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Cage-Free is Not Enough

2016 is becoming the year of the cage-free laying hen. Or at least the promise to move towards cage-free eggs: since the egg industry is waist-deep in an exclusively profit-maximizing infrastructure, it’s going to take some time for the supply to catch up to the demand. Farmers have about a decade to completely restructure their operations.

There is no national standard for “cage-free” so this reengineering could bring a wide range of results.  In California, which has made it mandatory, the chickens literally don’t have to be cage-free, they just have to have enough room to stand up, turn around, and spread their wings. It’s certainly an improvement, which is great, but if you want to see birds roaming free and living their chicken-ness (thanks, Mr. Pollan), you’ll have to come somewhere like Main Street Project.

The fact that companies have been pressured to respond to concerns about animal abuse seems like a triumph of the market. Unfortunately, the impacts of the food system are so elaborate and externalized that consumers don’t see how massive laying operations endanger not only chickens, but the entire surrounding ecosystem. And the farmers stuck in the cycle have no incentive to better educate their customers.

The elephant chicken in the room is the inherent problem of treating hens as if they were as self-contained as eggs in a carton. That could not be more wrong. The unimaginably massive housing of birds still leads to the quick spread of disease and frequent resultant slaughter. The air in cage-free coops is still so toxic with ammonia that birds and workers are at high risk for respiratory distress. And the waste from the chickens, instead of being used as the miraculous fertilizer it is, is often dumped, leaving waterways vulnerable.

It’s a shame that we’ll be spending 10 years, engineering expertise, and millions upon millions of dollars on this one (positive!) change in coops, when we could be moving towards a regenerative system that helps not only the chickens, but the farm workers, the community, the soil, and the planet itself.

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