Chicken out

FOOD FOR THOUGHT - Chit U. Juan - The Philippine Star

Many red meat eaters think that switching to chicken is the lesser evil. Think again. We are importing chicken wings, thighs and drumsticks – admittedly my most favorite parts of the bird – but now I am having second thoughts after learning that imported chicken causes more heartaches to our farmers. Is it the fact it’s deep fried? No, it’s simply the fact that if we continue to eat imported bird parts, we compromise our local chicken industry. Not just the poultry owners but a whole value chain connected to chicken.

First to be affected are the MSMEs who sell the other parts with now colloquial names like IUD and Betamax, names used by street vendors to indicate the “isaw”(chicken intestines) and the chicken blood in squares (which look like the old Betamax tapes), respectively. The vendors also sell chicken feet (cutely called Adidas), gizzards and liver. These parts make up a big chunk of our street food culture. They could disappear if local chicken growers stopped raising chickens due to inability to compete with cheap “dark meat” imports.

Just to explain, First World countries, especially the US, export their dark meat (legs and thighs) because consumers only like chicken breast. They call chicken breast the white meat that is preferred by those avoiding too much fat, thus manufacturers have reengineered chickens to have larger breasts. The drumstick and thighs then become discards – and exported to Third World countries like ours. Here, we venerate dark meat as the preferred choice. Well, that is because it is way cheaper to import these “discards” than buy them locally. Most chicken places will sell dark meat and you may be hard pressed to find breast except in five-star hotels and restaurants.

We may also lose a lot of chicken manure that becomes good fertilizer for the farmer. If there are less local chickens, there will be less manure, unless we start importing that, too.

The feed manufacturers for poultry type chickens will also be in distress, but they can shift to making feeds for other livestock so they are not too much of a problem. But the chicken value chain in total will be the most affected industries – from the poultry owner to the street food vendor. Think about it the next time you order chicken. You may just chicken out.

Also part of our big imports is meat – pork, most especially. Manufacturers of pork products prefer imported pork because it is fatter and you get more volume at a cheaper price. You get a lot of chunky cholesterol-laden pork fat. Local pork, I heard, is leaner so it is less volume per kilo. I had to give it some thought as I do not really buy pork. Fat weighs less than meat. Go figure why imported pork wins. I have been thinking about it, too.

Just like chicken, if we keep importing pork, we will not have tokwa’t baboy, chicharon bulaklak, dinuguan (blood stew) and other Filipino specialties from recipes we inherited when our grandmothers cooked pigs from nose to tail. Nose to tail is also a Slow Food practice – of not wasting any part of the animal carcass, giving rise to unique dishes made from sweetbread, offal and other parts of an animal’s insides. Next time you order a pork dish, find out if it is local pork or an imported cut like in local sausage (longganisa). You are displacing a local piggery owner in the process and soon, all pork meat may be imported.

You may also wish to refrain from ordering imported pork altogether unless it’s a specialty like Kurobuta or Iberico. Specialty cuts are imported but they are a minuscule part of total pork imports. It’s the processed food we are concerned about. Profit-making meat manufacturers will always use imported cheap fatty pork.

And last but not least is rice. We all know rice farmers are in trouble. There is El Niño, there is imported rice sold at cheap prices, so where exactly is the problem? It is in processing. My agriculture mentor shared that the local rice problem is in conversion of palay to rice. Apparently we are still using old rice mills which are not efficient, while Vietnam and Thailand use the modern type of mills. The old mills (which should already be banned like in Thailand) convert palay to rice with recovery rate of only 52-55 percent rice, when modern mills can recover 70 percent. So if we convert our rice mills and modernize them, we could get more yield without even planting more rice. Does it not make sense?

To me it sounds like simple arithmetic if someone really put his or her mind to it. Imagine solving the 15 percent shortage of rice production just by changing antiquated mills.

And finally, let us think of other ways to save our agriculture sector. And save our food culture, too. You can help local producers of chicken and pork by eating local. You can patronize canned goods manufacturers who use local pigs and chickens. Remember, the consumer has the power – if we just give it some thought.

Just like in coffee, we now pay higher prices for local Philippine coffee and farmers are having a heyday. Why? The local market shifted from imported roast and ground coffee to local coffee with names of origins, making traceability important to the coffee drinker.

Our local Benguet Arabica coffee is priced higher than an Indonesia or Vietnam counterpart. Even our Robusta coffee is at an all-time high, keeping in step with global rise of coffee prices for this commodity. If you start to switch to making your own coffee at home or in the office, we would keep these high prices and the whole industry is happy. Because farmers have to be profitable to stay the course.

Just being mindful of what we eat makes a difference in the country’s total imports of chicken and pork. Since we are a country of chicken consumers, making a difference in our consumption of the bird will spell a difference in the whole industry of street food, for example. Choose local so we do not chicken out.

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