Posts tagged ‘Ethical food’

Urban Chickens–an opportunity

London, Ontario has the opportunity, in the next few days, to actually act like a world class city and take an active step in improving our sustainability and food security rather than playing catch-up years from now.  We have the opportunity to improve our resilience by changing the unfounded bylaws that ban laying hens in our city.

Cities all across the United States currently permit chickens to be raised within the city limits. Here’s a short, and by no means inclusive list:

“World-Class” cities that permit urban chickens:

  • Los Angeles
  • Seattle
  • Miami
  • Atlanta
  • Chicago
  • Las Vegas
  • New Orleans
  • San Fransisco
  • Salt Lake City
  • Washington
  • New York City (which, like Chicago, permits unlimited chickens, provided cleanliness is maintained)

The State of Georgia has even introduced a bill to pre-empt local ordinances and make urban chickens legal state-wide, “to protect the right to grow food crops and raise small animals on private property so long as such crops and animals are used for human consumption by the occupants, gardeners, or raisers and their households.”

Canada is slower to adopt urban homesteading, and this is where London has an opportunity to show our leadership. Niagara Falls, ON; Richmond, BC; Guelph, ON; Esquimault, BC; and Victoria, BC have passed bylaws permitting urban chickens, while many cities (including Toronto, Ottawa, and Halifax) are pushing for the same. Residents in Waterloo, ON who were raising chickens prior to their recent tied vote on the matter are permitted to keep their chickens.

Benefits of backyard chickens:

  • healthy, pesticide-free eggs
  • improve local food security
  • great way to teach children about food (a study in the UK found that nearly 2/3 of school children struggled to identify the origins of the everyday foods they eat–many thought that sheep lay eggs).
  • chickens reduce municipal waste by consuming kitchen scraps–from carrot peels to pizza crusts
  • chickens provide excellent nitrogen-rich compost for the garden, reducing dependence on fossil-fuel-based fertilizers
  • reduction of greenhouse gases through decreased food transport
  • chickens reduce back-yard pests–by eating them!
  • Chickens are people-friendly, social animals that make great pets
  • Small-scale backyard food-production contributes to vibrant urban communities by promoting sustainability

Now, urban chickens are an issue that makes many people react emotionally, to the exclusion of facts. Here’s some help with those:

Popular concerns about chickens

* Noise:

Roosters, not hens, are loud. Roosters are not necessary for egg production, and should be banned in cities, where they would be a nuisance. Hens, on the other hand, are quieter than most dogs.  Chickens cluck softly. Occasionally they will show off after laying an egg (a hen lays roughly 2-4 times a week), clucking slightly louder than their normal.   “Normal noises are not audible past 25′, the loudest noises, which last a couple seconds at about 50′” [source]. Try to imagine how far a sound of that quiet would carry from inside a coop in someone’s backyard. Now imagine how far away you can hear your neighbour’s dog barking, and how long it barks.  Do you still think noise is an issue?

* Smell:

It’s understandable that people don’t want to have the stink of shit ruining their enjoyment of life.  Shit stinks if it’s left lying around.  The smell that most people associate with chickens comes from large (unsustainable) operations, where many chickens shit continually but are rarely mucked out.

If every household in medium-sized city (20,000 households) owned six birds each, you’re still looking at a little over 160,000 pounds of phosphorous spread out across an entire city. Compare this to the industrial chicken industry practice of housing 150,000 birds in a single 500-ft long chicken house (that’s 200,000 pounds of phosphorous from one chicken house), and you see it’s an apples-to-oranges comparison regarding the concentration/disposal of the poop. [source]

No one’s asking to keep a factory farm in their backyard; the proposed bylaw would limit the total to 4-6 chickens. Here’s a little context: a single dog weighing 50 pounds produces more waste than 5 chickens [source] (but unlike dog waste, which is so dangerous that it has to be disposed of off-site, chicken waste can be safely composted and used to fuel gardens). Just like cleaning your cat’s litterbox or dog run keeps your house or yard from reeking, proper care of chicken coops prevents smells from being an issue. Chicken areas should be cleaned at least as often as a litter box is emptied. Our current animal control bylaws cover animal neglect, but do you really think that the civically engaged people pushing to change the bylaw and are ethically motivated to sustainably feed themselves are going to neglect their birds?

* Salmonella

The idea that we shouldn’t be allowed to produce our own food for fear that we might accidentally eat shit is almost to absurd to address.  So here’s how to clean eggs. Maybe people shouldn’t be allowed to grow their own organic carrots in case they don’t wash off the manure. Maybe we should ban people with babies from making food, in case they get baby poo in their food. As a quick aside, commercial beef is fed chicken shit. Just so you know. So don’t tell me we should leave food up to the “experts.”

* Bird Flu (etc)

Here’s a question: if a bird flu risk were a legitimate reason for preventing urban chickens, why is it legal to keep an unspecified number of backyard pigeons in London? I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have a neighbour with 4 laying hens than one with a flock of pigeons.

You know what spreads bird flu? A giant, unsanitary building crammed with hens standing in their own shit, rubbing up against their sick and wounded neighbours. That’s the reality of factory farms, not backyard chickens.

the sources and spread of new strains of avian influenza are more strongly related to large-scale chicken and human activity as opposed to the conventional school of thought that blames small-scale production, live markets and wild fowl [source]

Urban chicken owners are actually part of the solution.

To reduce the emergence of viruses like H5N1, humanity must shift toward raising poultry in smaller flocks, under less stressful, less crowded, and more hygienic conditions, with outdoor access, no use of human antivirals, and with an end to the practice of breeding for growth or unnatural egg production at the expense of immunity.[source]

Urban farmers invest a lot of time and money into raising their chickens, and will notice if one gets sick. Because it’s so small scale, they are also very motivated to make sure their hens are in peak health, or they lose their investment.

* Rats

Rats aren’t attracted to chickens. In fact they avoid chickens, which will attack any rat or mouse they see.  What rats are attracted to is food. Just as rats will be attracted to garbage that is properly contained, they are attracted to open feed containers.  No one wants to share their chicken feed with rodents and squirrels, so feed is stored in closed containers, perhaps even inside the house. The small portion of food that is left in chicken enclosures will attract no more rats than leaving out bird seed or a bowl of cat food for outdoor cats.

If you don’t believe me about chickens, believe the people who get paid a lot to know what they’re talking about.

Here’s an excerpt from the letter that Donald E. Hoenig, State Veterinarian for the Maine Department of Agriculture wrote

on June 18, 2007 in support of an urban chicken bylaw in his state:

I believe that the public health risk posed by allowing small numbers of backyard chickens in South Portland is minimal and can be controlled by good husbandy.  This means that their housing, feed and water, carcass disposal, and manure management are maintained using best (agricultural) management practices.
Avian influenza and other diseases may transmitted by contact with migratory waterfowl or shorebirds. This contact with backyard poultry can be minimized or eliminated by good management (adequate fencing, well-maintained feeders, closing birds in at night).

There are two areas of caution in keeping poultry in an urban environment to avoid issues which could result in nuisance complaints from neighbors. The most salient of these concerns is the possession of roosters which should be prohibited.  The second is manure management.  Flies and odor are a common cause of neighborhood complaints. Again, using best management practices to maintain the sanitation of the coop through frequent clean-outs as well as keeping it well-secured against predators by the use of adequate fencing is also essential.  I think the inclusion of a provision in the ordinance for the neighbors to rescind approval of the backyard poultry as well as the ability for the local health officer to remove the birds at any time would also head off potential problems.

Additional Reading (PDFs):

Residential Urban Chicken Keeping: An Examination of 25 Cities,” by K.T. LaBadie, University of New Mexico

Balking at Bocking: Urban Chicken Policy in Canada,” prepared by Jacqueline Jolliffe for JustFood Ottawa


April 29, 2010 at 10:12 pm 8 comments

Clear Gold

Michigan is proposing build a pipeline to drain 322 million litres of water from Lake Huron. Ontario hasn’t agreed to it yet, because the proposal doesn’t contain assurance that the water “will stay in the Great Lakes basin and be used efficiently.” Since moving water from the Great Lakes sounds a lot like the plan for solving Lake Mead’s problems without addressing the issues of wasted water.

The people murmuring about Water Wars are starting to look less and less crazy as time goes on.

Sarnia solved the issue of water conservation. They raised water prices and imposed watering restrictions, and a miraculous thing happened. “The water is so bloody expensive, that’s why people are not using it,” according to Coun. Anne Marie Gillis. They cut their water down to 81,000 cubic metres/day from the 181,000 it’s licensed to sell. So, to celebrate, they are begging people to waste more water, because the loss of revenue is putting them in the red.

Water is more valuable a resource than coal, oil, or gold. Three days without it and you die. Period. And as we start to watch folks around the world try to deal with their water shortages, it’s probably a good idea to look at our relationship to it. The average American uses 4500 litres of water per day (and I can’t imagine the Canadian numbers are much different—but if you know your food consumption in kilograms, you can calculate your water footprint). It’s not so surprising when you realize that it takes 200 litres to make 1kg of plastic, or that it requires 2-4 barrels of water to extract a barrel of oil from the tar sands. And then, of course, there’s food.


August 1, 2009 at 8:14 pm 1 comment

Food Standards, eh?

The Food Standards Agency wants to help you make an “informed choice” about your food. They’ve put together a study, comparing the nutritional value of organic versus non-organic food. Of course, calling it a study is a little misleading. They’ve read other people’s studies, and have parsed out the answer: there’s little nutritional benefit to organic food. Of course, “The review rejected almost all of the existing studies of comparisons between organic and non-organic nutritional differences,” so it’s easy to see how they came to that conclusion.

Oh, and they didn’t think it was important to consider the effects of eating pesticides, many of which are carcinogenic. Thanks, Food Standards Agency; I could have made a terrible environmentally conscious decision if you hadn’t opened my eyes (again)! Eat on


July 31, 2009 at 8:13 pm Leave a comment

Is informed eating traumatic for children?

The Thames Park community garden is right next to the playground. This is a wonderful thing, because it gives kids the opportunity to learn about where their food comes from. I let many a child pick tomatoes or beets from my plot for this reason.

I think it’s important for kids to know that their food comes from somewhere beyond the grocery store. They get really excited when they see what a growing melon looks like. That’s why things like this scandal are very troubling to me:

Children help to raise pigs to learn about ethically, organically raised food. The pigs are taken to a slaughterhouse, and the pigs are turned into food available for sale to the families. The parents flip out, saying it is insensitive, and that the children are too young to learn about where their food comes from.

These animals weren’t raised ‘as pets’, they were raised as food; they weren’t in ‘pets corner’, they were in a farm. The children appear to have taken the difference in their stride and as a result will probably end up being either informed meat-eaters or informed vegetarians. But to the parents, this is a challenge to their curious, teetering balance of sentimentality and unthinking consumption of meat. If you think your children would be traumatised by the idea of eating pigs, why are you feeding them bacon sandwiches?

I was at a friend’s house one evening, where roast beef was served that was once a cow called Buttercup. I talked to the kids about this. One of them said to me, “Buttercup was a mean cow. And she’s tasty. I won’t eat the nice cow.” That is informed eating, and I think it’s as important that children have the same opportunity to make informed decisions about ethical eating as the rest of us. Thoughts?

May 16, 2009 at 4:19 pm Leave a comment

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