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Scrambling for the right mix before we crack

The current egg shortage is an unintended by-product of a sensible and humane law change to outlaw battery-cage hen farming.

Battery farming has been controversial for a long time because the hens had such an unnatural and poor quality of life.

Battery hens live in tiny, cramped cages, unable to flap their wings or scratch.

They also suffer high rates of osteoporosis.

Battery cages had to go; they breached New Zealand’s Animal Welfare Act 1999 because they didn’t allow hens to express their natural behaviour, even at the most basic level.

New Zealand has joined The European Union and Bhutan, which already outlawed the practice in 2012, while other countries [Canada, Mexico, Israel] are phasing battery cages out.

The contentious farming method accounted for 86 per cent of New Zealand’s egg production in 2012 when the government told farmers they would outlaw the practice in ten years.

The industry had to transition into different legal methods of egg farming.

The government was sending a message that basic animal welfare should be a condition of producing food.

By 2016 30 per cent of the national flock was in colony cages, which are larger than battery cages but are still a form of factory farming with welfare issues for the hens.

Since then, both major supermarket chains have said they will stop selling colony eggs by 2027, meaning large numbers of farmers have wasted money transitioning from battery farms to colony farms that will be effectively redundant in just five years.

The government’s 10 year notice period was reasonable, but the supermarkets shifting the goalposts halfway through the transition phase has made it more difficult for farmers who had invested in upgrades.

Food production is so important, and it is a tough sell to tell an entire industry that they need to improve welfare standards at the expense of profit margins.

Even with a 10 year transition period, some farmers did not switch to barns, colonies, or free-range methods ahead of the ban and continued producing battery cage eggs right up to the final months of 2022, when they had to change or close.

To complicate matters, the war in Ukraine has increased the price of chicken feed, and higher bank interest rates have made it more difficult for farmers to take out loans, making 2022 a particularly challenging year to transition to new hen farming methods profitably.

Then, when cage eggs finally became illegal and disappeared from shelves in December, bakeries, restaurants, and other commercial kitchens had to compete with the consumer market for colony-cage, barn-raised, and free-range eggs.

The egg shortage is the product of all these factors, combined with the traditional Christmas peak in egg demand.

Animal activists, farming advocates, and the government are all eager to blame someone else for causing the shortage, but the issue is not so black and white.

Hens should be able to flap and scratch, farmers need to make a profit [why else would they be in business?] and we should all be able to access enough to eat [not to mention the ingredients for that all-important Christmas pavlova].

It’s an [ahem] egg-ceptionally tricky balance to strike.

Flynn Nicholls
Flynn Nicholls
Flynn Nicholls is a reporter at the Wairarapa Times-Age who regularly writes about education. He is originally from Wellington and is interested in environmental issues and public transport.

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