaders, our families, our communities, our kids -- to have as all available tools. When policymakers are working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while ensuring our food supply, they need to know a lot about cows, not just that they produce methane. Community planners need to recognize that backyard food production is part of the health of a community and not just reflexively zone out livestock because they want to head off potential factory farms. If times get really tough, we could send our 4-H livestock kids, leaders and alumni out to the suburbs to teach people how to feed themselves from that good farmland under those lawns.

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