Published 4:10 PM, 20 Jul 2010
The reality gap between society and the source of its food has rarely been more apparent than in the recent survey finding that three-quarters of Australians believe hormones and steroids are used in chicken production.
This has to be one of the most enduring myths of all time, with more conspiracy theories than the Kennedy assassination or 911.
Countless numbers of people, otherwise smart and well-informed, are not only woefully ignorant about where their food comes from, but reluctant to rectify their ignorance.
No matter that hormones have not been used in chickens since the 1960s. No matter that steroids have never been used at all as far as I know, and certainly not since the 1960s. Try telling people they are wrong and they will demand to know why chickens are so plump and grow so fast, as if there couldn’t possibly be another explanation. They know nothing about breeding, nutrition or disease control, but are sure they know all about hormones.
This has all sorts of consequences for those engaged in agriculture. Are such myths harmful? Should they be countered? Perhaps more fundamentally, is it possible to counter them?
Hormones and chickens is probably the most egregious conflation, but it is just one of many myths concerning agriculture. I am not aware of any surveys, but I’d say a large percentage of people also believe their food contains pesticides, tillage is preferable to herbicides for controlling weeds, milk is naturally homogenised, old-style farming is preferable to modern and large-scale cropping, organic food is healthier, and organic fertilisers are naturally balanced.
Such myths obviously lead some people to attempt to make a dollar out of them, at times crossing the boundary into deception. Thus chicken shops advertise their products as ‘hormone-free’, organic farmers insist their products are pesticide free, and organic fertiliser producers claim plants never require anything else. I have even found regulators responsible for preventing such deception to be reluctant to take action, because they believe the myths themselves.
Occasionally, myths come into conflict. Some people, for example, avoid organic fertilisers based on chicken manure in the belief they contain residues of hormones administered to the chickens. They will nonetheless use organic fertiliser based on cattle or human manure, even though hormones are sometimes used in both.
Among the consequences, people become vegetarians, farmers switch to organic production, there are nutritional costs and consumers pay higher prices. Inevitably, some businesses are not as successful as they would be if the myth did not exist. You would expect chicken consumption to be affected too, although I wonder about that. Myth or no myth, chicken is now the most consumed meat in Australia, overtaking beef, with one out of three people eating chicken at least three times a week.
Steggles, which commissioned Newspoll to undertake the survey about chickens and hormones, obviously thinks it should do something about it and is embarking on an advertising campaign under the theme, “No added hormones, no ifs, no buts”.
The agricultural chemical industry, also subject to enduring myths, has been fighting them for years. It was modern herbicides, hybrid seeds and artificial fertilisers that created the green revolution and saved the world from starvation a generation ago, but try telling that to today’s consumers. Most regard all three of these as evil.
Which kind of begs the question – how will Steggles measure success? After a couple of years of advertising, if only half the population still believes hormones are used in chickens, will that be progress? If chicken consumption is rising, what difference will it make?
A different approach has been tried in the United States, where 12 states have passed laws making it easier for food producers to sue their critics for libel. Many establish a lower standard for civil liability and allow for punitive damages and legal fees for plaintiffs alone, regardless of the outcome. Oprah Winfrey was famously sued in Texas for disparaging comments she made in 1996 about beef and mad cow disease.
This approach highlights the fact that there is a dark side to myths – they are false. Opinions are our own businesses but if falsehoods are repeated and the reputation of chicken damaged, there is an argument for chicken producers to claim damages.
Psychologists could explain this better, but I suspect the public likes their myths. Eating chicken that they believe is full of hormones and pesticides creates a frisson of excitement and risk taking that they find lacking in our modern, sanitised society.
We see the same with smoking – its health impact is no myth, but only rising prices reduce consumption. Indeed, the more the nanny state tells us something is bad, the more exciting it becomes. Could the myth that it contains hormones be the reason chicken is so popular?
David Leyonhjelm works in the agribusiness and veterinary markets as principal of Baron Strategic Services, which provides consulting and market information services, and Baron Senior Placements, which provides executive recruitment services.