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Does cage-free egg production have a larger environmental impact than conventional production? | Courtesy Hellmann Poultry Equipment
on May 26, 2016

Are cage-free eggs more sustainable than conventional?

The WWF’s leader on sustainable food says cage-free eggs are “hard to defend” from a sustainability standpoint.

Cage-free eggs are winning support because of concerns about animal welfare, but the former specialty product may be less environmentally sustainable than conventionally raised eggs.

After his remarks at the Egg Industry Center’s Issues Forum, Carlos Saviani, vice president of the World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) food team, fielded questions from the audience.

Chad Gregory, president and CEO of the United Egg Producers, asked Saviani whether he thought cage-free egg production is as sustainable as conventional production.

“It’s going to require a lot more acres of soybean and corn (and) a bigger footprint for the actual farms themselves. I remember Dr. Jason Clay (WWF’s senior vice president of food and markets) telling us several times that intensification is going to have to feed the growing population by 2050, when we have 9 to 10 billion people … We’re actually being forced to do just the opposite,” Gregory said. “I’d like to know your opinion … about what that means to feeding the world’s growing population … when we’re actually being forced to take steps back and harm the environment.”

Saviani replied it’s important to consider the natural resource impact of food production and that includes when certain types of livestock housing, such as cages, are removed from the equation. He referred to the Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply’s 2015 report – which gathered research on conventional, cage-free and enriched colony housing – and said from a scientific, rather than emotional, perspective, “it’s hard to defend cage free” as it is today.

The McDonald's case

The leader of the Washington-based global conservation organization’s sustainable meat and livestock initiative shared an anecdote about his experience with McDonald’s Corp. The Oak Brook, Illinois-based fast-food chain arguably started the rush toward cage-free when it pledged to serve only cage-free eggs in its U.S. and Canadian stores by 2025 in September 2015.

Saviani said the WWF questioned McDonald’s decision to go cage-free. The company, along with others, spent millions to support the study and it was aware that going cage-free was not the best possible solution for a sustainable egg supply.

“They came back and said, ‘We know that, we just wanted to know how huge is the gap between cage-free and other systems, because this boat already left the dock,’” Saviani reported.

McDonald’s, he said, knew they would have to go cage-free in the future because social pressure was too great to not change. The company, he said, is betting the industry will be able to fill that gap in efficiency within 10 years and eventually be as efficient as enriched cage operations.

Sticking up for conventional housing?

Gregory then asked Saviani if he, and the WWF, would be willing to defend conventional housing. Saviani replied that’s the idea behind the egg roundtable concept he pitched in his presentation.

“So we can bring everyone together and have discussions and also give the chance for the people that defend cage-free to present their science and their ideas … to come up with a conclusion by the end so when we leave the room, we have a joint position on sustainability including animal welfare,” Saviani said.

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