Monday, 21 January 2008

The price of morality

I've been following Hugh's Chicken Run with interest the last few days and have the highest respect for what he's trying to achieve. My wife and me being vegetarian means intensively farmed chicken never finds it's way into our supermarket trolley, but we do eat eggs and can honestly say that only free-range and organic eggs enter our fridge. As we became better educated we realized that the vast majority of products contain eggs from battery hens; be they cakes, pasta, sauces and much more unless they are organic or, in the rare cases - M&S/Co-op free-range egg sandwiches (had some today: yummy) - marked as free range.

Hugh's Chicken Run is a genius piece of television; not only does is it an educational - a modern public information program - documentation of a moral campaign but it has included the "scream at the tv" moments which are all but compulsory for modern entertainment. By the time people were proceeding to buy two intensively farmed chickens I was out of my chair and gesticulating, especially as Hugh had already demonstrated how easily a large family (of six no less) could be fed twice on a single chicken. After being caught they protested that regardless of how cruel intensively farmed chicken was - and they agreed it was very cruel - it was all they could afford.

I do not doubt that a free-range chicken everyday is beyond the reach of many households, however there is a fallacy that we have some sort of right to eat this high frequency of chicken; eating chicken on this regularity is a recent occurrence, go back just a few decades and chicken was eaten, on average, once every four weeks, now we eat (again on average) 30 chickens per person per year (that's over half a chicken a week).

The option of "well you can go without all that chicken" (especially the obviously overweight family who 'struggled' to fill their huge stomachs on their tight budget) never occurred to them. I was soon shouting "A family of four can survive on one chicken a week - you don't *have* to have two". It may further baffle them to realize that not only are five fruit and vegetables a day far more important to one's diet than a chicken pumped full of enough chemicals to start a war, but they are far cheaper. I was up off my slim vegetarian arse shouting "hey, how about replacing the chicken with some potatoes, or broccoli, or carrots or any other foodstuff out there - your only going to douse it in Uncle Bens and it'll all taste like shit anyway". Just because it says "Chicken Tonight" on the jar doesn't mean that's your only option.

I wish to make clear this is not a bash at people in poverty - though nutritional arguments such as "we can't mark products with 'this will make you a fat bastard and will give you a heart attack before you're 25' because people in Glasgow can't afford anything else" have always confused me, especially as good quality fresh nutritional food is far cheaper than ready meals or a KFC bucket and a vegetarian diet is cheaper still - my issue is that poverty is not an excuse for cruelty, phrases such as "they don't know any different" (the Chicken's not the poor people who have to eat the shit) or "it's peoples' livelihoods" are pathetic excuses for shrugging off a moral issue.

The poverty excuse doesn't fly anyway: 95% of chicken sold is cheap intensively farmed chickens, if only poor people are buying it then there must be a fucking lot of them or they are far richer than we think. It is certain that 95% of Britian doesn't fall into the category of people who, if they spend a few quid more for a chicken, can't afford essentials (an extra pint down the pub per week doesn't count as essential). As the third richest country in the world a significant percentage cannot play the "I can't afford it" card and the rest - for whom buying ethical food means downgrading the Sky TV subscription, knocking £100 off at least one of their annual foreign holidays or trading in the gas guzzler for something a bit more economical - require a re-evaluation of their priorities.

We don't just do this with chickens we do it with everything: clothes, food, electronics, you name it. We demand cheaper and cheaper produce (we already pay the lowest price for food relative to income than any other European nation) and we don't give two shits about the process to get it into our homes; whether intensly farmed animals (because it's not just chickens kept in those horrendous conditions, it's pigs, cows, sheep the lot), sweatshop labour, deforestation or environmental damage. The first answer to any challenge to these issues is always a pathetic economic argument to defend our morally indefensible "shitting on foreign people keeps us rich" attitude. Similar excuses were used to defend great human atrocities such as slave labour (which is still how much of our goods are produced; for those moaning they can't afford free-range chickens ask the poor Burmese child who made your Nike tracksuit whether she can even afford her own toilet paper), the treatment of factory workers and women.

The developed world is creating a moral crises through the consumer demand of "I want it cheaper". John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath deals with the issues of a nation detached from the land. The result is the abuse and rape of the land and businesses demanding higher yields and cheaper prices to feed the never ender hunger of the ignorant consumer. Not only did the demand for cheap produce ruin the land, making farms unworkable and creating the great dust bowls, but it caused thousands of families to lose their homes creating economic refugees within a nation. The US then took advantage of it's own impoverished and displaced citizens to drive down wages for farm workers to virtually nothing, then takes advantage of their impoverished situation (yet again) and lack of mobility (as they can't afford the gas for cars) charged them extortionate prices for essentials keeping them locked in poverty. So great were the crimes and so controversial was Steinbeck's novel that it was banned in parts of America.

Valuing things by price alone is morally reprehensible but it is also suicidal: by driving down prices to increase our own fortunes (mainly by lowing ethical standards) it will be our own value that will eventually be questioned. This is already happening: as the relentless drive to cheaper and cheaper marches on, thousands of people are loosing their jobs to developing countries such as India, China etc. As price is all we value, and people from developed nations cost a fraction to do the same job as you, the karma is ironic and almost instant. So just think about your job for a second: you want a good wage, but what if your employer took the same attitude towards you as you take towards goods? This is apparent in the "labour" market: the middle classes in shock that plumbers should take home wages of £30k a year, that someone whom you hire should dare charge you £100 a day labour (if every *working day* was filled, less statutory holiday, that would earn £23,500 per annum without sick pay minus any operating costs, tools etc.) to plumb in your new bathroom when they wouldn't accept a contracting position for less than £450 a day.

We've got to stop valuing things on cost alone. There are other things other than price which make things good value. Which values do goods value? Don't ask why the other is more expensive but ponder on how did they make it cheaper: what did they sacrifice (and you can guarantee it wasn't they're profit margins)? We, as consumers, drive the market in the direction we demand, ignorance is not an excuse. Companies base success on sales, the more you buy the more they will do what they are doing; every time you buy a product you are endorsing the methods used to create it. We can't blame the companies either because it is us who run the companies, work for them, design, build, source, market and manage their products.

Knowing and understanding where our products come from and how they are made is a moral responsibility of every consumer, we cannot just play dumb and continue in our madness without suffering the consequences.

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