In a recent article in Civil Eats by author Brie Mazurek, a farmer named Nigel Walker of Eatwell Farm in Dixon, California gets a chance to puff up his more humane vision for pasture raised eggs. His solution? For one thing, in response to his customers’ frequent concerns over the killing of male chicks at the hatcheries which supply nearly all egg farms, from factory farms to backyard hen keepers, Walker now breeds his own birds instead.
To this end, he is asking his supporters — consumers seeking truly humane, sustainable egg products — to fund this project. But we did a bit of detective work and found that, contrary to his sustainability and “ecosystem” rhetoric, Walker appears to be living in a sprawling McMansion as shown in the aerial photograph from Google Maps. More on the “ecological” and “sustainable” claims he makes about his farm later in this article.
In the following, I’ve addressed several points and claims made by both Mazurek and Walker.
Civil Eats: “…many conscientious eaters go out of their way to purchase pasture-raised eggs laid by happy chickens, …”
My response: Many conscientious eaters would do well to learn that a pasture is nothing like a natural habitat for chickens. Chickens originate from, and still inhabit, tropical rainforests where they have evolved “happily” for millions of years. Their brains, behaviors and natural instincts have been shaped by one of the most complex, diverse and dynamic ecosystems on the planet. A largely tree-less, open farm “pasture” is an artificial, foreign environment in which chickens feel vulnerable and exposed to predators. Pasture-raised chickens frequently exhibit heightened cortisol levels (a stress hormone) indicating a sense of being in danger. In fact, it is the pasture farmers themselves who are so often complaining about the number of chickens they’ve lost to predators. In contrast, chickens in their natural rainforest habitat create their own social order that collectively — and very successfully — thwarts predators, with the help of abundant trees. Some studies have shown that chickens successfully survive a predator attack 90% of the time in their natural environment.
Moreover, forcing animals to live in an environment that is foreign to them and that places them in harm’s way — and breaking up their natural social order so that we can exploit them for their eggs and flesh — is neither “conscientious” nor “natural.” Finally, to do so contradicts what most of us claim to already believe, that it is wrong to harm animals unnecessarily and when we could so easily avoid it.
Civil Eats: “ ‘We are on a mission to put the old breeds of poultry back to work,’ he [Walker] says. While such birds may produce fewer eggs and put on pounds more slowly than modern breeds, they tend to be more healthy, resilient, and productive in the long run.”
My response: The “old” breeds are still manipulated to reproduce an unnatural number of eggs. By contrast, wild chickens lay only a few clutches of eggs, or 10 to 15 eggs per year. Like all birds, they lay eggs only during breeding season and only for the purpose of reproducing. (1) Painful and often fatal reproductive disorders and diseases resulting from this history of invasive genetic manipulation for overproduction of eggs are still commonly reported in so-called heritage breeds as well.
Civil Eats: “As the flock grows, the birds must be carefully tracked. Each time a hen goes to lay an egg, a door closes behind her (in what is called a trap nest) so that the bird and her egg can be recorded by Eatwell staff. The best of the best will be selected for hatching.”
My response: There is essentially no difference in the intent and practice of breeding chickens for specific traits in Walker’s method described above, and the selective breeding methods used by industrial hatcheries that farmers like Walker already claim to oppose. Both rely on dominating and exploiting the female reproductive system, weeding out “inferior” animals in favor of those with “superior” traits, with the goal of increasing productivity and profit. The end goal is still one of more efficient exploitation. If we were to apply this same mentality and methodology to our treatment of certain groups of human beings, we would be looking at something like the Nazi scientists and ideologues who promoted a vision of an “optimal” Aryan race. If it’s immoral to dominate and manipulate human animals in such a manner, then how can it possibly be moral to control and modify non human animals in this way, particularly when the latter have no way of consenting? Arbitrary prejudice is the basis for both instances of breeding and manipulating sentient beings.
Civil Eats: “The males will be raised to maturity and processed for meat, providing additional income for the farm.”
My response: How does the farmer define “maturity?” What does that mean for a bird with a natural lifespan of 8 to 15 years? How many weeks is he allowed to live past the mere seven weeks of life of a typical “broiler” chicken on an industrial farm? A few more weeks, perhaps? If so, he is hardly “mature” at this point, but rather still in his infancy. Walker pretends he’s doing the male chicks a favor by letting them “mature” into slightly older infants before he needlessly butchers them for meat.
Civil Eats: “Chickens play an invaluable role in the farm’s ecosystem, having eliminated the need for compost and external fertilizers.”
My response: Since when is a farm a “natural ecosystem”? And why would you want to eliminate compost, nature’s own free fertilizer, and replace it with excrement from domesticated “invasive” species? I checked in with our seasoned sustainability expert, Will Anderson, to get more answers. He wrote: “At Eatwell Farm, chickens may be indispensable to the egg and chicken meat business, but not to an ecosystem. In the far more limited sense, chickens do cycle nutrients back to the soil, but those nutrients required the artificial addition of more energy and water intensive inputs in the form of 30 tons of organic wheat grown specifically to feed the chickens (see http://www.cuesa.org/seller/eatwell-farm). Eatwell’s agroecosystem does not increase biomass for the ecosystem, but removes much of it when sold as food and the chickens are taken to slaughter.”
Civil Eats: “The real core issue here is getting animals back on farms and out of these confinement operations,” says Walker. “Yes, we want their eggs, and the meat is great, too, but the reason we have our chickens is that they eat the pasture and fertilize the ground. All our organic vegetables are grown with fertility from cover crops and chickens.”
My response: Again I defer to Will Anderson: “Veganic agriculture provides the compost for crops minus the waste of wheat [used for chicken feed] and loss of chicken and dairy lives while using less energy, land, and water. Like others who celebrate animal agriculture, Nigel Walker seems not to ask what could be better. As a result, they overlook the fact that these practices are not sustainable given the extent of global ecosystem destruction, and, more obviously, are not needed as food.”
According to agricultural and plant pathology expert Dr. Steve Savage, “Manure is also a non-ideal fertilizer in many ways.” “The animals didn’t ‘make’ any of those nutrients [needed to fertilize crops]. For instance, the ~2% nitrogen in cow manure came from whatever they ate (grass, corn, soybeans…) …The cow is just passing a bit of that along.” Using manure as a fertilizer has the added disadvantage of creating more greenhouse gases and wasting more water and feed inputs to produce the same crop yields. (2)
As for the scale of such an operation, where does all the land needed to give animals a “natural” farm life come from?, asks author and program director of United Poultry Concerns, Hope Bohanec. “At any given time, there are 100 million head of cattle and 70 million pigs alive in the U.S. Currently, only about 9 percent of all livestock is pasture raised. How would we ever have the land to pasture raise them all? To give all farmed animals the space they need to have even a semblance of a natural life, we would have to destroy millions more acres of wild areas, forests, prairies, and wetlands to accommodate them. There is not enough land on the planet, or even two planets, to free-range all the billions of pigs, sheep, turkeys, ducks, and chickens. We would need closer to five planet Earths. It simply cannot be done. Free-ranging animals for food can never be more than a specialty market for a few elite buyers.” (3)
Civil Eats: “We’re trying to find a bird that can live outside, where it can express all of its chickenness…”
My response: Where can chickens actually express “all of their chickenness?” Well, we can turn to sanctuaries who have rescued these birds from the farming industry and who value them, not as units of production, but for their intrinsic value as autonomous individuals who have names and unique personalities. We can also turn to recent scientific research that confirms what many who have observed chickens closely for years have long known to be true. What we’ve learned about the avian brain and behavior in just the last 15 years contradicts hundreds of years of misinformed views about chickens and other birds. Much of what was previously thought to be the exclusive domain of human / primate communication, brain and cognitive function, and social behavior is now being discovered in chickens and other birds. (4)
Farms, whether pasture-based or not, value animals only to the extent that they provide a resource to that farm. That will never change. Animals regarded as pieces of property are treated as property, regardless of whatever feel-good fictions are used to mask this reality. It is anthropocentric and prejudicial to claim that animals desire or deserve to be used and killed as our resources. Quite the opposite is true and easy to conclude from simple observation. Animals regularly and clearly demonstrate an interest in staying alive and living freely and, like us, in avoiding pain, suffering and death — all of which interests are denied them when they are exploited for their flesh, eggs and milk.
(2) Dr. Steve Savage , No, Cows Don’t Make Fertilizer
(3) Hope Bohanec, The Humane Hoax
(4) Robert Grillo, Chicken Behavior: An Overview of Recent Science