One of the biggest buzzwords I hear at committees and meetings I attend is SUSTAINABILITY. Everyone has a general sense of sustainability: have a less negative impact on the environment, be kind to animals, have systems that can be successful long term, consider the economic impact, especially on low-income groups, etc. The idea became formalized in 1983 with the Bruntdland Commission which came up with the famous definition as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. A Venn diagram (who doesn’t love a Venn diagram?) of the thought process is here
Because I’m Mike the Chicken Vet, and not Mike the Nuclear Physicist, I always seem to think about sustainability with respect to poultry production and welfare. I’ve asked sustainability specialists how we should prioritize each of these circles, and everyone seems to have a different answer, depending on their personal biases and preferences. The reality on the farm is that there are very few win-win situations left when we make changes. If you want to improve societal concerns, you end up worsening environmental impacts and increasing cost of food. Which should we focus on?
I’m really proud of the Canadian egg farmers for committing to improving animal welfare because we felt that it was important enough to commit billions of dollars of investment. We followed the welfare science and took into consideration the big picture of sustainability. We committed to the use of furnished cages or cage-free production. I see other jurisdictions where the industry did not lead the change but was forced into change by outside forces (activist groups or government organizations). Many of these jurisdictions were forced to adopt cage-free production because it looks attractive on the surface, and is easier to “sell” to the public as a welfare improvement. But most outside groups don’t have intimate knowledge of the knock-on effects of these changes on the rest of our sustainability concerns. I hope (and am planning on working hard in this area) that consumers and food service providers continue to support the decisions that the industry is leading through the NFACC code of practice process to keep laying hens sustainable on all fronts.
Where this affects my daily life is when I talk with my clients about changing housing styles for laying hens (remember, the Canadian industry is committed to phasing out conventional cages, so all my clients are having to consider this). Always, the question is whether to adopt furnished cages or cage-free systems. Both systems provide real improvements to animal welfare (see my last post, if you’re interested), but farmers have many other considerations when deciding on a multi-million dollar, decades-long commitment. When compared to furnished cages, cage-free systems result in more mortality, fewer eggs per hen, less feed efficiency, more manure, and a larger environmental footprint, similar to ABF broiler production. These effects are magnified further when you feed organic feed, and/or let your birds outside. I don’t have the numbers on the Canadian industry (I could give estimates, but nobody has done an extensive survey), but when you multiply these effects by the nearly 28,000,000 laying hens in the country, again, the effects will be widespread and significant. They also take many more workers, who work in more challenging environments, which results in more injuries and sickness. You can imagine picking up eggs off the floor or climbing up on aviary systems to free a stuck bird, when done many times per day can result in slips, falls, and repetitive strain injuries.
Does this mean that cage-free systems are bad? No. They have advantages too, with a wider range of behaviors available to the birds. But they definitely come with a significant cost to the environment, food affordability, and worker health and safety. There are also a limited number of consumers who are willing to pay the increased cost associated with producing cage-free eggs.
Mike the Chicken Vet