Fifty Shades of Vegan: "Eggs"
This is the first proper research instalment I wrote for Fifty Shades of Vegan.
I chose eggs first because I missed them the most. Eggs used to be my go-to breakfast post-surf, the day after a workout or when I was hungover - pretty much constituting 80% of my mornings. Delicious, filling, healthy, an animal product gained not from raising livestock simply for death, but in a more ongoing capacity. I was optimistic about the results I would hopefully uncover.
One year later and I still don't buy eggs from the supermarket. I have a few sources of 'home-laid' eggs - Rupert's parents are on acreage in Maitland and I recently found out a customer/friend of mine also has acreage in Dural. Both have large coops whose produce they generously share with me. It's not all that consistent - I might get half a dozen every month or so but when I do I bloody love it! And they're so different to the eggs I remember. The yolks are this deep fluorescent orange and they are oh-so-tasty, nothing better after a long dawnie.
So please read the following from the head of Lucky Rolls 2015 edition (November volume):
So this took way longer than I expected, but I’ve got good reasons. I’ve been down and dirty with a couple of looooooooooong and largely boring governmental reports, including independently conducted studies on the egg industry, and a vast array of non-profit websites with a tonne of (thankfully consistent) information.
I know that it wouldn’t be as bad as the documentaries that I’ve watched have made it out to be, mainly as the quality of food production in Australia is significantly better than the rest of the world . America, well it seems America don’t mind a bit of animal suffering and sacrificed food production standards to turn over a buck. We Aussies are thankfully a bit more staunch when it comes to animal welfare, meaning the majority of statistics presented in US-made documentaries are actually not reflected in the equivalent industries of good old Oz. This appeared to be a very convenient opportunity to abandon this project altogether. It would be easy to chalk up my overreactions thus far as erroneous; my knee-jerk reaction, however valid, in response to subject material in that was actually entirely irrelevant to me. Done. Vegan, over. Steak, imminent.
But no, unfortunately my brain is wired a little better than to be content with this opportunity to simply ditch veganism and return to my former diet of dead animals and their secretions. So I decided to continue conducting my research anyway, more for my own peace of mind than anything else (peace of mind… sortof a laughable phrase these days).
So yeah, first off: eggs. Can’t wait to get back on the egg train. One of natures beautiful gifts, in seemingly perfect balance as far as nutrition, animal welfare and sustainability are concerned. It’s not like the hen’s going to eat the egg itself, and it’s going to lay it anyway, so humans may as well be the beneficiaries of mother nature’s accounting anomaly.
My presuppositions going in: eggs are a largely sustainable animal product where key concerns are the use of natural resources (land, water, feed) and ethical treatment of chickens. Eggs are a wholly nutritious natural food that do not require the slaughter of any animals. Eggs have an environmental impact that pales in significance next to beef, pork and fish industries. Eggs will therefore soon be a part of my diet once again.
What I did instead was open a fairly rancid can of psychological worms, concluding in a strengthening of my confusion, and providing some fresh disillusion about the reality of producing enough food for a population that’s too big for it’s habitat.
Eggs are generally categorised into three methods of farming: cage, free-range and organic/barn-laid. The latter category comprises less than 10% of the industry as a whole, so the following discussion is in broad terms a comparison of cage and free range. Battery hens make up roughly 65%, and free range roughly 25%.
SIDENOTE: In the US, 90% of egg-producing hens are caged in batteries across the country. This is a very clear demonstration of the differences between the American situation and ours, and the subsequent danger of misappropriating one country’s statistics to the other.
So my primary conclusion: caged eggs are significantly better for the environment than free range. WTF.
It sounds crazy, but makes a lot of sense once you think it over. In a nutshell, controlling the growing and farming environment in a contained facility guarantees more efficient use of feed and water. Streamlining the production chain in this way results in wayyyyyy less wastage than letting hens roam freely, however intrinsically “better” free range might appear.
Upon just hearing the words free range, if you’re like me you think of happy chooks pecking around an enormous paddock under the sunshine, feed and water accessible for consumption at their leisure, retreating indoors overnight to lay sumptuous XL eggs as a gracious thank you for such glorious freedom.
The reality is far less glamorous. Free range chickens face the challenges of predators, in-fighting and competition, and natural bio-interruptions to their health (i.e. soil-borne diseases, noxious weeds, etc). Before researching, I hadn’t considered any of this, and held a completely idealistic, black-and-white view of free range vs. cage, equivocating it to Jedi vs Sith, Hobbit vs Orc, Gryffindor vs Slytherin. It was ‘natural’ good vs ‘unnatural’ evil.
From a solely environmental standpoint, caged systems are absolutely the cleanest method of obtaining hen eggs. The biggest caged facilities in regional QLD and NSW are largely self-contained, using 96% green water (rainfall) and Australian grown grain for feed. Smaller free range and/or organic farms in fact import roughly 80% of their feed from the US as soymeal, and tap into local water sources on top of natural rainfall.
I won’t bother with any more stats from the reading I’ve trolled through. Just take my word for it, they all go in this direction. And if this is annoying just remember that aside from being here completely impartially, I’m also craving to eat some friggin’ eggs. So if I was going to bend information, I’d be bending it the other way so I can reconcile it to myself, and sooner enjoy the velvety feel of a freshly poached yolk covering my tongue.
Unfortunately I’ve definitively concluded that caged eggs have a markedly smaller green footprint than free range. Imported feed scattered over thousands of hectares for free range chickens comes at a much higher environmental cost (both directly and indirectly) than Australian-grown feed with a much higher “feed conversion ratio”. Containing waste produced is also far more effective in caged facilities, where it can be converted into fertiliser to grow more feed-producing grain. This is as opposed to allowing the excrement of free range hens to percolate firstly into the soil and affect its composition (and by default its suitability for supporting other biology), and secondly into the water table, the implications of which reach far beyond just the acreage being used by the chicken farm.
So environmentally, there’s no argument: caged eggs are way less harmful to the planet than organic and/or free range farming. Mindfuck #1.
The next obvious question is therefore the welfare of the animals involved.
This should be easy, right? No way is putting a hen in a cage better for its welfare than allowing it to roam freely across a few hectares, pecking and grazing to it’s heart’s content. But alas, my research has shown that it’s really not an easy answer at all.
To begin with, the term free range is defined by no more than a maximum 1500 chickens per hectare. 1 hectare being 10000 square metres = 1 chicken per 6.67 square metres. Sounds good right? Not great though, its not 1 chicken per 20 square metres or anything, but still heaps better than the Australian minimum cage requirement of 550cm2.
But wait. How do you disperse feed and water perfectly evenly over a whole hectare for 1500 chickens, making sure each chicken receives the same amount of each? I’m dubious that this is achieved 100% of the time. Likely therefore is that feeding times must facilitate at least some level of competition between birds, making this the most likely time for the aforementioned welfare concerns to occur (infighting, pecking, predation).
I’M NOT SAYING CAGED IS BETTER THAN FREE RANGE BY ANY STRETCH OF THE IMAGINATION
However. I would say that in these particular circumstances, the free range system doesn’t guarantee every bird receives water and feed in equal amounts, where the caged system does. Free range, however, is absolutely a much more natural environment for hens to lay eggs. The welfare concerns involved also probably do not affect the large majority of animals, whereas welfare concerns of the caged system affect every single hen. Conclusion: as far as animal welfare goes, free range comes out on top.
Yeah, not as simple as I’d thought. Free-range chickens definitely face welfare challenges too, some of which are actually prevented by the caged system. Mindfuck #2.
Environmental impact: caged, 1 - free range, 0.
Animal welfare: caged, 0 (… maybe a half?) - free range, 1 (…maybe only three quarters?)
Ok sick, so where has this left me.
Looking at an industry of two primary categories, both of which impact the environment, and both of which involve some cause for concern about animal welfare. Roughly evened out, it’s really hard to justify contributing to either of them. Which is shithouse, because I was seriously hanging out for the return of egg to my breakfasts. One of my best mates has three chooks in his backyard, which is rad. I’ll eat his eggs on the extremely rare occasion that they are on offer, for a variety of reasons: his chickens are the happiest chickens imagineable, they dine on his personal leftovers, and their presence is not to the detriment of the greater environment. In fact, he reckons their manure is an amazing fertiliser and their pecking, dusting and scratching turns the soil over really efficiently. Writing this I realise should really get some chickens of my own, but this seems a little irresponsible in a medium-density city townhouse with two flatmates.
The worst bottom line to all this? In my head I still can’t go back to Woolies and buy just any eggs and feel fine about it.
Hair pulling: recommence!