Mick Hume, editor of Spiked, happily skewered Hattie Ellis, author of Planet Chicken in his review, Stop Planet Chicken, I Want to Get Off. He says that if she is able to view the production of abundant cheap food as a bad thing, her values are off. Ellis is not a vegetarian but she thinks that it is only acceptable to kill and eat chickens if they have lived a full and healthy life. The problem with Hattie Ellis’s viewpoint is that she would let her sentimental ideas about the welfare of chickens and her ideas about natural foods interfere with things that have made it possible to provide affordable nutrition to people who don’t have the time to raise free range chickens or the time and money to buy them.
Hume says that Ellis acknowledged the question, but didn’t seem to get the point:
Ellis is an evangelist for the advance of farming methods that claim to produce ‘happy chickens’, ‘slow chickens’, and higher-welfare eggs. She reports of one of these more naturalistic farmers that ‘whenever they have to be confined, for example when part of a shedful has to be collected up for slaughter, Susie told me the chickens emerge like schoolchildren let out at break-time’. Which I’m afraid strikes me as a truly sick attitude to take to birds you are breeding for slaughter. Ellis also has to admit that there is some considerable confusion over what terms like ‘free-range’ eggs and ‘organic’ chicken really mean today…
Of course it is good to be able to eat better-quality eggs and meat, and to develop better techniques for producing them. But that is not about making chickens ‘happy’ so much as finding ways to make us happier to eat them. As Ellis has to concede, this comes down to money. Whether she and her ‘real meat’ mates like it or not, people want and need cheap meat. She quotes a professor of science policy who ‘immediately snapped any precious ivory fork in two’, declaring himself ‘bored and irritated’ by well-to-do friends who ‘sit around boasting about the lengths they go to have local, fresh, organic produce when actually it’s an exercise in conspicuous consumption – showing off their wealth and leisure’.
The comment about conspicuous consumption used the term in its precise sense, as an observation about social behaviour. The older advocates of organic food in our generation(s), the old hippies and middle-aged Greens might think that conspicuous consumption was a sin of the affluent, and that the comment did not apply to their own lifestyle, which they might describe as modest or simple. But even the old hippies would have to agree that the idea of using natural ingredients has been historically associated with luxury dining. It is only in the modern era that we expect to eat fresh food, regardless of season, due to modern transportation and the food industry. Organic foods have been incorporated into the food industry a somewhat expensive and luxurious option. Ever since the urbanization of western life, the majority of people have depended on a commercial system to bring their food to where they live and work. An obsessive interest in diet and health has been a hallmark of affluence, rather than poverty. The association of organic food with the simple life is trickier than we assume.
There are some other psycho-social issues involved. The taste for organic food relates to ideas of purity and natural living. There is a an almost ideological hope that organic food, being more natural will be free of “artificial” chemical compounds and safer. There is also a noble savage assumption – that the organic is more natural and therefore better. It seems to me that the natural diet of the first humans was probably whatever they found that didn’t poison them outright.
Today, organic food is an option for people who can afford to pick and choose, and that it can be compared to any other commodity. We can talk about commodities in terms of utility, quality, taste, health, or morals, but we are talking about things that people need, want, possess, monopolize and consume. In describing and discussing commodities, we see the interplay of obsession, ingenuity, greed, status and identity that defines social life.
The theory of conspicuous consumption has probably served commerce better than it has served consumers. It has educated manufacturers and advertisers to sell to a consumer’s sense of status and identity. Even trucks and power tools are sold by appealing to men’s sense of themselves as people who own and use tough and durable products. Advertising constantly flatters the consumer’s taste and builds up a sense of entitlement, to get the consumer to keep spending.
Charging all consumers of traditional, natural and organic produce with being status-conscious food snobs is unfair. There is nothing wrong with making careful choices in purchasing and preparing food. Food is not simply fuel – food is an individual and social good. Consuming it is rewarding, and so if catching, finding, preparing and presenting it. Talking about cooking involves discussions of taste and technique. There is nothing wrong with hoping people will recognize the taste of good food when you cook it for them, and recognize that your care in choosing and preparing the food have contributed to the experience. There is nothing wrong with enjoying any compliments that you might earn. But it isn’t just about health or animal welfare.
People who judge their own success and failure in terms of conforming to the rules of fashion. They may claim to be innovative, but they are trying to succeed in a game that has hidden its rules. People get their ideas of taste and their vision of the good life from their perceptions of social standards. There is status in conforming, but even more status to doing something new and unique. Often, there is no point to being special, independent and unfashionable except to make a statement about identity. It is rare to find someone who has mastered his own desires to the point that his choices have been freed from the influences of fashion and status.