Free Range/Organic Eggs

Is it as “green and clean” as it marketed to be, or is there a sinister secret good-intentioned consumers are unaware of?
By Sarena Che Omar.

So why organics?
The “organic” fever hit developed nations about a decade ago. The amount of organic food sold in the market is often directly proportional to the nation’s wealth and purchasing power. This is because the production style of organic food tends to result in being pricier than conventional mass agricultural productions. Despite the higher price of organic food, consumers in wealthier countries are willing to pay extra on the basis of ethics, welfare or belief in added health advantages. As Malaysia continues to grow and prosper, we begin to see this trend budding in the richer areas of Malaysia, especially in the Klang Valley.  However is it truly a “guilt” free, clean food product and can the production of organic food be sustainable in feeding the world’s population?

One perfect scenario of organics gone wrong is the free range/organic eggs story. Chicken, or its scientific name Gallus gallus originated from Southeast Asia with its wild ancestor, known locally as “Ayam Hutan” (literally translates to “jungle chicken”), which still lives today in the Malaysian jungles. Its earliest domesticated breed, called “Ayam Kampung” (literally translates to “village chicken”) has changed little since its first domestication between 40,000 to 50,000 years ago, proven through mitochondrial genetic studies1. It is interesting to further note that their domestication occured not long after the earliest human migrations into Southeast Asia (a humbling extra fact: our Aboriginal People or “Orang Asli” are one of the few remaining ‘races’ of the earliest humans)2. Due to subsequent human civilization and population growth, chickens are now spread worldwide and within the last 100 years, they come in hundreds of different specialized breeds: laying eggs (layers), meat (broilers) and even as pets (show breeds such as the popular “Ayam Katik/Bantam”).

The rise of the super-breeds
Human population growth and consumer demand significantly changed the egg-laying breeds we have today. In United Kingdom alone, 10 billion eggs were consumed last year3. To meet this high demand, humans have been selectively breeding chickens to produce more eggs with better quality at higher efficiency. For example within a short span of 60 years, while “Ayam Kampung” can only lay about 25 eggs per year, the super-breed ‘ISA Brown’ can produce an astonishing 300 eggs per year4! However, it is important to note that throughout the years of selection, these super-breeds were raised in a caged environment for various practical reasons. The caged system is useful in regions where land is limited. It also has the ability to control temperatures and pests. Indeed, chickens having originated from Southeast Asia cannot cope with a typical Russian winter or the midday heat of the African deserts. A caged environment also means that the farmer has full control over the chicken’s diet, contrary to an outdoor chicken that can easily contract parasites and diseases by pecking on infected soil5. Despite this, within the last decade, there is a sudden shift in farmers having to change from caged eggs to free range or organic egg due to consumer demands.  Passionate activists fed the public with the idea of cruel, suffering caged hens and that a free-running chicken is a happy chicken. No doubt the intentions were genuine, however often in big industries, drastic changes cannot be based on feelings and instincts alone, but must the backed by scientific data.

The basic concept of animal breeding and genetics is that an animal’s genes and the environment it lives in interact (termed as “gene-environment interaction”) to produce the final phenotype or physical characteristics. This means that an egg-laying breed such as the “ISA Brown” or “White Leghorn” have had its ancestors of hundreds of generations, bred in a caged environment, thereby losing genes or behavior suitable for its original natural environment. This includes living in a controlled, optimum environment, without the need for socializing, without problems with predators and without weather stress. Thus when such breed is suddenly forced to live outside in an environment similar to its wild cousin, these “city” breeds cannot cope with the added stress. As an analogy, imagine breeding for hundreds of generations, a line of human royalty living in utmost luxury. Then, rationalize that a human’s natural place is in the jungles and proceed to force these royalties to live back in the jungles, thinking they will lead a happy healthy life. Similar situations occur with these super-breeds that are commercially farmed worldwide. Europe, where the free-range culture originated, is where this phenomenon is most studied. Over the last decade, egg-laying breeds that were forced to live in a free range environment exhibited extreme stress, significantly higher mortality rate and cannibalism relative to conventional cages! In a typical caged farm, there are more than 5000 (often more than 10,000) chickens raised in stacked cages. When the farm is converted to a free range environment, it demands more land than a farmer can afford to buy. This causes an unacceptably high chicken density, causing again more stress and mortality. To make things worst, cannibalism due to stress was so severe that most non-caged farmers had to resort to de-beaking, a procedure of cutting the beaks of a live chicken to prevent it from pecking and hurting another. This phenomenon is scientifically recorded and published in over 20 articles, yet in a world where food production is driven by consumer demand, free range eggs continues to be the average European choice.6,7,8,9,10,11

It is ironic, that due to a few bad apples (cruel caged farming not following recommended guidelines), the caged system has a bad reputation, forcing farmers to change to the free range system that in turn, causes more harm than good to these animals. However, all is not lost, as the best solution is to breed hens specifically for each environment, such as a specialized free-range chicken that has less cannibalistic, but more social behavior12,13. Quantitative Trait Loci, which is the search for a correlation between feather pecking behavior and genetics, has already been identified. Consequently, scientists such as those from Oxford University are working hard with University-owned organic farms to produce a breed made especially for the free range environment14. Additionally, while conventional caged chickens will be banned, a new similar system using specialized cages called “furnished cages” will be allowed15. This type of cages is an upgrade from conventional cages as it allows more room to move and mimics a roosting environment, but at the same time avoiding undue stress that an outdoor environment causes. It is hopefully a true win-win situation for both welfare-concerned consumers and the chickens themselves.

The lesson to learn here is that in most large-scale industrial processes, there is more than meets the eye. We cannot make decisions based on a few pictures of animal cruelty and on emotions alone without any scientific backing. Another important factor to remember is that ever since humans started agriculture 20,000 to 50,000 years ago, we have long diverted from being “natural”, as natural in its most basic definition to humans, means continue living in the jungles with a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Agriculture is simply to artificially allow an optimum environment so that the most food can be harvested to feed a constant increase in food demands. Industrialization is essential to feed an over-populated world. No doubt that the best tasting eggs are those from “Ayam Kampungs” and sweeter fruits from our backyard or “Kebuns”, however realistically not every human in the world especially in cities can have the luxury to own chickens and grow fruit trees, unless we are willing to conduct more deforestation, which defeats the purpose of being clean and green!

WHAT IS YOUR VERDICT?
Case study:  
New Zealand has a similar total land size as Malaysia (26 million hectares and 33 hectares respectively).

Out of these lands, only 23% of forests remain in New Zealand (naturally at 80%), as opposed to 66% in Malaysia. Despite having lesser land deforested, Malaysia is home to 28 million people while New Zealand is a mere 4.4 million.

According to the global poultry industry (www.thepoultrysite.com), statistics in 2008 showed that New Zealanders consumed 990 million eggs per year (225 eggs per person/year), while Malaysians consumed a whopping 7 bilion eggs per year (280 eggs per person/year)16,17!

According to the European regulations, a free range farm must not have more than 2500 hens per hectare. On the other hand, a regulated, responsibly maintained caged farm can hold up to 20 000 hens in half a hectare!
So if we assume one hen can lay between 200-300 eggs per year, do the math.

Conclusion:

While it is possible to implement free range eggs in New Zealand, it is unrealistic to adopt the same housing system in Malaysia unless we deforest the remaining of our precious rain forests.



Disclaimer:
The author does not condone animal cruelty in ANY situation. Irresponsibility and cruelty can occur in any animal husbandry systems.

About the author:

Sarena Che Omar is currently a DPhil student in Plant Sciences (molecular plant pathology) at the University of Oxford, United Kingdom. She also holds a First Class Honors in Bachelor of Science (Agricultural Biotechnology, majoring in Genetics) from Lincoln University, Christchurch New Zealand.

References:

1. Sawai, H., Kim, H.L., Kuno, K., Suzuki, S., Gotoh, H., Takada, M., Takahata, N., Satta, Y., and Akishinonomiya, F. 2010. The Origin and Genetic Variation of Domestic Chickens with Special Reference to Junglefowls Gallus g. gallus and G. varius. PloS one 5(5): e10639.
2. Hill, C., Soares, P., Mormina, M., Macaulay, V., Meehan, W., Blackburn, J., Clarke, D., Raja, J.M., Ismail, P., and Bulbeck, D. 2006. Phylogeography and ethnogenesis of aboriginal Southeast Asians. Molecular biology and evolution 23(12): 2480.
3. Egg Facts and Figure. 2010. Number of eggs eaten in the UK 2010. Website visited on 3rd October 2011 at www.egginfo.com.
4. ISA Brown Commercial Stock and Parent Stock. 2011. Website visited on 3rd October 2011 at www.isapoultry.com.
5. Lay Jr, D., Fulton, R., Hester, P., Karcher, D., Kjaer, J., Mench, J., Mullens, B., Newberry, R., Nicol, C., and O’Sullivan, N. 2004. Hen welfare in different housing systems. Poultry Science 90(1): 278.
6. Bright, A. and Johnson, E. 2011. Smothering in commercial free-range laying hens: a preliminary investigation. Veterinary Record 168(19): 512.
7. Abrahamsson, P., Tauson, R., and Elwinger, K. 1996. Effects on production, health and egg quality of varying proportions of wheat and barley in diets for two hybrids of laying hens kept in different housing systems. Acta Agriculturae Scandinavica Section A Animal Science (Denmark).
8. Ferrante, V., Lolli, S., Vezzoli, G., and Guidobono Cavalchini, L. 2009. Effects of two different rearing systems (organic and barn) on production performance, animal welfare traits and egg quality characteristics in laying hens. Italian Journal of Animal Science 8(2): 165-174.
9. Fossum, O., Jansson, D., Etterlin, P., and VÂgsholm, I. 2009. Causes of mortality in laying hens in different housing systems in 2001 to 2004. Acta Veterinaria Scandinavica 51(1): 3.
10. Lambton, S., Knowles, T., Yorke, C., and Nicol, C. 2009. Risk factors affecting the development of vent pecking and cannibalism in loose housed laying hen flocks. World’s Poultry Science Association (WPSA).
11. Sherwin, C.M. 2010. The Welfare and Ethical Assessment of Housing for Egg Production. The Welfare of Domestic Fowl and Other Captive Birds: 237-258.
12. Kjaer, J. and Hocking, P. 2004. The genetics of feather pecking and cannibaIism. Welfare of the laying hen 27: 109.
13. Rodenburg, T., Van Hierden, Y., Buitenhuis, A., Riedstra, B., Koene, P., Korte, S., Van Der Poel, J., Groothuis, T., and Blokhuis, H. 2004. Feather pecking in laying hens: new insights and directions for research? Applied Animal Behaviour Science 86(3-4): 291-298.
14. www.faifarms.co.uk
15. Tauson, R. 2005. Management and housing systems for layersñeffects on welfare and production. World’s Poultry Science Journal 61(03): 477-490.
16. http://www.thepoultrysite.com/articles/1575/good-news-on-global-egg-consumption
17. http://www.thepoultrysite.com/articles/431/malaysia-poultry-and-products-annual-overview-september-2005

Photos by:
Jean*
Lip Kee*
Free 2 Be*
Jon Wilson*
*Images were obtained from Flickr.com under the Creative Commons license.

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