A Conversation About Chicken and Commodity Studies with Steve Striffler

Why do you think food is good to think with?   Why, more specifically, is chicken good to think with about when it comes to modern America?

Thinking about food exposes a lot of connections between just about everything – connections between how things are produced, transported, consumed, etc.  In the case of industrial food, which is just about all food, it helps us think about the unhealthy connections between how we farm and process food, harm the environment, treat workers, farmers, and animals, and consume food.    

One can of course always – in the Marxist tradition – “expose” the hidden life of any commodity.  Food is particularly useful because it is universal and there seems to be more at stake, particularly for consumers. So, unlike many other commodities, an unhealthy production process with food also leads to an unhealthy final product…which we put in our bodies – which raises questions, gets one thinking, etc.  Also, the food industry is gigantic in terms of people involved (i.e. everyone), environmental impact, etc.   It’s also very global.

People also have ideas, often wrong but nonetheless important politically, about how food was produced in the past or could be produced in the future – which is different from most other products which we cannot imagine outside of an industrial/factory system (if we can imagine that).  Alternatives seem more possible to people.

One caveat.  I thing food is also very susceptible to the naïve idea that we will change the food system simply by educating people about the true history of the food commodities we eat (by ‘thinking critically’ about food).  “If only they knew” the truth about food….people would instantly change the food system.  Although important, this seems to work from a naïve understanding of politics, power, and change – and it very pervasive.

I find chicken interesting because it embodies so much of what is wrong with food today.  It has a spectacular history in terms of its post-war success in getting on our plates – in terms of its thorough industrialization, further-processing, endless creation of products, labor organizing, etc.  It is often, and in many ways still, put forth as a success story….yet….

Let me put this another way, playing off the quote, we are what we eat, what are we when we eat industrial chicken?

We are people who consume and value cheap food that is unhealthy in virtually every way – for consumers, the environment, farmers, workers, chickens, equality, corporate power, etc.

This is, in many ways, a story of geography.  How did the chicken industry depend on a new geography of industry and new shift in political economy in the 1970s?   How has that geography changed since you finished the book?

I may not fully understand the question, though it points to something important.  My own sense of the industry is it developed pretty consistently after WWII in the sense that it moved to the South for reasons outlined in the book and has largely stayed there (poor farmers, poor workers, poor land).  This was of course made possible by all sorts of improvements in terms of production and transportation – and lack of unions.  Then, due to decreasing profitability and other reasons, the industry consolidated during the 1970s and 1980s, a process that has continued. A handful of companies gobbled up or pushed out competitors and now control the industry.  Along with this came further processing – another way to squeeze more profit out of the bird by creating thousands of products.  And chicken lead the way in terms of dealing with workers and unions…   I’m not sure must has changed in the last 10 years – these processes have simply deepened, and the industry still struggles with profitability issues which, in turn, leads companies to continue to squeeze workers, create new/unhealthy products, etc.

Chicken is in many ways an amazing story.  Really the animal itself, not just production, was industrialized.  The end result, of course, is that the price of chicken fell over the last part of the 20th C.  What would you say to those who would say that this was in itself a social service?  Cheaper food allowed working people and others to spread their budget further and feed more people cheaper and better?  (This is the WalMart defense that it helps the little person by saving money and making already merger wages go further?)

I suppose the short, and unoriginal answer, is that there are lots of hidden costs around chicken that are externalized – environmental, worker-related, farmer-related, etc.; and it is artificially cheap in the sense it is heavily subsidized (i.e. the feed).  This is of course true with capitalism as a whole, all commodities, even if it is perhaps more conspicuous with food.  I think the tough thing with chicken is that “we” expect it to be cheap, assume it is a social good because it is cheap, and hence more or less take it for granted and can’t imagine it any other way.  It should be more expensive.  At the same time, if we made it only marginally more expensive – but still affordable – it could be a lot better for workers, the environment, chickens, farmers, consumers, etc.  At present, it is only good for corporations – and even they struggle. Modest reforms might not be a socialist’s dream, but paying a little more for chicken could make a significant difference.  Regardless, it needs to cost more (i.e. come closer to reflecting its true cost) and we need to eat much less.  Let’s also remember we don’t “need” chicken — it’s not coffee!

For workers, what is the solution?  Higher pay for sure?  But how could a producer humanize the line?

Higher pay, good/cheap benefits, slower line speeds, and, above all, a genuine ability/right to organize (including of course immigrant rights).  There is nothing remotely close to a true ‘right to organize’ in the United States, and it is even worse in the meat industries.  If we wanted to push this further we should have companies owned by workers, farmers, and consumers.  But I’d be happy with a political context that made organizing possible, including a social safety net that allowed one to survive without a job (so we could actually imagine saying….take this job and shove it!)

Give up eating chicken?  How would that shape things?  Did you see Mark Bittman’s piece in Sunday’s Times, “A Chicken Without Guilt”?   In it, he talks about a concern for animal suffering and suggests a new alternative chicken product?  What do you think about this?  What would be the costs of this shift?

I more or less agree with Bittman, though would like concerns about animal welfare to be more firmly placed next to other concerns (about workers, etc.) – and would like to know more about the unintended consequences of producing more soy, or whatever would go into these fake products.  Plus, as long as we are fantasizing, why not just get people to eat more vegetables by subsidizing their production (and stop subsidies to corn, soy, etc.). Still,  we do need to (a) treat the animals more humanely and (b) eat less chicken (for a lot of reasons). 

I am skeptical about how far any ‘alternative’ products (organic, fair trade, etc.) can move us in the right direction.  Frankly, they have a lousy track record.  I’d rather confront capitalism than sidestep it – but that’s just me, and where I want to put my political time.  I’m certainly not opposed to alternatives, think they have some educational value, and often consume them — but don’t believe it is the central path towards meaningful change.

I’m also skeptical of arguments that move from the more or less Marxist position of revealing the true history of a commodity and then take us to a liberal place where “buying local” or purchasing tofurky is seen as the solution.

One last question.  This is a grad class and we have been talking a lot about writing.  So a writing question.  Why did you decide to organize the book the way you did?

I spent a lot of time thinking about this.  When I first started the project I envisioned it as a strict labor-social history, more or less like I did in my first book on bananas.  Then I realized I had already written one book that no one had read so why do it again.  At that point, I decided I wanted to write a fairly readable book and one that focused on chicken more broadly and not just workers – with the idea that no one really cares about workers, but they do increasingly care about food.  So that was the idea.  It is a different way of writing than how I was trained.   I leave it to others to judge whether it worked!

Best of luck with the class and thanks for including my book!  Great questions!

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