Why saving the future for our children begins with ending cage farming

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Empty sow stalls from an intensive pig farm, where sows can only face the wall and cannot turn around

Browsing the shelves of major supermarkets these days and you’ll be hard pressed to find any eggs from caged hens. Not because they’re sold out, but because most of the big retailers have either stopped selling them or are about to. It’s a trend that’s been going on behind the scenes for a while now. 

There used to be a concern that not selling ‘cheap’ eggs from hens in cages so small they can’t stretch their wings, would lead to price hikes. But this fear was largely artificial. It stemmed from retailers selling cage-free alternatives, like Barn or Free Range, at premium prices, which made the differentials so much steeper.

Corporate leadership

It’s been great to see leaders in the corporate world getting behind ending cage farming by taking cage-produced eggs and meat products off their shelves. 

What is now needed is for politicians to do the same. To take action to end the cage age on animal welfare grounds. And thereby create a level playing field in the marketplace. 

But there’s more to it than that. Cage farming is a symbol of all that is unsustainable in farming these days. By taking animals out of fields and putting them in cages, it may look like a space-saving idea, but isn’t. Because caged animals must have their food grown for them. In arable fields that could be growing food for people. And then, most of the food value in calories and protein of these confined, grain-fed animals, is lost in conversion to meat, milk and eggs.

‘Ghost’ food waste

More than half of the cropland in Britain and Europe is destined for the feed troughs of industrially reared animals. It’s what I call ‘ghost’ food waste. Food waste, just as wasteful but not as obvious as throwing it in the bin. In this way, globally, we squander enough food to feed 4 billion people – that’s half of humanity alive today. Which makes food scarcer and pushes up prices for us all.

Farming our way to disaster, mass harvesting in Brazil

But there’s even more wrong with it: cage farming is deeply damaging to the environment. Industrial feed crops tend to be grown with copious amounts of artificial fertiliser and chemical pesticides. These wipe out wildlife from our countryside and erode the soil. No wonder that the UN has warned, rightly, that carry on as we are, and we have just sixty years left in the world’s soil. Then that’s it. 

But a big breakthrough was being talked about in Brussels recently. The European Commission announced two years ago that it would propose legislation to ban all cage farming, whether it be for egg-laying hens, pigs, or rabbits. 

The only problem is that this new legislation has become stuck, spiked on the thorn of political uncertainty. With elections looming for the European Parliament, there’s no sign of the ambitious legislation once promised. 

And that matters for people everywhere, whether in Europe, Scotland, England, or the USA. What happens in the EU matters elsewhere. And what’s becoming increasingly obvious is that being kind to animals is the least we can do to save the future for our children. 

Note: A version of this article was first published in The Scotsman on Friday 20th October, 2023

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