FREE RANGE. ARE WE CONFUSED YET?

What do you think of when you hear ‘free range eggs?’

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Do you picture chooks meandering freely on grassy paddocks, pecking about looking for grass and insects?

Or do you imagine expanses of hard-packed earth stripped of vegetation, teeming with 20,000 chickens? Yeah, right. Not so much. And yet this is what the Australian Egg Corporation Limited (AECL) is introducing later this month as the new, acceptable standard for free-range egg production.

The AECL is is a producer-owned company that represents about 400 egg producers nationally that “Aims to create an industry operating environment that assists to minimise barriers and costs for Australian egg producers and to maximise benefits and revenue for the industry and the community through integrated marketing and research.”

That is, they exist to ensure their members are profitable, not ethical, so why would we want them to be setting animal welfare standards?

The current (voluntary) code recommends no more than 1500 birds per hectare – a figure derived from research into nutrient runoff, soil degradation and maintenance of pasture cover as well as animal welfare considerations.

The AECL has lobbied at length to increase the stocking density to 20,000 per hectare – a move critics say is motivated by their need to represent the interests of their many intensive producers who are trying to gain a foothold in the fast-growing free range market.

The irony here is that it is the public’s very demand for more free range eggs that is leading the AECL to erode the standards, rather than meet them.

Free-range organic egg producer Brendan Eisner of Daylesford Organics reckons we should move the debate away from the numbers and focus on pasture management and what the chooks are eating instead.

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In fact, rather than asking the public what we think about 1500 versus 20,000 birds per hectare, Brendan would like us to be shown (valid) photos of different systems, and see how many would choose ones with masses of birds pecking at dust over healthy rotation systems where there’s plenty for the chooks to forage as they roam grassy paddocks in the way most of us would think of as happy.

As with most ethical farming deliberations, this ‘debate’ is most usefully framed around agro-ecology – take our emotional and moral arguments out of it, as clearly people the world over have wildly varying standards of what they think constitutes appropriate, ethical animal husbandry.

If we link the standards back to soil and water catchment health, overstocking will never be acceptable.

Systems where chooks may be able to walk about, but only on barren land, will always require high inputs of feed grown elsewhere, generally with a plethora of pesticide residues, whereas true free range systems provide a proportion of the animals’ feed through fodder and insects.

According to Brendan, if you really want to know how to choose ‘real’ free range eggs (or other animal products), you should choose certified organic, as the animal welfare standards of bodies like the National Association of Sustainable Agriculture take into consideration the wellbeing of the animals, and also of the agro-ecological systems in which they’re raised, which simply don’t have room for too many birds in one spot.

You can check out a comparison of the bewildering array of certification bodies here. But if you want to support free-range egg (or meat) production, one of the best things you can do is simply frequent your local farmers’ market, or do some research about farmers with box systems or retail outlets with ethical produce in your area.

When I think of free-range eggs, I generally think of this:

 

 width=Source: Daylesford Organics.
 

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*Tammi Jonas is writing her PhD on the role of food in a cosmopolitan, sustainable society and blogs here. Follow her on Twitter @tammois

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