Environmental Impact of Professional Farms

In the past decade, many pundits and critics have talked about moving to more extensive farming in order to improve the environmental impact that food production has on the world. They say “support small, diverse farms, like grandpa used to have, so that we can protect the earth”. Or “buy organic, its more environmentally friendly”. I’ve never understood this line of thinking.

Let me put in a couple caveats……I don’t think I have the authority to tell people what to eat. Animal activists will say that we can decrease the environmental impact of egg production by eating no eggs. Duh. They don’t ever tell you how much environmental impact of whatever you replace eggs with in your diet, and I don’t have the background to even guess at those numbers. My point is, if you want to eat eggs, you can EITHER support extensive housing (free run, free-range, organic, etc), OR be environmentally friendly. No matter how many eggs we eat, the more intensive the farm, the more environmentally efficient it is, and the less environmental impact it has. Think of it this way….a hen will only lay so many eggs….if we want to impact the environment less, the more efficient the hen is, the less grain we feed her, the less water we give her to drink, and the less manure we are left to deal with….whether they are on 1 farm of 100,000 hens, 10 farms of 10,000 hens, or 1000 farms of 100 hens. If the hens are less efficient, there is more waste….at both ends.

The most environmentally friendly way of producing eggs

The most environmentally friendly way of producing eggs

I’ve wanted to write about this for a long time, but never had the numbers to back up the argument….I knew it was true, but couldn’t give you a measure of it…..now I can. A study released by the Egg Industry Center in the United States compares the environmental impact of a 1960’s egg farm vs a 2010 Egg farm.

Key results of the study found that compared to 1960:

The egg production process releases significantly less polluting emissions, including 71 percent lower greenhouse gas emissions.
Hens now use 32 percent less water per dozen eggs produced.
Today’s hens use a little over half the amount of feed to produce a dozen eggs.
At the same time, today’s hens produce 27 percent more eggs per day and are living longer.

Due to increased feed efficiency, advancements in hen housing and manure management, egg farms now use less water and energy on a daily basis and release less polluting emissions. Every aspect of the egg production process, from cultivating feed to raising the laying hens, has led to a reduced environmental footprint.

Producing US eggs this way will put an extra area equal to 3 PEI's under the plow.

Producing US eggs this way will put an extra area equal to 3 PEI’s under the plow.

Using 1960 technology to produce the 2010 egg supply would have required 78 million more hens, 1.3 million more acres of corn and 1.8 million more acres of soybeans.

The Province of PEI is 1.4 million acres in size. Additionally, it will take more than 2 million liters of diesel fuel to run the tractors to till the land and harvest these crops. Remember, all of this would produce the exact same number of eggs as current housing systems.

Does this mean that current egg farming practices are ideal? No. They have impacts beyond the environment, all of which have to be evaluated when deciding the right way to produce food. But, if you feel strongly about protecting the environment, and wish to have less environmental impact from the eggs (or any other food you eat), efficiency is the key….and the more intensive the farming system, the more efficient it is.

Mike the Chicken Vet

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33 responses to “Environmental Impact of Professional Farms

  1. I had to giggle at myself after reading this…when I inherited those 29 chickens after the flood event, we hiked out the shattered highway to get to the nearest city, Estes Park, where i hoped the great little bookstore had survived. They’d had minimal damage and had just reopened. They had one chicken rearing book, Chickens in 5 Minutes a Day.

    My resident man pointed and laughed one day, “You should write a book called ‘Chickens in 55 minutes a Day’.” But in my defense, I’d so hated that first day of cleaning the beautiful yet pathetic coop that made my eyes water with the ammonia smell that now I clean the coop every day, scooping poop and stuck together bedding. If the water bucket has a poop in it, I’m changing that too. The original oversized water trough had at least 2 inches of organic matter and was covered in green slime.
    I’d had 13 weeks of poultry care in vet tech school but have learned loads more here. ..basically only learning two husbandry things in school: keep them watered with clean water; scoop poop every day.
    I’ve decided I LOVE taking care of chickens. After the huge stress event of their ppl leaving, 7 additional birds, and helicopters overhead for 5 days, we’re up to 15 eggs a day from a low of 4. Several of the ladies are over 5, one being maybe 7, so we don’t expect eggs from everyone.
    My point finally being: this would not be considered an efficient operation. But it ranks way high on the fun scale. We even trimmed the Polish rooster’s bangs today, hoping he keeps his sweet personality in spite of a better field of vision. At least he can see any foxes from further away. We hope.

    • Marcia;

      There are TONS of valid reasons to keep chickens…..recreation being one of the best ones. As long as people realize that it is not a reasonable way to feed the country, I think that people with small groups of birds are terrific. As long as they are motivated enough and educated enough to look after the hens properly, the connection to the land and the food is something that way more people should experience. I hope things continue to go well for you, and that life gets back to normal soon. The mantra of cleaning up the mess every day is important for kids too, I find 😉

  2. To produce the same number of eggs that people in Canada demand, we dont have enough land to do it, nor do we have the climate to do it extensively (keeping in mind that I dont consider a 20 000 bird free run or aviary extensive), and those operations have a greater environmental impact due to poorer feed conversion, more feed required, and less control of emissions from manure.

    That being said, when you compare egg production impacts to other livestock production, the only one better is dairy – in terms of carbon equivalent emissions.

    It has been said, and is probably correct that if we all move to a full vegetarian diet, the impact of producing plants is far less than livestock, especially producing plants for livestock instead of humans. In terms of food energy, I have heard the argument that we are better off eating plants directly than the meat from animals who eat plants. Probably true, but the fact is that people like to eat dairy, meat, poultry and eggs and that demand is growing, so improving efficiency of production is key to a sustainable industry – and it looks like that is happening in the US for sure in the past 50 years.

  3. When people value efficiency more and care less (than we do now) about cruelty we have created a world that isn’t worth living in- my humble opinion. Is environmentalism important? Absolutely, very much so, Less reliance on animal protein and a greater investment in vegetable based diet will benefit all. Just my 2 cents. Enjoy your blog very much.

    • Thanks for the comment Kelly;

      As I’ve said before, you need to evaluate the method of housing hens, and select the one you are most comfortable with, when balancing cost of eggs and effect on the hens. If you haven’t looked at my last post regarding the costs and benefits of all the housing types, you should…..none of the housing systems is a panacea for welfare.
      Farmers will produce eggs in any manner that the public wants…..right now, there is serious price pressure on 96% of the eggs sold….if people start to prefer different types of eggs, farmers will make them.

      Mike

  4. If you only consider the most efficient use of space and food, you could also contend that housing people in concentration camps would be more efficient and better for the environment – but that’s ignoring issues such as unsanitary conditions that cause disease and the cruelty of subjecting any creature to such living conditions. Chickens raised in confined spaces need daily doses of antibiotics, otherwise the diseases and infections that come with living in filth would kill them. These daily antibiotics are causing antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria to proliferate – an unthinkably bad thing for humans. So you need to factor in the daily use of antibiotics, the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, the contamination to nearby areas from concentrated operations, the suffering of the chickens, the unsanitary nature of how our food is kept and processed, and the lower quality of the meat.

    • Hi Cathy;
      Thanks for reading the blog, and thanks for the comment. I think your analogy is maybe overblown, but I think it is valid when comparing to say, apartment buildings. Having grown up on a farm, the congestion and chaos of downtown city living is extremely depressing to me. The issues are much the same….large amounts of food going in to a small area, lots of waste produced there, etc….but cities do seem to be the most efficient way to house vast numbers of people.
      Thanks also for pointing out another widespread urban myth. Egg laying chickens are the least medicated of any food producing animal. I know this because I am the one prescribing the medications, and they are EXTREMELY low rates. Since raising chickens out of their manure (ie in cages), the infection rates are vanishingly small, and are significantly higher in flocks that are raised as either free run or free range. Again, this is a comment on flocks that produce a reasonable amount of food. Backyard flocks that are kept as pets are in a different category all together….they both get treated with drugs that would NEVER be allowed in a professional barn, and are raised with such different priorities that they have vastly different disease challenges and stresses…..

      Mike

      • CDC estimates that in the United States, more than two million people are sickened every year with antibiotic-resistant infections, with at least 23,000 dying as a result . The estimates are based on conservative assumptions and are likely minimum estimates . The U.S. Food and Drug Administration confirmed numbers that indicate animal agriculture consumes 80 percent of all antibiotics used in the United States, more than previously estimated. This is no urban myth.

  5. Egg industry studies want to present current practices in the most favorable light. The environmentally friendly differences listed in the study between 1960 methods vs 2010 methods, mainly have to do with the more nutritious feed that’s available today, and chickens that have been bred to produce more eggs. These have nothing at all to do with efficiency from confining chickens to small spaces that are unsanitary and cruel, these improvements would be the same for backyard or free range chickens as well.

    • You are partially right Liz….some of the improvement is from genetic improvement in the hens. However, the free run flocks I deal with produce about 5% less eggs per year, on about 15% more feed. This means that barn raised hens (same feeds, same genetics) are 83% as efficient as caged. When you move them onto range, you will lose another 15% efficiency due to increased exercise, eggs lost due to being laid but not collected, energy expended for thermoregulation, and low grade infections.
      So, the feed efficiencies gained by housing will be about half of the total feed efficiencies.

      Mike

    • Liz – the two biggest impacts to the environment from egg production are feed and manure and cages help mitigate those impacts, that is all the study was saying.

      • So, chickens that are housed for their entire lives in a space that is not much bigger than their own body eat less because they never get to exercise or engage in any activity whatsoever. It seems that chickens with such limited mobility would be constantly stressed, which would cause an abundance of stress hormones and other problems that could have some impact on the eggs. Also, there were 2,231 reported cases of Salmonella from eggs last year. Why has the incidence of Salmonella contaminated eggs gone up with confined operations?

      • For Liz – The 2231 cases of Salmonella contaminated eggs is in the US or Canada? In Canada, the prevalence of Salmonella enteritidis in eggs from commercial farms is very low. The Health Canada risk assessment pegs an internally contaminated egg at 1.7 in every million. The unknown risk is how many of the smaller flocks, illegally sold ungraded eggs, and surplus hatching eggs are responsible for those SE illnesses, which are still very rare.
        Illness from Salmonella in humans cannot generally be tracked back to the exact source, especially eggs or poultry, because everyone eats eggs or poultry, so you cant be 100% sure of the source. There have been no outbreaks of SE or other salmonella’s in eggs in Canada in over 30 years, since cage housing has come into play.

      • Hi Mike, The 2,231 cases of Salmonella from eggs were in the U.S. There were at least 2,000 cases of Salmonella in the U.S. from eggs that came from just one Iowa farm back in 2010 and they had to recall almost 400 million eggs. From my one trip to Canada, I noticed a big difference in cleanliness when one crosses the border from the U.S. into Canada (Canada being much cleaner), so maybe the hen operations are cleaner in Canada as well.

    • Liz;

      You are correct that antibiotics are used extensively in agriculture, especially in meat chicken production. That is catagorically untrue in egg farming, due primarily to the hygiene of cages. The myth is that egg layers get a lot of antibiotucs.

  6. Environmental impacts of a farming operation can be measured in many ways. Water usage, feed efficiency and greenhouse gas emissions as mentioned are key indicators but there are many more. Energy consumption, effects on natural habitats, packaging materials and transportation are a few more examples, but this is not a complete list. Therefore, to make the generalization that a more feed efficient chicken produces a more environmentally friendly egg is only a half truth and is not sound scientific reasoning.

    Farmers that implement protocols and procedures based on current knowledge of animal nutrition, best practices for manure management, follow legislation and respect nature and natural systems can limit their operation’s negative effects on the environment. A certain production model is only as good as the farmer who runs it. Whether an operation is large scale or small, free run, free-range, organic or a conventional system does not solely determine it’s environmental responsiveness. It is not necessarily the system that determines how environmentally responsible a production model is, it’s the operator and the knowledge that they implement. The same can go for efficiency. Large scale does not always mean more efficient, this argument is much more complicated than implied.

    It is for these reasons that I believe the study which compares the environmental impact of a 1960′s egg farm to an egg farm from 2010 to not be a fair comparison of large scale vs. small scale of the present time. Present day knowledge of animal nutrition, advancements in genetics and knowledge of environmental best practices could be applied to the small scale operations of today.

    • Thanks for the comment Jon….this seems to be an area you know quite a bit about. I agree that comparing 1960s farms with 2010 farms is very complicated, and captures advancements in many areas, not all of which are attributable directly to large vs small scale farming. I do have a hard time, as I go through your first paragraph, finding a single example of environmental stewardship that extensive housing has an advantage over intensive. Feed, water, carbon footprint, packaging, energy use, habitat conservation, transportation…..I can’t understand how any of them would be better in small, spread-out farms vs large centralized ones. I am truly not trying to be argumentative….If you’ve read some of my blog, you know I am involved in designing the codes of practice for the laying hen industry in Canada, and I’ve always felt that the environmental aspect is best served with centralized production….please, if I am mistaken, point it out to me, since I want to have a positive effect on the direction our industry will go.

      As I understand it
      1- if less feed or water is used to make a dozen eggs, that is better, due to less resources used, and less waste produced, and undoubtedly, more intensive housing is more efficient at converting feed and water to eggs
      2- picking up 1000 dozen eggs at a single farm weekly saves on transportation, carbon footprint and packaging than picking up 100 dozen eggs at 10 farms….conversely delivering feed and removing waste from one site is more efficient than from many sites….the caveat obviously being if you have enough area for the hens on range so that you do not have to take the manure away
      3- if you have 10,000 birds on 5 acres of land in a barn, you destroy less wild habitat than having 10,000 birds on 50 acres free ranging
      4- housing 10,000 birds in a barn reduces energy usage for lights, feeders, water supply, etc compared to 100 barns of 100 birds, each of which needs to have service

      I know none of these things address animal welfare concerns, or economics, or anything else….I am trying to get my head around the environmental impact as a discrete unit, and then work it into the entire tapestry of animal husbandry…..any advice you could give me…especially opposing points of view, would be valuable to me.

      Thanks

      Mike

      • Thank you for providing more insight to your point of view. Sticking to the topic of environmental responsibility, I would agree that large extensive operations are less efficient and less environmentally friendly than large scale intensive ones. When you have large scale operations your risk for environmental contamination on the local environment at a more catastrophic level increases due mainly to the fact that you have larger amounts of manure being stored in one location. By having smaller operations located further apart you are mitigating that risk. As I’m sure you know, manure contamination can happen for many reasons including equipment and storage malfunctions, runoff and improper application rates on fields because of human error or ignorance. It is even more concerning when large operations do not have the proper land acreage to properly utilize the amount of manure their farm produces. This is an example that demonstrates my point that codes of practice are only as good as the person who is following them and don’t take into account human error and improper application or knowledge of best practice. I am saying that it is hard to determine if there is one production model that is more environmentally responsible when you look at it from the one farm vs. another level. It all comes down to the farmer and the management of the system they have.

        For the sake of this discussion I will try to describe a production model that in my opinion may be as or more environmentally responsible than a large scale intensive one, .

        A diversified farming operation consisting of egg, meat and produce production.
        Number of laying hens: less than 1000
        Type of housing system: Pasture based, low energy input in the form of lighting and heating, minimal housing infrastructure with proper manure management
        Genetics of the chicken: a chicken that has excellent foraging instincts and is more tolerant to the elements and temperature fluctuations.
        Feed: proper nutritional mixed grain ration grown by the farmer, supplemented by pasturing and “wastes” from other on farm operations.
        On farm processing of eggs with direct marketing and sales to consumers from within the community, let’s say a 50 km radius. Packaging could be reused and/or reduced. The diversity of the farming operation would allow the consumer to buy many of their grocery needs with one trip (to spread transportation inputs out over many goods).

        I am aware that the efficiencies would be much lower than an intensive operation. An intensive operation is extremely efficient, but it still has very high inputs none the less. For my model’s lack of efficiencies could it make up for it in lower energy usage, less transportation of feed, wastes and the end product, possible better utilization of manure and less risk of contamination in the environment?

        Granted this type of model on it’s own would be hard to implement when trying to “feed the masses” but it does address other core issues when talking about intensive agriculture. I believe that it could be a valuable component of a larger food production system that includes more intensive operations as well. A system that is inclusive to different production models and consumer demands for food that is produced in different ways.

      • I understand the model you are talking about (in broad terms….I’m for sure not an expert). I think that this model will definitely expand over the next generation. It has many benefits for the farmer as well, because it spreads his risk over many commodities and seasons (if the beef market dries up, but the egg market is strong, his bottom line will still be pretty good). I actually was a large animal vet for a couple years out of vet school in a practice where the majority of our clients were Mennonites who practiced a version of this type of farming. That, and the strong social structure made them very successful as a group. One model like this that I’ve seen described had pigs living on a platform above chickens, and their “slatted” area was over a solid area of the chicken coop. Pig manure fell onto the chicken platform and was used as food. The chickens also had a slatted area, and their manure dropped down into a fish pond beneath. Basically, the farmer fed the pigs, and harvested 3 crops from it. It was in Indonesia, and I shudder to think of the disease stress on the animals, but it fascinated me as a recycling plan.
        I appreciate that you realize that this will likely remain a “niche” market as well. I have been exposed to the idea that people “buy” most things, but “Purchase” others. Some people will only purchase Heinz ketchup, no matter what the price….or Heinekin beer, or Lays potato chips, or specialty eggs. The majority of items, however are bought….basically on price. I think that people who “purchase” eggs or meats will be drawn to your type of model, but unless there is some kind of education program or societal shift, over 90% of people will always “buy” food. My gut feeling is still that we, as an industry, have to improve the welfare and sustainability of the cheapest eggs to have the greatest effect. I think that your model will continue to evolve to provide the top end of the purchasing chain…..it will be interesting to see if it makes inroads into the masses who, right now, buy on price. Thanks for your opinions….

        Mike

  7. Liz, I understand that you don’t like confinement housing. We can argue about different aspects all day. I can show research papers showing decreased infection rates, lower cortisol levels, and all kinds of benefits of cage housing. It won’t change the fact that cages restrict movement and natural behaviors, and thus likely won’t mean much to you. It also doesn’t change the fact that you aren’t talking about environmental impacts of housing, which is what the discussion was about. I still have seen nothing to make me think that extensive farming is more environmentally friendly.

  8. I understand that you are totally committed to confined housing of chickens, and you’re correct in saying that I am totally against it. I would be very interested in knowing the authors of research showing decreased cortisol levels and infection rates in confined chickens. But, back to environmental impacts, I don’t understand how concentrating any sort of living creature in one small space is better for the environment. Let’s say there are 10,000 rabbits living outdoors in a 10 mile square area – there is no problem with feces removal as it becomes fertilizer that is good for the environment. If you gather up those same 10,000 rabbits and house them in one small building, then instead of fertilizer, you have tons of feces that is transformed into something akin to toxic waste that has to be removed at some cost (both monetary AND environmental). That doesn’t seem like progress to me. As for transportation, I assume there would be only one or two large confined chicken operations per state, so this means there WOULD be transportation costs when compared with several smaller operations in each city. The only point you’ve convinced me of is that you can feed confined chickens less, and that is a plus, but I don’t think there is any other benefit, and it seems to me like the downside outweighs the good side. However, since confined chicken operations are not likely to disappear, I only hope they can be made more humane.

    • You are talking about a different thing entirely. The post originally was talking about commercial egg operations moving from free run to cage, and that is better for the environment. 10000 rabbits in a 10 sq mile area – their feces is not collected, and the emissions from them will be worse than the emissions from a 10000 rabbit house, simply because in that 10000 rabbit house, the manure will be taken away and dried and removed and used for fertilizer of acres of farmland, not small patches of grass.
      The idea of transport is – you are not understanding the Canadian situation. Each province has several, a few hundred in Ontario, egg farms and a few big grading stations. It is more environmentally friendly to consolidate transport than for the 10 million people who live in Ontario to drive to individual farms, that are mostly concentrated in SW Ontario.

  9. Hi Liz;

    At the bottom of this are the titles and links to a couple of papers that refer to cortisol levels and bacterial contamination of eggs. If you want more, let me know….I have a lot of them.
    The reason I am committed to intensive farming is that it is the only method of food production that I can imagine as practical for feeding the 90+% of the population who live in the cities, and have almost no opportunity to produce any food. Quick math shows that there are almost the same number of laying hens in Canada and the US as there are people. Thus, to provide the eggs we need, we need 30 million hens in Canada, and we need 6 Million hens to feed the Greater Toronto Area. Flocks of 1000 birds cannot do this, and even if they could, it would result in egg trucks and feed trucks criss-crossing the province thousands of times per week to deliver supplies and pick up eggs. Maybe the answer is to eat less, or to move people out of the cities, or completely rearrange society in some other way, but until then, I feel that we are further ahead in trying to improve welfare on intensive farms, because nothing else is going to happen without an entire societal shift. Thanks for being involved in this discussion, BTW…..I find it very enlightening to talk to someone who can give thoughtful discussion from a point of view different than mine.

    Mike

    Nicol, C., G. Caplen, J. Edgar, W. Browne. 2009. Associations between welfare indicators and environmental choice in laying hens. Ani Behaviour. 78:413-424.

    Fossum, O., D. Jansson, P. Etterlin, I. Vagsholm. 2009. Causes of mortality in laying hens in different housing systems in 2001-2004. Acta Vet Scandinavica. 51(3):1-9.

    Blokhuis, H., T. Fiks VanNiekerk, W. Bessei, A. Elson, D. Guemene, J. Kjaer, G. Maria Levrino, C. Nicol, R. Tauson, C. Weeks, H. vanDeWeerd. 2007. The LayWel project: welfare implications of changes in production systems for laying hens. World Poultry Sci Jour. 63:101-114.

  10. Thank you, Mike. I always enjoy a good debate.

  11. Hi Mike,
    Great post as per usual. Larger farms are generally much more productive and efficient than smaller farms, and more over policies that force people to have smaller farms make people poor as demonstrated in this paper: http://dept.econ.yorku.ca/~tasso/AR_paper_Rev2013.pdf
    Of course farm size is not the only thing to consider in agriculture but the relationship is clear and demonstrated by a lot of data.

  12. Here are some comments about chickens and the environment from a friend, Thaddeus Christian, sent to me in an email. He gave me permission to quote him:

    Mike says,

    “Maybe the answer is to eat less, or to move people out of the cities, or completely rearrange society in some other way, but until then, I feel that we are further ahead in trying to improve welfare on intensive farms, because nothing else is going to happen without an entire societal shift.”

    He isn’t unaware of the negatives, but he is dealing with the here-and-now question of how to feed a growing population within the current food system. People in the trenches of this good fight probably don’t have time for our “if only” solutions. That is the impetus of industry. Of course, none of these people seem to give a darn-tootin’ about how the chickens are treated while they are alive.

    First off, chickens ARE the environment, just like we are the environment. So, if in egg production you cut their beaks off at birth so that they won’t kill each other when they are kept in slave-ship style confinement, and they never see the sun or feel grass beneath their feet, and never eat a real leaf or bug, and they are selectively bred to the point where they can’t have normal intercourse because their breasts are too big (requiring artificial insemination, is that efficient?), you are, by default, hurting the environment. They are alive, and can be hurt, just like us. Mike never mentions the inhumanity of industrial farming. Free range chickens have one bad day; industrial chickens have no good days.

    He also doesn’t mention nutrition; it is well-established that industrially produced eggs and chicken meat offer only a fraction of the nutrients provided by free-range chickens, and also, free-range chickens offer those nutrients in more beneficial ratios. If a factory produces several chickens that don’t equal the nutrition of one free-range chicken, is that efficient or environmentally friendly? No, it’s wasteful. It also suggests that we are producing calories just to sustain the population, as opposed to producing food to sustain healthy human beings. This dehumanizes us; we are not stock simply fed to sustain the Gross National Product.

    Is spreading E. coli environmentally friendly? Industrialists tend to view bacteria transfer as an issue that is well-managed, which is to say unavoidable. Gross. The chickens in my yard have healthy immune systems from a healthy lifestyle. I didn’t have to selectively breed them to survive in my yard.

    There’s no time to get into genetics. This is disrespectful to an entire species, well, sub-species. What about humans? Good enough as they were designed? Should we tinker with this organic creature? Are we robust enough to survive the confinements of the bustling metropole? Well let’s just juice ‘em up and cross-breed them until they meet our productivity requirements. This approach ignores the integrated reality of environmental factors, and hastens environmental collapse

    Lastly, only because I have to go, any industrial impacts regarding transportation or infrastructure are massive. Getting chickens to the factory, and getting the eggs to your house burns fossil fuels; keeping a factory lit burns fossil fuels; factory workers going to work burns fossil fuels; cutting down forests for polluting factories is bad for the environment, all the concentrated waste and gross chemicals they use to “sanitize” our food leaching into the groundwater is bad for the environment; mass production of eggs to sustain fast-food brands and hyper-processed “instant meals” complete with wasteful packaging is not good for the environment; it goes on and on. The answer is not more centralized, more efficient operations; we will efficiently reach the boundary of that system’s capacity. The system can only expand so far, and then what?

    Want eggs? Keep chickens, or befriend a farmer.

    Walking into your backyard to grab a few nutritious (and so delicious) eggs from a coop full of happy chickens is very low-impact environmentally speaking. And being around healthy, happy chickens, and knowing that you aren’t hurting the environment, or anything else for that matter, is good for your mental environment.

    • Mary-Lou;

      Thanks for the response…..it is a spectacular example of the misconceptions and outright ignorance that most people have about farming. Your friend tries to equate pet hens with farming, which is interesting when considering the living conditions, but does nothing to explain how we are going to eat. He never answers the question of how to produce food for the people. He likes to go out to his backyard and grab a few eggs….nice. Now, what will his neighbor eat? Or the 600 families that live in the apartment building next to him? For a city of Toronto to eat, they need over 5 MILLION hens. At a pound of manure per bird per week, where will 2.5 Million tonnes of excrement go each year? (Farmers have to have an environmental farm plan in place which shows what agricultural land they will spread their manure on as fertilizer….they need to have a certain number of acres of land for each unit of livestock) Or, should only people who can afford backyards eat eggs? Since he can only produce enough eggs for himself and his family….. Also, can Thaddeus make his own pasta? bread? Ice cream? Mayonnaise? Where will all the eggs come from for these products? Can he make his own vaccines? I think that, in spite of the “solution” proposed to get your eggs from your backyard, it is necessary for egg farms to exist, in one form or another.

      E. coli is a huge component of manure. Any manure….all manure. So….any chicken manure, whether pooped in a barn or in a backyard, contains almost 90% of its weight as E. coli. As such, shouldn’t less manure result in less E. coli? Also, is it better to have E.coli in the backyard and around your house, or in the farms and fields as fertilizer?

      As for nutrition, there are very minor differences between range eggs and conventional eggs….the old comparisons that were touted about 5-7 years ago compared eggs collected from free-range hens, and compared them to USDA standard egg nutritional information….the problem is that the USDA measurements were done in the early 80s. They have since been redone, and the conventional eggs are also lower in cholesterol, saturated fats and higher in Vit E….to levels basically identical to free range. Free range eggs do have more beta carotene and Vitamin A, due (it is proposed) to their variety of foodstuffs (worms are a surprisingly good source of both of these nutrients). No differences can be found in protein quality or content, calories or fat contents.

      Thaddeus wants to criticize the genetics of the modern laying hen, and wants to go back to heritage breeds. Does he think that Buff Orpingtons, or Rhode Island Reds were flying around in the wilds of Burma? The Red Jungle fowl is the precursor of all the breeds of hens that are alive today. The “heritage” breeds have been heritage for only about 50 years…..what about the previous 9950 years, where the hens were selected for productivity, and in-bred and line-bred to get better producing hens. If you want to get to a bird that has not been “disrespected”, you need to go back to the Jungle Fowl, and get 6 golf-ball sized eggs per year. Or else you can arbitrarily tell me when we have altered them a sufficient amount, but not too much. P.S. all chickens breed naturally, meat birds as well as laying hens…..turkeys are the only birds that have been so altered that they cannot breed naturally.

      Finally, I think Thaddeus’ comment that free range hens have only one bad day is a little too Walt Disney for me. Just a couple weeks ago, a prominent welfare scientist from Bristol published a paper where the welfare of caged hens and free-range hens were compared. The conclusion was that the caged hens (in furnished cages, not conventional cages) had better welfare. Go on chat sites, or visit other backyarders and see what frost-bite, predation, parasites and malnutrition look like. The welfare challenges are different, but not anywhere near clear-cut.

      If you are talking to Thaddeus, who obviously does not like farming, ask how his model of backyard production (or even very small scale production) could possibly work to feed a population that is over 90% situated in cities. If he can’t, then the entire argument is a complete waste of time….he is discussing the keeping of pet hens that supply a few eggs, vs some kind of system that makes food for people. We must either stop eating so many eggs, or find a reasonable way to produce them. I am interested in finding a way to produce food for millions of people in a way that is most humane for the hens.

      Mike

      • Chickens are the environment man, just like we are the environment. So deep it hurts my brain to think about. Wow.

  13. n reece mcclung

    Mike,
    Just a note to check in on you – I’ve taken to reading your posts regularly and have missed you in the past two months. I hope you have chosen to take a rest from this chicken madness and that you and your family are well. Wishing you a very belated Happy Christmas and Merry New Year!!
    Reece McClung

    • Thanks for the note Reece……I have been furiously working on a couple projects and my real job, and the blog has taken a back seat to that. I’ve been trying to come up with something interesting to write about, and will hopefully have something in the next few days.

      Mike

  14. Please read and comment on: Determining Impacts of Confined Animal Feedlot Operations (CAFOs) on the Water Quality and Periphyton Community in two Mid-Michigan Streams by
    Oemke, M. P.; Borrello, M. C.; Snowden, L.; Farley, A.

    • Hi Liz….I read the Pew report you linked to…I didn’t get a chance to read the other paper. The question I have is the point you want to make. Do animals create manure? Yes. Smell? Yes, of course. Has the economic model caused a spread in wealth, shrinking the middle class? Unfortunately, yes. Remember, however, that the economic model does not exist to increase profits….it exists to provide inexpensive food. If people stop asking for cheap food, the economic model will change, and the profits will actually increase.
      The question is not whether having animals creates manure and smell, and cause people to be unhappy living beside them….the question is how to do it different that would be better. If we want to eat the amount of food we eat now, we need the number of animals we have now…..true? If so, say the number is 10 million pigs….right now we have 1000 farms with 10,000 pigs. Would pollution be better with 10,000 farms with 1000 pigs each? Or 1 million farms with 10 pigs each? The smaller the farm, the less efficient the system is at converting feed to pork….there will be a higher total amount of manure and smell, but it will be spread over a larger area. It will also cause the cost of pork to go up, with no increase in profit for the smaller farmers…..if they want more profit, they will have to increase price more….event he pew report you referred to states that “Local expenditures per hog were calculated at $67 for the small farms and $46 for the large operations.” (page 28)….that means that the price of pork needs to increase by 50%, and profits don’t increase at all. Is it better? It could be, but it may not be…..same with the pollution. All I am sure of is that there will be less total waste produced from the same amount of pork produced, if the pig farms are larger and more efficient.
      If you feel that we should stop eating meat, the discussion is a philosophical one, and entirely different.

      I am very interested in your opinion on this.

      Mike

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