Anyone who keeps chickens on their permaculture ploy knows what delightful animals they can be. Different species have their own character traits, while individual birds also express distinct personalities. Combined with their usefulness in providing manure, turning over the soil and keeping pests and weeds under control, the presence of a chicken on a site is very beneficial and pleasurable for the permaculture gardener.
Of course, one of the main reasons to keep chickens as livestock is that they provide eggs. Eggs have formed part of human diets for thousands of years and continue to be a popular foodstuff. Many people don’t have the space or inclination to keep their own chickens, so purchase eggs from the supermarket.
But all eggs are not created equally. The consumer has a choice between eggs that have been produced in different ways. The four primary types available on the market are organic, free-range, barn and cage.
Organic eggs are the eggs most produced like those on a permaculture plot. The chickens are allowed to roam outside and are not treated with any antibiotics and no inorganic substances are added to their food. Free-range hens also have access to outside space, but they may have been given antibiotics. Barn hens are kept in large container sheds, but have some space to more around and sometimes bales of straw on which to perch.
Cage eggs are part of a system that is referred to as factory farming. It gets this name from its propensity to see livestock as functions or units, rather than individual conscious entities, and to place them in industrial conditions that are entirely focused on maximizing cost-saving, with little concern for the needs of the animal – as opposed to permaculture which tries to meet all the natural needs of livestock. Here are some of the reasons why, if possible, you should avoid cage eggs.
As the name suggests, chickens that produce cage eggs are kept in cages. Of course, farms always confine livestock to some extent (a field if fenced after all) but it is the size of the cages and the stocking density that makes cage egg production such a concern. The average chicken in a cage egg system has no more space to stand than an A4 piece of paper, and must live in close confinement with many other individuals.
The environment of the cages prevents the chickens from expressing any of their natural instincts. Beyond inhibiting the simple act of spreading and flapping their wings, the chickens stand on the wire with no material in which to root and scratch. There is no means for them to perch, no way for them to exhibit nesting, to hide or have a dust bath. Indeed, a cage hen cannot even walk anywhere. These conditions cause both mental and physical distress for the birds. Feather loss, foot problems and brittle bones are common, while the stocking densities mean that aggression and pecking other individuals is typical, and can even lead to cannibalism.
One way that cage egg producers seek to prevent damage to birds in confined environments is to cut the sharp end of their beaks off when they are chicks. The birds will still display aggression but, without the front part of their beak, will not injure or kill other individuals. The chicks have their beaks cut or burnt off at just a few days old.
Some chicks do not even get to the age at which their beaks are cut off. All chickens in cage systems are female, but not all chickens are born female. When a brood of chicks hatches they are sexed when they are a day old. All the male chicks, because they have no economic value in a system devoted to egg production, are immediately euthanized. They are not raised for meat, as the breeds used in egg production do not produce chicks with the requisite breast and leg development. The male chicks are either gassed or thrown alive into a grinder.
While many of the chickens’ natural needs are not met in a cage system, on that has to be in order to get the product that the system is set up to produce, is food. However, the food caged hens are given is a far cry form that which they would consume on a permaculture plot. On a permaculture site, chickens would usually be fed fruit, vegetables and meat scraps from the kitchen, insects and bugs they scratch up in the garden, along with plants cuttings, weeds and perhaps fallen fruit in an orchard. Because cage hens have no access to any of these things, they are fed manufactured inorganic food. And because this cannot meet their health needs, it is laced with antibiotics and anti-bacterial agents to prevent disease. These materials thus enter the food chain.
It is not just through their eggs that antibiotics given to cage hens enter the food chain. Because they cannot metabolize all the antibiotics, some ends up in their feces. These droppings are then used as fertilizer for agricultural crops, from where they may leach into waterways as well. Furthermore, the feces from the chickens typically drop through the bottom of the birds’ cages. It can fall on chickens kept in cages below and cause burning due to the ammonia contained within it.
Less Healthy Produce
Not only is the cage egg system unhealthy for the birds, the products from it that we consume are less healthy than the alternatives. Because the hens cannot eat a range of foods, the resultant eggs have fewer nutrients than free-range or organic eggs, including lower levels of omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin E.
It is true that cage eggs are generally cheaper than the organic and free-range alternatives. But this lower price is only achieved at the cost of the animals’ welfare. And if more and more people choose the less-cruel alternatives, producers will have to change their practices to reflect the demand and then prices for free-range and organic eggs will fall. Of course, economics may prevent some individuals from purchasing the higher cost eggs, but for those who can afford the difference, there really is a moral choice to be made. What price is a chicken’s welfare?