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Food and Agriculture

Jake’s ladies. The hens in the backyard

Photography by
Words by

Published January 25 2024

Consider the language used to describe eating animals. Much of it removes the animal from the product, and this assumes an animal is a machine, and that forces us to look not just at animal welfare and different ways of farming but to reconsider our diets. Late last year, while collecting my salad, C.S.A Jake Clarke had enquired whether we might write about his hens, knowing that I don’t eat animals. Or eggs. Here we are.

Amandine and I visited Jake at his home in Kingsland and spent a sunny afternoon with his ladies, the five hens that Jake houses on his property. For all his love and attention and cuddles [they love cuddles], he receives, more or less, five eggs per day. When we arrive, they come to greet us. Curious, they follow us around the property, where they roam freely, taking shade under the avocado trees in the heat. Jake tells us they love it when he turns the log at the back of the property to expose the worms. From left to right, Jake’s ladies, Aloy, Ellie, Monsoon, Elvira and Siouxsie.

In February last year, 50,000 hens were burned alive at a farm owned by Zeagold Nutrition in Orini. In an interview, the chief executive John McKay confirmed stating:

“I know New Zealanders will be worried about what this means when eggs are in short supply. The reality is the losses at Orini, represent only 1.4 per cent of the layer hen population nationally so while it’s a tragic loss, it won’t have a significant impact on egg supply.”

Perhaps we don’t know how to react to words this truthful about farming. Perhaps it is easier that people pretend this animal is an egg-making machine. Like it wasn’t about mourning but annoyance. Interestingly, in 2018, again, 50,000 laying hens lost their lives at a West Auckland factory farm fire. There were no early detection systems and no sprinklers. The site lacked sufficient water supplies, relying on fire trucks for water. These are not farmers; they are companies, and they are focused on profit margins and ultimately do not prioritise animal welfare. At the time, SAFE had called for an urgent review of farmed animal housing.

The ban on battery-caged eggs was announced in 2012 when 84 per cent of all the country’s eggs were from battery farms. The rule was enforced on January 1, 2023, and the industry was inconvenienced, stating they had invested millions of dollars in preparation. It’s difficult for anyone to understand what that means. Battery farms. The media largely used the term ‘caged’, which was misleading. Colony cages were not banned and it seems apparent that the industry, becoming increasingly aware of marketing, mindful that they must seem progressive, was benefiting from this language. Egg Producers Federation executive director Michael Brooks stated more than 75 per cent of chicken farmers were impacted due to a ban on battery-caged hens.

The animal farming industry is rather celebrated for its contribution to economic growth and mainstream media paint farms as struggling businesses key to the economy. Like this piece, “Egg wholesaler blames ban for 'crashing' business”. Then there was an egg shortage, and media began running headlines such as “And Eggs run low amid threat of rationing” and “When will the egg shortage finally end?” There were Reddit threads. The Egg Producers’ Federation executive director again handles the current tensions:

“It’s been a very tough couple of years for the layer hen farming industry ... There’s been huge financial pressures on farmers. It was a minimum of $1 million just to change from the old-style cage to the colony cage. Then, if you were going into free range, that meant buying a whole new farm, a new set-up. So some really big costs and a lot of investment. All those things had an impact, so it’s led to a pretty messy situation, and it’s taken a while.”

They [the companies] had a decade.

It’s impossible to talk about animal agriculture without first talking about land. In a country where real (adjusted for inflation or deflation) house price growth in the last forty years exceeded 500 per cent, and urban sprawl into arable land continues, agricultural land also becomes increasingly expensive. As Liv Sisson wrote for The SPINOFF.

“Pretty much. And for a lot of farmers, it’s looking like bust. Free range requires a lot more space, and even barn-raised produces fewer eggs per metre than colony or battery cages. More space for chickens means farmers need more expensive agricultural land, which is increasingly being snapped up and built over by housing developers. Developers are a group few would be keen to compete with.”

We needed more accurate and consistent language

Accurate and consistent language allows us to distinguish between different forms and scales of farmed eggs. Foodstuffs and Woolworths decided to ban colony-caged eggs by 2025, which likely confused the public further, who imagined the caged eggs were banned in their entirety. Animal advocacy groups were calling out the ethics-washing. Animals for Aotearoa published this article, the “Egg shortage Explainer”, detailing the language used to conceal the reality of the situation, including a screenshot [the statement subsequently removed] stating all caged eggs had been banned and that “As of 1 January 2023, it is no longer lawful to house hens in cages.” Hens are still raised in intensive conditions.

The government must regulate farms and food and mandate space, fresh air, and so on. If so, precise language would be used for labelling, for food packaging which would fall within the Food Standards Code (Food Standards Australia New Zealand) and address the type of production system where eggs are laid. Colony cages are a marginal improvement on battery cages. The space provided per hen is a minimum of 750 cm2, about the size of an A4 piece of paper. Currently, even hens raised intensively, with no access to the outdoors, to sunlight or adequate room to nest, to scratch, can be categorised as ‘high health and welfare’.

Without government regulation, companies are able to utilise vague statements and imagery that imply a situation of an animal raised in conditions other than intensive ones. Searching egg brands online you notice ‘high welfare’, 'colony laid' or 'fresh colony eggs'. It’s difficult to tell, from these labels, which farms actually have higher welfare. The word ‘cage’ is omitted. This is intentional, and the language is deceptive. In other categories, this would be the equivalent of green-washing. Yet in media, in food writing (in Aotearoa at least), troubled and conflicted by the ethical considerations simply prefer to ignore it.

If you are looking for information about the eggs you buy, SAFE published this chart that provides a reality check into the welfare of the current egg industry in Aotearoa, New Zealand, for various systems of production. This includes considerations of inhumane practices, including de-beaking, the slaughter of male chicks, and the slaughter of hens from 18 months. It acts as an avoid, better or the best you could do by hens to help people understand the reality of their purchases. There is, however, no mention of antibiotic usage. Treating a living thing as a product is a slippery slope under capitalism. None of this is about small farmers. It is essentially big agriculture and corporate profits. And while many like to think it is, this is not about providing nutrition.

The nature of food production explains the relationship between food, nutrition, health and disease

Nutritional science historically focused on individual nutrients. This work paved the way for the supplement industry that was capsulating nutrients as the food industry itself was removing them, not only through ultra-processed foods but the diminished conditions that would become standard procedure after the introduction of chemical fertilisers, monocultures and so on. But we don’t eat nutrients. We eat food. Instead of thinking about the nutrients a food contains or the overall pattern of foods in one’s diet, it is also the degree to which the foods we eat are produced and processed that today explains how they contribute towards disease. We know that poor diet and lack of sunlight, for example, will create deficiencies and, ultimately, disease in humans. Eating animals, you further expose yourself. Animals are equally impacted by the complex factors that shape our experiences of health and well-being. Deprivation.

Over 92 million eggs are produced in Aotearoa, New Zealand. Most under barbaric conditions. Factory farming eggs is, in a way, not too dissimilar to ultra-processed food and rather than thinking about the nutrients the food, or here, the eggs contain, it is the degree to which they were ‘processed’, and this would determine their nutritional value and partly explained how they contributed towards disease. The authors of this study concluded that the housing system and modification of diet would significantly affect egg quality, fatty acid profile, and cholesterol contents. A higher yolk weight and shell thickness were recorded in free-range hens. Significantly lower concentrations of saturated and higher concentrations of mono- and polyunsaturated fatty acids were observed in eggs produced under a free-range system. In addition, higher levels of total omega-3 fatty acids and a higher ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids were observed in free-range eggs as compared to those in the conventional system.

And as the sun is our natural source of Vitamin D, it is also for all living creatures. Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that is naturally present in few foods and added to others. Many will require dietary supplementation. It is also produced endogenously when ultraviolet (UV) rays from sunlight strike the skin and trigger the synthesis of vitamin D. Yes, our bodies make Vitamin D, and it is the same for hens. Aptly, this research paper concluded that free-range farming provides a natural alternative to producing vitamin D-enriched eggs. Rather than supplementation. Their results showed that the vitamin D3 content of egg yolk was three- to fourfold higher in the hen groups that were exposed to sunlight (outdoor and indoor/outdoor groups) compared with the indoor group. Caged hens are not receiving sunlight.

All these issues are interrelated, and eating anything has implications

We cannot ask everyone to be vegan. But what is certain is that our current food system is neither ethical, sustainable, nor equitable. And certainly not in the best interests of public health. And why can we not want for something better than this? Should we not want for conditions to be made better for hens and for all animals? Hens should live on more space than one A4 sheet of paper.

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