The Conflict of the Inexpensive Cage Free Egg

The conflict of inexpensive cage-free egg production is an issue that represents an obvious push back against how we, as a society, define progress.

This dilemma is at the heart of what plagues my generation. Since WWII our country, and others, have been faced with feeding millions of people cheaply and efficiently. We also, at the same time, have moved from an agriculture-based economy to an industrial system. These two opposing views are colliding. I am writing this response to the article from my Twitter feed from WIRED. I felt compelled to respond to the article, “The Insanely Complicated Logistics of Cage-Free Eggs for All.”

We raise chickens on our farm. I know first hand how ridiculously low the margins are and the unpredictability of egg production on a very small scale. I can hear the rooster as I respond to this article.

The article is exploring the incredible cost and complexities behind fast food chains like McDonald’s switching to cage free eggs. I found myself getting incredibly fired up as I was reading something that almost positions these corporations as victims.

What a crazy mixed up world we have created and cage free eggs are the poster child of it.

How could it possibly take five to ten years to let a bunch of chickens do what they do naturally by removing them from cages? How did we get here? What happens with the huge corporations responsible for the industrialization of food have to face the reality the rest of us know to be true – there is no margin in food?

We have taken a basic natural and organic system and industrialized it so it no longer is natural at all. We did this in the name of progress. We can now produce millions of eggs efficiently and cheaply. We say we have protected the chickens from disease, predators and each other. All of these were done as “improvements” over the natural order of things.

Eggs are now an industrial commodity. They can be produced so cheaply that entire companies now rely on them as a basic ingredient. Fast food industries, all processed food industries, like Cargill and all retail outlets like Wal-Mart rely on a consistent, inexpensive inventory flow of these eggs.

Our societies have now reached a point that we have developed a conscience. We care how our food is produced, this is the paradigm shift. We want to know if it is supplied in a humane way. Yet, we also want what we want. We want it cheap and available at all times. We know how and why we got here, now we must answer how do we change?

The knee jerk reaction would be to have the fast food industries and others source the demand locally. That, ideally would keep local farmers in business, create new jobs and stimulate local economies. But even I know, that is naive and not necessarily a viable solution. The pressure and reality of standards, reliability and regulation would be impossible. There has to be common ground.

The price of eggs will have to rise and the demand for eggs may have to go down. The expectation that chicken meat or eggs could ever be so cheap is where we all went wrong. Our societies will have to confront this. We will not sympathize with industries that have distorted the natural order to serve their own profits. We have to accept our expectation of inexpensive but humanely sourced food is unrealistic. The industrial companies have to accept their responsibility in this perfect storm of events. The share-holders may have to learn to accept lower bottom lines. These practices are unsustainable. We will need to have everyone come to the table to solve this.

Where will the pursuit of balancing what keeps us human while advancing the increasingly difficult task of feeding billions take us?

The jury is still out but I can confidently say we all will have to rethink what we value in order to get there.