Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Great Egg Debate - What Each Side Needs To Admit

My job provides me the luxury of being able to thoroughly research topics which interest me, including the egg debate. Some of my time is spent talking on the phone with animal advocacy groups, some of my time is spent talking with egg farmers, and as anyone who has read my research knows, a very large portion of my time is spent with consumers.

This time doesn't make my views superior to others, but hopefully, helpful to others. Here are some items that both sides of The Great Egg Debate need to understand and admit, in order for this to be a real debate, as opposed to a contest between propaganda machines.

Farmers - Farmers tend to act a bit like the rambunctious attendees of townhall meetings. Knowing that I am an ag professor, they treat me like one of their own. Four out of five egg farmers who have conversed with claim that the animal advocacy groups know nothing about animals, do not care about animals, if I clean up the language. They claim the case for cage-eggs is a slum-dunk-deal. What these farmers are not admitting is that animals do have behavioral needs. Almost all of them contend that a chicken does not want room to walk, dirt to scratch, perches to stand on, and nests to lay eggs. This claim is absurd to anyone who has given the topic a fair and thorough treatment. Farmers need to acknowledge that layers do have behavioral needs, even if those needs sometimes do not serve a practical purpose, and that cage-free egg production meets some of these needs. Now, I understand why they try to ignore these needs (and they do evade the question of these needs, whenever I try to challenge them kindly on the subject they quickly change the subject), once you throw behavioral needs out the window cage-egg production looks much more desirable.

Animal Advocacy Groups - They know perfectly well that mortality and injury rates are higher in cage-free production but are reluctant to admit it. The rates may be higher due to the breed of bird used, the system, or other factors, but it is unambiguously higher in cage-free production. Yes, these rates will fall once farmers develop better cage-free systems and bird genetics more conductive to cage-free production, but currently more layers are going to be hurt and killed in a cage-free system. They too evade this question if I challenge them on it. Of course, whenever I talk to either side I don't challenge them too hard, in fear of alienating them--but I should not have to anger them by raising the topic.

The debate between cage and cage-free production is more than a debate between higher and lower food prices. There is a tradeoff for the birds as well, and this tradeoff needs to be publicly acknowledged. Hopefully Ham and Eggonomics is serving this need. Fortunately, when consumers are informed of the issue, they do recognize this tradeoff, as revealed in my research.

Finally, each side needs to understand that no one person or group has a monopoly of knowledge. Likewise, Ham and Eggonomics has no monopoly of knowledge. Developing a system of social goals for layers requires the participation of farmers, animal advocacy groups, scientists, consumers, and the like.