A headline out of Australia announces free-range hens produce more greenhouse gas than birds kept in cages. According to The Age, hens allowed to wander freely require more feed to produce a kilogram of eggs than their confined cousins. The result is a 20% increase in carbon footprint.
The Australian Egg Corporation partnered with government to produce the “Environmental Assessment of an Egg Production Supply Chain using Life Cycle Assessment.” The report looks at the whole “production supply chain” in order to tally the carbon footprint of eggs that find their way to Australian tables.
After all the inputs (feed, water, energy, housing) were examined in terms of cost and environmental impact, Australian eggs emerged as “a highly efficient form of protein production with respect to the environmental impacts and resource use issues addressed in this study.” When compared with other protein foods (i.e., meat), eggs came out ahead.
The results prompted the Australian Egg Corporation’s managing director, James Kelloway, to say,
The egg industry would be very happy to consider adding the environmental footprint or greenhouse gas emission status on egg labels.
However, it would be meaningless without other food products having to do it, or providing a reference point so consumers can compare food types or food categories.
The report is coolly abstract, but the patina of objectivity and the rosy comparison with other countries’ egg/carbon numbers avoids some of the more serious issues in egg production. Take, for instance, the impact on watersheds and the dead zones downstream of Big Chicken operations. Consider the increase in antibiotic-resistant bacteria in supermarket meats. Think of the implications of eating eggs from hens subjected to horrendous cruelty. Contemplate the fate of male chicks.
While all of these issues reported in Care2 are from the U.S. and Canada, Australia’s hands are also stained in terms of its animal welfare record. In all fairness, Australia has made strides in the treatment of its egg layers, and 26% of its eggs come from free-range hens; its environmental standards for waste from poultry farms are tougher. However, no matter how high the environmental standards or how humane the handling, battery hens are still confined in conditions to which no animal should be subjected.
It is not enough to consider the carbon footprint of our choices. Our eggnog, poached eggs, and quiches are the end product of a system that treats chickens as if their suffering does not count in comparison with our convenience. Consumers who learn that free-range hens are harder on the environment than caged birds may accept that as an excuse to continue confining them. Chickens deserve better than this.