Food shortages are an easy topic for news stories to plug in. The basic formula: create a brief-lived drama on a slow news day to stir up a delayed shipment, turning it into a frantic ‘panic’ over the fact there are now fewer pears than there was the day before.
Only this current shortage is (supposedly) a good thing. At least, it is in part.
For one, it’s noticeable that the current lack of eggs has lasted more than the typical week or two of a fake news story. The first signs of it began in December last year.
Anyone paying attention to the news during the Christmas season might have seen the new regulations regarding the housing of chickens. The new rules outlaw battery farming, which describes rows of identical cages used to house farming animals, namely chickens. Battery cages leave little room for movement, often forcing dozens of animals within the same cell, leading to infighting, infection, loss of feathers and other health problems.
On a global scale, we’re near the middle regarding animal well-being. Some countries have acted faster than others to stamp out battery farming, and some are still phasing their farming practices out. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Switzerland was the first to begin banning the cage in 1992. Since 7th December 2023, New Zealand has been on the same path, with the ban coming into effect now.
The concern, however, is that the alternative isn’t that much better, more of a paste job that replaces the word ‘battery’ for ‘colony’. Compared to the battery cage, a colony (theoretically) has room for scratching, nesting and perching, with roughly 60 hens in a larger coop. As of December, 10% of chickens were still in conventional cages, with 33% in colonies, 29% in barns and 34% in free-range farms. The change over has led to more chickens in colony farms as the preferred method of housing.
What the other side is arguing.
For most farmers, wholesalers and many consumers, the argument around battery farming is one of economics and behaviour. Feeding and managing chickens in cages requires less room and resources than in large open spaces, and less room means the cost isn’t passed on to the consumer, who ultimately makes the call about whether they buy caged, free range or colony eggs. Caged/colony allows for a mechanical feeding system, with feed placed on a continual conveyor belt right outside the hen’s cage. And, apparently, the animals prefer pens to larger farm yards.
While there is no hard evidence to back this last statement, farmers and dairy companies are hardly free from blame when providing accurate information about egg options. ‘Free range’, legally, requires a certain amount of space for the bird to roam without running into too many other birds, as well as access to food and water. A small amount of space is allocated outdoors, implying that a door could be open. Cage-free, by comparison, may seem nicer, as the hens have access to the entire barn, but again their movements are restricted to a crowded indoor area. Pasture-raised, an unregulated term, is certified as humane, requiring an outdoor space (supposedly 108 square feet) with indoor space.
Yet only some farmers, particularly in New Zealand, have committed to pasture farming. ‘Cage-free’ and ‘free range’ are easier to sell because they imply a farm-wide space. The marketing, packaging and branding do little to distil this belief, relying on the limited knowledge of consumers who like to think of the chickens in wide open farms.
So, at least from our point of view at Eartha, we think the argument around giving the consumer more choice isn’t taken in good faith. The labels are deliberately misleading, as is the concept of more humane ‘colony’ farming practices.
Where all the cost is going.
In truth, the new restriction around caged chickens is not solely to blame for the egg shortage. The rise in grain prices, increase in transport and difficulty in moving shipments due to current overseas war movements mean that farmers are hard-pressed to continue intensive breeding programs or import more chicks needed to replace older chickens. The increase in grain costs is also being passed on to the consumer, increasing some 60% over the last year. It’s difficult to separate this final cost from the rising cost of groceries and dairy products in particular, with multiple regulatory and environmental factors shifting costs higher. However, the feed grain shortage has undoubtedly led to a more rapid increase in this price hike.
Will colony farming cease?
The hope is that with increasing environmental knowledge, consumers will continue pushing for higher living standards for poultry and farm animals. Animal rights group SAFE, with the backing of hundreds of veterinary professionals, spent last year lobbying the agricultural department to extend the ban to colony farms. However, given the vast number of farmers currently invested in colony farms (expected to grow until 2025), the ban may only cover caged-free for the foreseeable future to stabilise the consumer market.
What are my alternatives?
Cutting eggs from your diet entirely is one option, and buying a little more consciously is another. Looking for pasture-raised eggs is the best alternative, mainly if you can source your eggs locally from an independent farmer or known source. For many Kiwis, we appreciate that this isn’t an option — but making a conscious effort to educate yourself about your food is.
This egg shortage matters because it’s for a good cause, only it’s been handled half-heartedly with little steps toward improvement. The consumer market still triumphs, which is an understandable but regrettable reality considering the number of homes struggling to pay food bills. But the ‘shortage’ is far from an outcome to a solution; we’re only at the first step in a long march towards humane animal treatment.
To learn more about SAFE and their fight for animal equality, visit their website; https://safe.org.nz/.
- APNZ. “New battery hen cages banned” on nzhearld.co.nz. Date Published: 6th December, 2012. Site Link: http://bit.ly/3Dl3XZA.
- Burry, Maja. “Egg shortage: Free range egg farmers dealing with huge demand” on RNZ. Date Published: 27th January, 2023. Site Link: https://bit.ly/3Dlxy5d.
- Shait, Jennifer. “What Does "Free Range" Really Mean?” on liveaboutdotcom. Date Published: 11th June, 2019. Site Link: http://bit.ly/40csdaj.
- Corlett, Eva. “New Zealand bans battery cages for hens – but replacement ‘just as bad’” on The Guardian. Date Published: 29th December, 2022. Site Link: http://bit.ly/40dw6eT.
- Lauren, Amanda. “There Is an Egg Shortage Right Now—Here's What You Need to Know” on RealSimple. Date Published: 20th January, 2023. Site Link: http://bit.ly/3Y1CIeG.
- Nicholson, Rebecca. “What does ‘free-range’ actually mean? It’s complicated” on The Guardian. Date Published: 28th February, 2017. Site Link: http://bit.ly/3Y6yTVh.
- “Poultry” on Swiss Farmers For you. Date Accessed: 28th January, 2023. Site Link: http://bit.ly/3JE0M3p.
- Russell, Rachel. “Egg shortages: What's causing the problem and how long will it last?” on BBC. Date Published: 30th November, 2022. Site Link: http://bit.ly/3jcdWK2.
- “SAFE calls on government to ban colony farming” on RNZ. Date Published: 18th October, 2021. Site Link: http://bit.ly/3HgQfs0.
- SAFE. “How To Tell If The Eggs You're Buying Really Are Free Range” on commonsense. Date Published: 17th January, 2018. Site Link: http://bit.ly/3JlIEe8.
- Shaw, Aimee. “Egg shortage hits supermarkets as caged eggs phased out” on Stuff. Date Published: 28th December, 2022. Site Link: http://bit.ly/3DlP7lK.
- Swift, Molly. “Egg shortage to reach cracking point as new farming restrictions come into force next month” on Newshub. Date Published: 25th November, 2022. Site Link: http://bit.ly/3JhGTyN.
- Warshaw, Brette. “What’s the Difference Between Free-Range, Cage-Free, and Pasture-Raised Eggs?” on Eater. Date Published: 17th July, 2019. Site Link: http://bit.ly/3DJez4X.
About the author - meet Earthan James McCulloch
James is a literary student and environmental enthusiast who likes thinking about the better futures we could have (and those we best avoid). When not playing with other people’s dogs or taking long, mindful walks, he’s usually found reading and writing, often at the local library. You can check him out on his blog for something a little different, where he talks about all things literary or otherwise.