Helping small-scale farmers in impoverished parts of southern Africa to increase their incomes should be a warm fuzzy good thing, which is probably why the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation signed on to support it.
The bad news is that the higher incomes will result from misery for birds and environmental destruction.
The farmers targeted for help don’t even deal in chickens. They grow soy, or are being encouraged to. The chicken connection is that the small farmers are being groomed to supply the growing factory farm industry with food for chickens destined for KFC buckets.
Sitting at the top of what the organizers call a “soy value chain” is KFC, which is spreading across Africa. Alex Park reports in Mother Jones that the company has more than 750 locations in sub-Saharan Africa, where its food is an expensive status symbol, and is pushing northward. Africa’s growing middle class loves KFC.
The chain restaurant provides consumers with chunks of dead chickens who were born into miserable, unnaturally short lives in factory farms. There is no shortage of that commodity in the U.S. In Africa, however, the supply of chicken chunks looks different. Small family chicken farms are more common than large operations. This does not sit well with KFC, which deals in bulk and uniformity.
In Ghana, KFC declared the local small chicken farms subpar, so franchise owners imported birds from other countries. Problems included a lack of detailed records, rodent traps and meat refrigeration. A farm does not have to be big to have these things, but the big outfits in other countries are where KFC has found them. Its orders from large farms help them grow even more. If they didn’t look like factory farms before, they are headed that way now.
Those factory farms with a large output of chicken meat need a large input of chicken food. This is where the soy enters the value chain.
To help small soy farmers earn more, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation gave $8 million in 2010 to the ominously named non-profit Technoserve, in partnership with the just plain ominous megacorporation Cargill, to guide the farmers into profitability.
The African Centre for Biosafety has a problem with that: genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The group argues that “the Gates project is aimed at enabling commodities giant, Cargill, to capture a hitherto untapped African soya market and eventually introduce GM soya onto the continent where reception to GMOs remains chilly.” ACB says that Cargill is the world’s top soy producer, and that its planting of genetically modified soy led to the leveling of “1.2 million hectares of the Amazon rainforest” in 2004-2005.
Philanthropy News Digest‘s description of Technoserve’s role doesn’t contradict ACB’s accusation. Technoserve planned to “help farmers purchase premium seeds” and “teach them new techniques for growing soy” — might that mean Cargill GM seeds and techniques?
In any case, Technoserve’s plans also included boosting the “local feed and livestock industries to ensure the farmers have a stable market for their crops.” If KFC is representative of the clientele for a boosted livestock industry, that industry will probably be made up of factory farms.
Now we get to why the Gates Foundation money is bad for chickens. More of them will be bred (to suffer), and they will be in factory farms rather than family farms. Some family farms are better than others, but factory farms are just about guaranteed to be awful. In case you’re not familiar, here is what life is like for birds raised for meat in those places.
Their very genes are against them, as they have been bred to produce as much meat as possible. Their breasts grow so large that their skeletons can’t support their bulk, leading to lameness. Heart attacks result from their sheer massiveness. Then come the humans, who cut off the males’ toes and beaks because overbreeding has made them so aggressive and so hungry that they would hurt each other and the females if they had the ability.
Chickens subsist in “densely packed houses permeated with accumulated droppings, feed ingredients, and excretory ammonia fumes which damage the birds’ immune systems and respiratory tracts and can cause them to go painfully blind as a result of ammonia burn,” according to United Poultry Concerns. UPC provides a harrowing description of the process used to slaughter these birds.
Things are different but just as bad for egg-laying hens, who are sold for meat (the unidentifiable kind, like nuggets or soup) when they are deemed past their prime egg productivity. I wrote about the conditions in “Take a Moment, or a Month, to Appreciate Chickens” on Care2 Causes.
There have to be more ethical ways to help poor Africans make their farms more profitable. It is disappointing that an organization with the money and clout of the Gates Foundation is taking this lazy, inhumane route rather than forging new, humane, sustainable approaches.
Photo credit: USDAgov