If you’ve seen Food Inc., you probably remember Carole Morison, the chicken farmer who stood up to Perdue. Under Perdue’s restrictive contract, farmers are forced to pack chickens, sardine-like, into long, low warehouses without natural light and feed them diets that include antibiotics and arsenic (kills parasites, promotes growth). In the movie, she memorably explained her reason for speaking out:
“It’s not right what’s going on. And I’ve just decided I’m going to say what I’m going to say. I understand why others don’t want to talk. I’m just to the point that it doesn’t matter anymore. Something has to be said.”
Morison had been raising chickens for big corporations for 23 years as a “contract grower.” Contract growers provide land, chicken houses built to company specs, fuel, water, labor, and disposal of manure and dead chickens. The poultry company provides the chicks, feed, and additives. In this vertically integrated system, the company owns the chicks from start to finish (they also own the breeder flocks, the eggs, and the hatcheries). They hire “catchers” to collect the chickens. Then they slaughter, process, and package.
But Morison didn’t want to take away the screened-in buildings her chickens lived in and replace them with airless, lightless warehouses. She struggled to finance the “upgrades” Purdue was constantly requiring. She also wasn’t happy about the waste that was polluting her beloved Chesapeake Bay (the arsenic in the feed doesn’t just disappear), and she didn’t like the fact that she couldn’t bring her grandson to see the baby chicks. (Company regulations prohibit “unregistered” guests, so you can imagine how they felt when they found out the filmmakers of Food Inc. were spending time there.)
“I was being forced to be something that was not a farmer,” she said. After she failed to make the required upgrades and then spoke out about Purdue’s business practices, Purdue terminated her contract.
Morison’s story haunted me until I attended Animal Welfare Approved’s panel last week, Green Pastures, Bright Future: Taking the Meat We Eat Out of the Factory and Putting it Back on the Farm. There I discovered that Morison went on to found the Delmarva Poultry Justice Alliance, organizing a coalition of farmers, religious leaders, workers and others to advocate for better working conditions. She now works as an agricultural consultant specializing in local food systems. The 17-group alliance addresses health issues, unfair labor practices, and environmental pollution stemming from chicken production methods.
Morison spoke about the broad meaning of local and sustainability. “Consumers need to get more involved in their own communities,” she said. “You’re not only sustaining farms, but the communities as well.” She pointed to the economically unsustainable state of family farming: “Why would farmers raise chickens when they have to go out and get another job to raise chickens?”
When asked the common question about whether organic, sustainable farming can be scaled up to meet the needs of the growing global population, she replied “We need to learn to feed ourselves and our neighbors. The global economy doesn’t work for food production.”
That never occurred to me: Why are we trying to feed the world? We don’t even know how to feed ourselves. If feeding the world means spreading a diet linked to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer, and propagating a food production system that’s killing the planet, maybe we should think twice about it. “We’re putting farmers in other countries out of business,” Morison said. “How is that feeding the world?” (Another panelist, farmer and veterinarian Dr. Patricia Whisnant, president of the American Grassfed Association, added, “And we’re suing them in international court for not accepting our GMO’s!”)
Yet another panelist, Nicolette Hahn Niman, author of Righteous Porkchop, cited a Compassion in World Farming report that proves that, with a modest reduction in meat and dairy consumption in the western world, the planet can, in fact, sustain itself using grass-fed and pasture based system.
After the panel, I had the pleasure of sitting across from Morison at dinner. She was just the kind of company I’d expect her to be: brash, funny, and smart. She gave me lots of good advice about raising backyard hens. I’m so glad this woman has a voice.