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Playing Chicken

Become a conscious consumer: find out where your food comes from

There has been a lot of coverage lately of SA raising import duty fees on chicken imported from Brazil. So what’s all the fuss about, what does it have to do with climate change, and what can you do about it?

I must admit that I write this as a vegetarian, so the I don’t have very recent first hand experience with my subject matter. That said, I care a lot about food and where it comes from. Working in the field of climate change, we often talk about “food miles”, the number of miles (or kilometers) your food has traveled to reach your plate. The idea being that the further away your food comes from, the worse it is for the climate (I’ve seen chickens fly – there is no way they could make it over the Atlantic, there must be fossil fuels involved) and probably for you (food that has travelled far is either not fresh or has been preserved in one way or another).

So what does all this have to do with chicken? Well, in SA, a lot of the chicken we buy actually comes from Brazil, in 2010, we imported 13 million kilograms of frozen chickens, and that’s not counting the boneless portions. That’s roughly 15% of all the chicken sold in SA. That must be a serious amount of fuel to move all those chickens from the “farm” in Brazil to your plate in SA. Of course if you really want to look at the carbon footprint of a Brazilian chicken, you’d need to take a lot more into account – the chicken isn’t organic, so it is being fed feed that was grown using fertilizers and other agro-chemicals (all made using petro-chemicals, read: oil). In Brazil there is also the issue of deforestation. Many soya farmers clear land of rainforest to plant soya, an ingredient in chicken feed.

Eating local chickens has a smaller carbon footprint and supports local farmers

One result of the import duties means that chicken will now be more expensive for SA consumers. So surely all this talk of climate change is just something the rich, who can afford local chickens, can worry about? Well, no. Not when you take into account what cheap Brazilian chicken potentially means. While there are all sorts of issues that this raises, like working conditions and mechanisation meaning less jobs, the simple fact is that the environmental cost of importing Brazilian chicken is not being taken into account. If the cost to the environment was recognised, even just the contribution to climate change, it would be unlikely that Brazilian chicken producers could compete with SA producers. Buying chicken at artificially cheap prices (prices that don’t include the environmental cost) is like playing chicken with our environment. Nice now, but disastrous in the long run.

So what can we as South Africans do about this? Here are a couple of things we at Project 90 would suggest:

Find out more about your food. If you do eat meat, find out where it comes from, a good guide is that the more local it is the better. Perhaps there is a local farmers market or local food delivery scheme in your area?

Grow your own food. This is often a lot cheaper than buying food in a shop, and you’ll learn a lot in the process. There are organisations, like Soil for Life  that run courses in growing vegetables, and there is a lot of information on the internet – even a site dedicated to raising chickens.

Many of the facts in this blog were taken from articles on the front page of the Business Report, 14.02.2012 and 15.02.2012.

Glen Tyler – Deputy Director, Project 90 by 2030

**Credits: Photos used under creative commons from NitroXAnyOne’s and burntfeather

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