How Chickens Deepened My Understanding of the Energy in Food

We have been keeping chickens for three years now. It all started with what I thought was a run-of-the-mill “green home” consultation in a home here in Calgary. As we toured around this immaculate and trendy 4,000 square-foot house, I was surprised when we came to a bathroom with a bathtub caked with hay and dirt flecks. “Excuse the mess,” said the woman who owned the home, “this is where the duck has a bath.” It turned out that every year, for the benefit of her children, they hatched a duck and a chicken from egg.

I felt she was really onto something, and we arranged our own incubation project within a month. We brought home twelve fertilized eggs from my brother-in-law’s hobby farm and 21 days later found the first evidence of the baby birds-to-be coming into the world. A constant stream of visiting adults and children alike kept vigil for hours as 9 of the 12 chicks pecked and squirmed and flailed to be free of the shell that contained them. Everyone’s hearts leapt and cheering ensued each time one of the chicks found the strength to completely shed the shell.

Many tales of “hens” suddenly becoming roosters, visiting coyotes, magpies, neighborhood cats and lightening storms later, we now have three laying hens that provide us the same number of eggs every day. Their names are Puss-Puss, Derby and Tailfeathers, and they may be the most-loved and most-cuddled (whether they like it or not) chickens in Calgary. These quirky birds have powerfully deepened my level of appreciation for the energy that goes into producing food. Because I feed these birds (a LOT), and observe them spending each and every day foraging for more sustenance to provide the energy they need to lay one egg, and because I feel a strong connection to this food source, I consider each egg precious. I would never consider letting an egg go to waste, because of how much energy (food, water, sun, life), is embodied in each one. It didn’t take long to make that same leap to all the food that is brought into the house, whether I grew it, raised it or not.

Other Forms of Energy Embodied in Food

I think by this time most people are aware of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the agricultural industry (1/5 of all global emissions, by some accounts) and the transportation of foods from ecosystems far from our own. Lesser known, is the distance a lot of raw food travels just to get processed. Much of the seafood that is harvested from Canada’s east and west coasts is shipped to China to get processed and packaged and then is shipped back to our grocery stores. What about water? According to the Water Footprint Network, a kilogram of beef requires about 15,500 liters of water to produce the feed, and provide the water and servicing of the cow over its lifetime. Or, what about how hard the farmers worked over an entire season for not a lot of financial return to raise the food on our plates, literally embedding sweat into the meals we eat? And a little more esoteric, do we think about how much life energy is involved, whether it’s an animal converting grains into milk or meat, or an intricate soil web providing an abundant substrate for plants to grow and thrive?

Those of us that live in urban or suburban settings are often disconnected from where our food comes from. At this point in human history, our food system is largely globalized, subsidized, cheap and convenient. And for those reasons, many people reading this blog are not going to rush out to get their own chickens (though I’d highly recommend it). That’s ok. If the Energy Diet Challenge is about anything, it is about starting small. Maybe you go big like some of the EDC families, but the most important thing is simply that you start. Make an effort to support sustainable food systems (local, organic), talk to a farmer, prepare more of your own meals, learn to be a better cook, only buy as much as you need of certain items, buy other things in bulk, eat whole foods (mostly plants) and then compost valuable nutrients coming from your kitchen and UPcycle them into your gardens, raised beds or even just one herb box or tomato plant. Above all else, slow down and enjoy your food, and all it took to put it on your plate.