COOP (Chicken Owners Outside Philadelphia)
COOP (Chicken Owners Outside Philadelphia)

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Suburban henhouses may prove hard to block

Source: Winnipeg Free Press
Date: January 2, 2010
Byline: Laura Rance

It is widely accepted in principle, although not in practice, that one of the basic human rights is the right to food. So much so, that the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has a "Right to Food Unit" that works to raise awareness and support global strategies toward that goal.

And although it is not widely accepted, local and regional governments in North America are routinely asked to pass legislation enshrining farmers' right to farm — usually aimed at protecting farmers' ability to carry out the business of farming in the face of disapproving neighbours.

But there is a new food rights discussion that has emerged in jurisdictions big and small.

What about the right to grow food?

This issue is at the heart of the World Trade Organization negotiations that have droned on for eight years now. Less-developed countries who can't afford to subsidize their farmers to the same degree as governments in industrialized countries want to keep tariff barriers that protect their domestic agriculture from unnaturally competitive imports. The industrialized exporting countries want more market access, but the agreement as it is currently drafted would deliver little by way of meaningful reductions in domestic subsidies.

Almost every country views domestic food production as an issue of national security.

But the question of food independence is also surfacing on a local scale in municipal jurisdictions across North America, particularly as it relates to suburban residents who wish to dabble in poultry.

A Lac du Bonnet-area family unexpectedly found themselves at the centre of this one last fall after their decision to keep a few laying hens and a rooster on their one-acre property ran into conflict with a local bylaw.

The municipality prohibits keeping livestock on properties that are zoned residential. So Allison and Jeremy Maki received a letter saying their chickens would have to go.

They fought the edict and the municipality backed down, saying they could keep their 14 chickens, as long as no one complained. But it refuses to change the bylaw or their zoning.

"The main reason we got them was because we want to produce our own food," says Allison, who also gardens extensively. In her view, the home-raised birds, which are free-range when the weather is decent, produce more wholesome eggs than those she can buy in the grocery store. What's more, the birds teach their children about where food comes from and how to grow it.

Tom Carter, a University of Winnipeg geography professor and Canada Research Chair in urban change and adaptation, said the issue has forced administrations to rethink their zoning bylaws, and the pressure is likely to rise. "It is a debate that is surfacing in many cities, and not just in Canada, but in the U.S. as well," he said.

While urban agriculture involving livestock is commonplace in other parts of the world, it has for the most part been regulated out of existence in North American cities under zoning and nuisance bylaws.

But when up against a "right to grow food" challenge, it is doubtful jurisdictions would be able to defend their bylaws on the basis of nuisance or noise. For example, can you categorize a clucking hen as more annoying to the neighbours than a barking dog?

What about environmental contamination? Is a grazing goat, which is truly a lean, green, mowing machine that recycles nutrients and produces nutrition while keeping the grass in check, more of an environmental hazard than a gasoline-powered lawn mower spewing fumes and consuming non-renewable resources? Goats have been known to nibble dandelions and other weeds out of existence better than herbicides.

True, the goat becomes a traffic hazard and a threat to the neighbour's flower beds if it gets loose, but so do small children and household pets.

Public health is one argument that might hold up, given the rise in deadly diseases capable of jumping the species barrier. It has also been argued that backyard poultry operations attract rats. Then again, so do some backyards without poultry.

Provided the proper care is taken, a growing number of municipalities on this continent are saying "why not?" to the question of home-grown food, although some have drawn the line at roosters in the hen house.

To the extent that it takes place, this development should not unduly worry mainstream food producers. While many consumers might flirt with the idea and some will actually try it, only the most dedicated will persevere.

The rest will have gained a new appreciation for the hard work that farmers do and be happy to support those efforts — all the way to their grocer's.