A damning insight into fast food, cheap meat and sustainability
“There is an alternative to the ‘more for less’ philosophy of fast food and low-cost meat.”
The other day, I read an article about fast-food chains competing with each other in the ‘value food’ sector and it got me thinking. Over the last seventy years, ever since the end of the Second World War, in fact, we have been pushing agriculture to become more and more efficient, lowering the cost of production and making food — and meat in particular — cheaper to produce than ever before.
For example, in the West, if you went back to the 1950s or 60s, then chicken would have been a luxury meat, only eaten on special occasions. Now it is the cheapest and most plentiful meat on the planet with some 66.5 billion chickens raised and slaughtered each year, according to FAO statistics. And that’s only the meat birds. There are another 22.8 billion laying hens on the planet too!
Hooray, we all say! Cheap meat and lots of it. What a wonderful world we live in. Well, maybe not…
Consider any major fast-food chain or supermarket supplier for that matter. They are huge and wield enormous power when it comes to their suppliers. They buy big and at the lowest price possible so that they can minimise their bottom line and maximise their profits. All fine there, you say. No problem with that. After all, that’s just sound economics in action? Yes, it is, but it’s not the whole story.
You see, the fast food chains know that you, the consumer, are cost conscious and, as a result of years of subtle conditioning on their part regarding ‘value for money’ and low cost ‘supersizing’ options, they know that you won’t pay a cent more than you have to. This means that if they want to increase their profit margins, not only do they have to come up with more and more ingenious menu offerings, they also have to squeeze their suppliers, the farmers.
Then there’s the supply issue. Last year, fast-food giant, KFC (nee Kentucky Fried Chicken – I heard they changed the name because of negative connotations around the word ‘fried’) ran out of chicken due to delivery problems, resulting in outrage among its UK customers. While this was actually a logistics problem, the fact is that fast food chains don’t like to run out of product, ever. So, while they manage their massive supply contracts to a ridiculously fine degree, there is still a question of wastage, which I don’t think anyone outside of the industry has ever been able to adequately quantify. Needless to say, it is likely to be significant. Start including wastage during the manufacturing process and raw product being rejected (that’s animals to you and me) because it doesn’t meet specification and you’re talking about something potentially pretty scary.
So, back to the producer. There they are, being offered the lowest prices for their product and being told to produce more and more every year, to keep up with consumer demand and to ensure that supplies don’t run out — can’t have another KFC debacle, can we? It’s no wonder then that they turn to intensive farming, cramming more animals into less space, using antibiotics to try and control the risk of disease and generally making both themselves and the animals unhappy, especially because they’re not being paid enough to cover the cost of the bank loans needed to install the equipment in the first place!
And then they get hit by the environmental lobby! It’s the farmers’ fault that the world is heating up and that we’re all going to hell in a handbasket. Of course it is! After all, they’re the ones producing too many animals. Simple, well that’s all that sorted out. Thanks, now I can rest easy.
No, it’s not farmers’ fault — although I know more than a few who need a kick up the backside when it comes to animal welfare and environmental concerns — it’s our fault! Consumers like you and me, who are so inflexible that we won’t stop consuming at our current rate and sure as hell won’t pay any more than we already do for our yummy fast food delicacies.
What’s the solution then? Go vegetarian? Go the whole hog (excuse the pun) and become a vegan? No, I don’t think so. Not for me, at least. But there is another way, which others have already suggested, that could help us out of the current mess we’re in. But it does require us to change our habits, something that’s harder to achieve in practice than in theory.
If we were prepared to pay just a little more for our food and reduce the amount of animal products that we consumed, again, just by a little, then we could start to reduce the pressure on producers and by implication, both the environment and animals being farmed, while still allowing everyone in the chain to make a living. It would require the fast food giants and supermarkets to commit to passing on the profits, which I have to say is highly unlikely, but if it happened then we might just be able to start turning things around.
But what about the poor, I hear you say? They need to eat, and so fast food outlets serve an important social function by giving them access to cheap food. I disagree. Those on a restricted income absolutely need access to low-cost food. Absolutely! But this does not have to come in the form of pre-prepared pizza’s, burgers, fried chicken and all the rest of it. I have lost track of the number of television programmes that show how someone on a budget can feed a family of four with change to spare, simply by trading convenience for some good old-fashioned home cooking with basic, wholesome ingredients.
Now before you challenge me with the notion that people today have neither the time nor the skills to prepare their own meals, I would counter by saying that this is why sustainable food policies must emphasise the importance of basic skills, i.e. cooking, if they are going to succeed over the long-term. And if that means bringing back ‘Home Economics’, which I hated at school, then so be it. At least it means that people will know how to boil an egg and knock up a half decent jacket potato!
So, what about it? Can you really save the world one chicken wing at a time by trading convenience for tradition and paying a bit more for your fast food? I don’t know for certain, but surely, it’s worth giving it a go, especially when the alternative is poorer farmers, animals and the environment, and even richer fast-food giants?