By Dr. Mercola
Chickens that lay eggs in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) endure some of the cruelest conditions in industrial agriculture. Most hens spend their short lives in â€œbattery cagesâ€� that are about the size of a piece of paper â€” so small the hens cannot spread their wings. Within a year, they lose their feathers and have their skin rubbed raw from the close contact with other birds.
Forced to lay eggs with no privacy (a very stressful situation for a hen) and live with no space, the industry also painfully severs the end of their beaks to prevent the birds from pecking at each other. Severe health problems are common as a result of their immobility, from spinal cord deterioration leading to paralysis to muscle and bone wasting. As for male chicks, the facilities have no use for them, so theyâ€™re ground up alive or suffocated in a plastic bag.1
There are public health issues created by CAFOs as well, from the spread of antibiotic-resistant disease to widespread pollution to the fact that CAFO eggs are more likely to be contaminated with disease-causing bacteria. One study found eggs from hens confined to cages in CAFOs had 7.7 times greater odds of harboring salmonella bacteria than eggs from non-caged hens.2
Battery cages have already been banned in the European Union, but in the U.S., 94 percent of eggs produced come from these inhumane CAFOs.3 The more word has gotten out about the brutal conditions, however, the more demand has increased for more humane eggs â€” and restaurants and retailers have been listening. About 100 grocery store chains and dozens of restaurants and food manufacturers, including McDonaldâ€™s and Walmart, have pledged to stop using caged eggs within the next 10 years.4
According to The Intercept, â€œThese outlets collectively comprise 70 percent of consumer demand in the United States,â€�5 which is more than enough to prompt real change in the industry. This would require the majority of CAFO egg producers to rethink the cheap way theyâ€™re churning out eggs, so not surprisingly thereâ€™s been some serious backlash.
Iowa Bill Would Require Stores to Sell CAFO Eggs
A bill introduced in Iowa and already passed by the Iowa House of Representatives would require grocery stores in the state that participate in the Women, Infants and Children federal food assistance program and carry â€œspecialty eggsâ€� such as cage-free or free-range eggs, to also carry CAFO eggs.6
The pitch is that cage-free eggs can be more expensive, so the bill is supposed to protect consumersâ€™ access to cheaper eggs and ensure â€œconsumer choice,â€� but what itâ€™s really about is protecting the interests of industrialized agriculture. Cody Carlson, an attorney at animal welfare group Mercy for Animals, told The Intercept, â€œThese bills are designed to keep a dying industry afloat that consumers no longer want to support â€¦ This is an industry that refuses to change in any meaningful way.â€�7
Itâ€™s incredibly brazen to allow the government to dictate to stores what they must carry, especially when the product in question is one that comes at such a heavy environmental, public health and animal welfare cost. â€œIn Iowa,â€� The Intercept reported, â€œthe strategy of these corporations now rests on overriding the demands of the market and empowering the government to dictate to stores what they must sell â€” in particular, barring them from refusing to sell eggs that are the products of grotesque cruelty.â€�8
Proposition 2 Brought More Humane Eggs to California
Americans yield incredible power when it comes to forcing change in the marketplace, as was demonstrated in California with the passage of Proposition 2 in 2008. The ballot initiative, which â€œpassed in a landslide,â€� prohibited California egg producers (as well as producers of veal calves and pregnant pigs) from keeping hens in cages too small for them to turn around, stand up, lie down or stretch their limbs.
The measure brought at least some relief to hens raised in cages, but at the same time put the stateâ€™s egg producers at a disadvantage to producers from other states, who could produce cheaper eggs without Prop. 2 requirements, then ship them to California to be sold. The state remedied this by applying the Prop. 2 standards to all eggs sold in the state. According to The Intercept:9
â€œSince Prop 2â€™s passage, elected officials in Iowa and other egg-producing states have been vigorously fighting to undercut those laws in order to preserve access to Californiaâ€™s massive consumer market for their own egg producers â€” without requiring them to invest in better conditions for their hens.â€�
Ironically, one of the key arguments used against Prop. 2 was that it stood contrary to a free market and kept consumers from their freedom of food choice. Now the tables have turned, and consumers are demanding the right to choose eggs from cage-free hens, but Big Ag doesnâ€™t want to hear about it. Chris Holbein of the Humane Society of the United States told The Intercept:10
â€œItâ€™s extremely hypocritical that Iowaâ€™s factory farmers have pretended for a long time to care about protecting the free market, because now that the free market is turning against them and in favor of more responsible producers that are trying to do the right thing for consumers and animals, the factory producers want the government to force grocery stores to sell a product that is both unsafe and unethical.â€�
To date, all measures from Iowa that have tried to target Prop. 2 have failed, including in 2016 when Iowaâ€™s governor and five other state attorneys general sued Californiaâ€™s attorney general in order to block Prop. 2 enforcement. Now, California is taking Prop. 2 a step further and proposals have been made to expand minimum cage sizes. Meanwhile, a ballot initiative in the state is calling to get rid of cages entirely, proposing that all California eggs be produced from cage-free hens.
Governmentâ€™s History of Protecting CAFOs
The Iowa bill to force stores to carry CAFO eggs is disturbing though not surprising given the governmentâ€™s history of protecting industrialized agriculture. Consider Vande Bunte Eggs in Michigan, an egg-laying chicken CAFO that houses 1.6 million birds. With more than 200 state permit violations in the span of three years, you might think the facility would be in danger of being shut down.
Instead, itâ€™s received more than $1 million in federal subsidies. The companyâ€™s owner, Tim Vande Bunte, also testified in support of Senate Bill 660, which was introduced in December 2017 and would push back the deadline for Michigan egg producers to provide cage-free chicken housing from 2020 to 2025.11
Vande Bunteâ€™s many violations are but one example cited in a report compiled by the Environmentally Concerned Citizens of South Central Michigan.12,13 The report analyzed 272 CAFOs in Michigan and found they had collectively received more than $103 million in federal subsidies between 1995 and 2014, all while racking up 644 environmental permit violations by the end of 2016.
Meanwhile, in early 2017, 35 advocacy groups, including Food & Water Watch, called on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to close federal loopholes that are allowing CAFOs to continue polluting the planet. In a petition, the groups asked the EPA to require CAFOs housing a certain number of animals or using a certain kind of manure management system to obtain a permit. The EPA has said that up to 75 percent of CAFOs need permits but only 40 percent have them.
Iowa has much at stake when it comes to CAFO eggs; the state produces about 1 in 5 eggs produced in the U.S. each year,14 and virtually all of them come from hens kept in battery cages. As the market for CAFO eggs declines, theyâ€™re banking on the new bill to force stores to continue selling their unsafe and inhumane product â€” but that doesnâ€™t mean you have to buy it.
Real Regenerative Agriculture Is Poultry-Centered
At the Main Street Project in Northfield, Minnesota, 100 acres of land are serving a very good purpose, hosting a poultry-centered regenerative agriculture system thatâ€™s grounded on an ecological, social and economically integrated management system.
â€œRather than trying to fix the endless barrage of problems industrial farming has spawned, we simply donâ€™t create those problems in the first place,â€� the Project notes, using methods such as cover crops, solar heating in chicken coops and perennial plants, including hazelnuts and elderberries, to protect chickens and provide revenue.
Small grains, cover crops and perennials provide a cash crop to farmers while offering nutrition and shelter to the chickens. â€œ[T]he chickens in exchange provide the manure to fertilize not only the paddock and the plants within, but also other vegetables and perennials that provide associated agricultural enterprises in the area,â€� according to the Project, which continues:15
â€œChickens are at the center of our system because they work so well with the crops, farmers and environment. Theyâ€™re a one-stop weed-eating, bug-killing, soil-enhancing replacement for the counter-productive synthetic pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers destroying conventional farms and their communities.
They can also â€¦ increas[e] the soilâ€™s ability to absorb carbon. More carbon sequestration means an actual reduction in greenhouse gases currently in the atmosphere â€“ something that conservation alone cannot do.â€�
Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin, an innovator in the field of regenerative agriculture and chief strategy officer at Main Street, is the principal architect of the poultry-centered regenerative agriculture model used at the Main Street Project. The system he came up with is a blueprint for regenerative farming that can be applied on a larger scale, and with it, he hopes to structure a real, commercially viable, food revolution from the ground up that can be replicated and customized anywhere in the world.
According to Haslett-Marroquin, regenerative agriculture needs to be centered around livestock in order to be optimized, and adding chickens is an easy way to do that. Not only is poultry something that connects every community in the world, but the meat and eggs are also a valuable source of animal protein (critical when dealing with hunger in a permanent way), and can be a solid economic platform to deal with poverty.
Poultry is also very accessible to small-scale farmers, who produce most of the food in the world â€” an important fact that many are unaware of. The Main Street Project has moved past the proof of concept stage, showing that their poultry-centered, regenerative agriculture prototype works.
Theyâ€™re now in Stage 2, building an integrated central farm with seven poultry units that has an output of 21,000 meat chickens per year, perennials established (with harvest to come) and annual crops. The next phase is to scale the project into a regional system, the Project notes:16
â€œ â€¦ to the point where we gain significant market share while regenerating soil, protecting our waterways, and supplying the region with nutritious free-range poultry meat and eggs. With greater participation and crop production, we will also see increased expansion into more enterprise sectors â€” not only selling grains, fruits, nuts and vegetables, but seeing community members turn products into jams, salsas, soups and other value-added products.â€�
CAFOs Canâ€™t Force You to Buy Their Eggs
The systems the Main Street Program is developing are far superior to conventional ones for integrating poultry into a viable model for providing food for the masses. This system is geared not for those growing food in their backyard, but for creating a larger-scale food system based on small-scale farms that are both sustainable and high-yield (although you can use similar principles in your backyard garden or hobby farm as well).
However, until such systems become the norm instead of the exception, CAFO eggs still dominate the market â€” a sad truth you have the power to help change. Choosing food that comes from small regenerative farms â€” not CAFOs â€” is crucial. While avoiding CAFO meats, dairy and eggs, look for antibiotic-free alternatives raised by organic and regenerative farmers. Unfortunately, loopholes abound, allowing CAFO-raised chickens and eggs to masquerade as “free-range” and “organic.”
The Cornucopia Institute addressed some of these issues in their egg report and scorecard, which ranks egg producers according to 28 organic criteria. It can help you to make a more educated choice if youâ€™re buying your eggs at the supermarket. Ultimately, to find safer, more humane and environmentally friendly chicken and eggs, the best choice is to get to know a local farmer and get your meat and eggs there directly.
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