The Story of an Egg is a short documentary that opens with the claim, “we need a lexicon of sustainability.” Has a nice ring to it, right? By using factory farming as a moral baseline, the film would have us believe that the simple solution to feeling good about the eggs we buy is to look for the “pastured” or “pasture-raised” label. The farmers in the film assure us that the competing “cage-free” and “free-range” labels are misleading and essentially meaningless. On that last point, I couldn’t agree more. The inherent problem with the carefully-crafted message in this film, however, is precisely the same problem with the cage-free and free-range claims the film rejects. Anything looks better when compared to the worst case scenario.
The farmers featured in the film, Alexis Koefoed and David Evans, suggest that pasturing is the solution to humane egg farming that is lacking in cage-free and free-range egg farming. End of story, end of the film. But chickens are complex birds — a fact we are finally forced to reckon with due to some rather groundbreaking studies — and their welfare cannot simply be reduced to one single farming practice.
While allowing chickens some time to roam on pasture allows them to get the exercise they need and carry out some of their natural behaviors, focusing on pasture and foraging just scratches at the surface of the complex lives chickens lead and ignores the inherent cruelties in chicken breeding and the denial of most of their other basic interests by commercial farming.
The Public Image Problem
The fundamental problem with modern egg farming is the unwarranted and appallingly-low regard our society has for chickens. Farmers and consumers generally perceive hens today as “egg-laying machines.” This widely-held perception is based on the egg industry’s marketing of eggs as if they were pieces of fruit or nuts that fall from a tree. This all has most consumers believing that it is perfectly natural, normal and even joyful for hens to lay eggs every day and sometimes more than once per day.
The Horror of the Hatcheries Remains Hidden
The most egregious cruelty begins in the laboratories and hatcheries where chicks, referred to as “breeding stock,” are born into this world motherless and in artificial incubation systems. These hatcheries send newborn birds down conveyor belts, roughly handle them to determine their sex, dispose of male chicks (thrown down meat grinders or in garbage bags) and ship day-old chicks in the mail with no food or water. Reports of dying and even dead birds upon delivery are common. There is even evidence of some hatcheries using male chicks as “packing material.”
Economics Dictate Welfare
Hens that have not been bred for egg production won’t produce enough eggs to be profitable enough for today’s commercial farmer who relies heavily on steady egg producers. In fact, chickens in their natural habitat lay eggs much like other birds do, once or twice a year. Some critics refer to the modern hen as a “frankenstein” of modern agriculture. The average frankenstein bird today produces up to 30 times more eggs than her body was designed for, thanks to the miracle of biotechnology.
Breaking the Family Bond
Newborn chicks never imprint on their mothers, so they won’t likely socialize with others in their flock properly and worse, they will never experience the intricate and tireless nurturing and education that the mother hen is famous for.
The Spent Hen in the Prime of Her Life
Hens lay productively for only a brief window of their lives (1 to 2 years) and are routinely replaced by younger, more productive hens as soon as they shows signs of declining egg laying. The replaced hens, known by the industry as spent hens, are nonetheless in the prime of their lives, considering their natural lifespan of 10 to 15 years, yet their lives will be cut drastically short to become cheap meat for pet food or hot dogs.
No Pasture for the Ill or Weak
Most farmers, pasture or otherwise, would not spend the money on treating an ailing hen as we would expect for our pets or from an animal sanctuary. Farms will typically administer medications and treatments to their entire flock with the goal of keeping them as healthy as possible through their brief high output egg-laying period. Special care for individual hens would be cost-prohibitive to this highly-competitive industry. As a result the weak and sick are sent to slaughter.
I’ve personally adopted and fostered hens who were discarded by such farms for declining egg production or poor health. Such hens are considered “liabilities” to farmers. The hens we rehabilitate enjoy many months and sometimes years in our safe and caring sanctuary where they are free to express their true natures and live out their lives naturally.
Removing Motherhood from the Mother
Hens raised on commercial egg farms are denied the one thing in their lives that comes most naturally to them: motherhood. These hens are bred to lay infertile eggs and therefore will never experience the satisfaction of raising their young. But we haven’t been able to breed out their maternal instinct.
In fact, I’ve heard many chicken keepers complain that their hens peck at them when they try to take their eggs. That’s perfectly natural from the hen’s point of view. You’re taking away something that’s hers. And it’s something important to her. She still perceives her eggs as her offspring. After a while, though, many hens will just “give up the fight,” realizing that their eggs will be repeatedly taken from them.
So What Lies Beyond the Pasture?
At the end of the film, the male farmer vaguely suggests that we continue to evolve our thinking beyond even pasture. What he suggests is perhaps that we should explore the issues of raising chickens in commercial farming even further. I know I have and that’s why I’m writing this piece. I’ve personally rescued chickens who were abandoned from backyard urban chicken keepers and small family farms.
I’ve had the opportunity to observe their complex behavior first hand. In this process, I’ve learned about their individualized medical and health needs, and the struggles of keeping them healthy and alive against the odds of their breeding, which has largely doomed them to major health problems and premature death.
The Heritage Breed “Conservation” Position
The pastured folks in this film would probably argue that the breeding of heritage chickens is actually a species-conservation effort. And in doing so they assert that these breeds are comparable to saving endangered species in their natural habitat. Yet domesticated chicken breeds would never have existed had it not been for human intervention and manipulation of the original wild red jungle fowl. If conservation were the sole interest of heritage breed enthusiasts, they would be running sanctuaries, allowing their birds to live out their natural lives rather than making money on their eggs and reinforcing the false perception of them as commodities. The use of an artificially-bred animal as a commodity who will be intentionally slaughtered at a fraction of her natural lifespan, for profit, sabotages the spirit of species-conservation on a very fundamental ethical level.
All this to me raises the fundamental question I think we must ask ourselves: With as far as we have removed the chicken from her natural habitat and as far as we have biologically manipulated her body to produce eggs, can “pasture-raised” or any new label the egg industry can fabricate ever hope to rationalize or justify what is fundamentally neither normal nor natural for hens? I think not.