count the chickens hypothetical
January 23, 2023 6:15 PM   Subscribe

Right now there are lots of chickens in lots of egg-laying factories. How many chickens would fit in the same amount of space if they all were 100% ethically raised?

Please show your work, I am ok with people having different ideas of ethically raised as long as you are coming from the premise that this is not ok
posted by aniola to Grab Bag (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
This article says:
Caged: 67-square inch space [about a half square foot].
Cage-Free: less than 1 square foot.
Free-Range: less than 2 square feet per hen
Pasture-Raised: at least 108 square feet
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 6:30 PM on January 23 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Follow-up question, what would 200x fewer industrially-raised chickens do to the egg economy?
posted by aniola at 6:42 PM on January 23

This article says that "enriched cages", which they describe as one of two cage-free systems to 'allow birds more movement plus amenities such as perches, scratch pads, and nesting areas thus facilitating greater feed and health care practices' cost 13% more at roughly the same mortality rate. Cage-free eggs are generally available at a small-ish premium at my regular not-fancy grocery store so that feels about right.

I would expect that if the entire industry switched to cage free over a couple of years it wouldn't make that much difference to the egg economy. Slightly higher prices, with slightly fewer sold as a result. But it wouldn't be extreme - McDonalds has committed to go entirely cage-free by 2025, which would be something like 2 billion eggs per year. If they feel like they can do that without affecting their profit margins (and they feel like the industry can support it) it can't be that much of a cost difference to set the baseline level to cage-free at least.
posted by true at 7:15 PM on January 23 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Cage-free conditions look very similar, as you're saying, to what already exists. So I am more interested in learning what it would look like with pasture raised or better as a minimum standard. What would it do to the price and availability of eggs? What would it do to the way society buys and eats eggs? Etc.
posted by aniola at 10:31 PM on January 23

If by "ethically raised," you mean given enough space while producing eggs, this is a matter of space and money. However, if you mean treated humanely for the life of the animal, I don't see how this is possible for two reasons.

1. Hens only lay eggs reliably for two to four years, but in natural settings, they can live for more than ten. People with backyard hens sometimes will keep hens as pets or send them to sanctuaries when they stop laying, but no commercial enterprise is going to put care and feed into a hen that isn't producing and they can't all be sent to sanctuaries on a large scale, so these are going to be used for meat. I think you could argue that it's possible to humanely kill an individual chicken (in the backyard like my dad used to do), but there's no humane way to slaughter a large group of terrified animals.

2. Half of all chickens are male, and these are useless to industry because chickens bred to lay eggs don't grow fast enough to be used for meat. Currently, chicks are put to death as soon as their sex can be determined, usually at about a day old. This is generally by gassing them, suffocating them in garbage bags, or literally putting them into grinders alive (I won't link to videos, but they're available). Even the hatcheries supplying backyard hens have to destroy the males, which is one reason vegans don't consider backyard hens a solution.

Farm Sanctuary has a decent page on why there are problems even with backyard chickens, though that is probably the most ethical way of obtaining eggs.
posted by FencingGal at 3:54 AM on January 24 [2 favorites]

Male chicks wouldn't have to be killed if their eggs could be destroyed. The egg industry says they are going to do that but they haven't yet.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 5:50 AM on January 24 [1 favorite]

I'm seconding FencingGal. There is no way to raise chickens ethically. Yes, some ways are worse than others, but they're all bad. See, for example, the "Humane Myth" website.
posted by alex1965 at 6:11 AM on January 24 [2 favorites]

In this country, the majority of eggs are free range, and a large part of them are also organic. From 2025, battery farms will be outlawed. Killing male chicks by gassing or crushing them has already been outlawed in France and Germany, and this will no doubt spread to the rest of the EU very rapidly.

It's complicated, and analogue to the dairy industry. If you eat eggs, you should probably also eat chickens (male chicks that are raised for food) and soup hens. Just like if you eat dairy products, you should also eat veal and beef.

My personal opinion is that we as humans are omnivores, and we should live with that, however painful it is to think about. But also that industrial farming is immoral. I will not eat an egg or a slice of bacon if the animal has been raised in a factory and deprived of all of its instinctual habits. I eat very little meat, but I do eat meat, and eggs and dairy (and seafood). I believe we would do good to radically cut down on animal food, not least because of climate issues.
posted by mumimor at 12:17 PM on January 24 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: So here is an example of the sort of scenario I'm trying to think through.

Right, so there's lifespan to consider, because I think FencingGal is right that there's no way to humanely slaughter chickens en masse (there's also the emotional well-being of the people doing the slaughtering to consider), and as far as the industry is concerned, white leghorns (egg-layers) are very different from broilers (wikipedia's gait score videos are interesting). I think they keep white leghorns around for like 2 years? Yeah, that's about right. I'm seeing internet numbers ranging from 4-7 years for average white leghorn lifespan, so let's call it six, birds live longer when they're happier. Then instead of 200x fewer chickens in the same space we have 600x fewer chickens in the same space. Say places start sexing the eggs and, given the probable price of eggs in this theoretical world, selling them as fertilized eggs. So we're at 600x fewer chickens in the same amount of space.

What would that look like?
posted by aniola at 12:39 PM on January 24

Maybe this answers some of your questions?
Trees mean better business for Chicken Farmers - Lakes Free Range Egg Company
posted by mumimor at 8:43 PM on January 24 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: That video was interesting! Makes sense that chickens and trees would go together, they were originally jungle fowl. I like it.

But I'm trying to understand the societal component. Without increasing the amount of space dedicated to chickens, what would having, for example, 600x fewer egg layers in the industry do to the price and availability of eggs? What would it do to the way society buys and eats eggs? And this sort of human-centered question.
posted by aniola at 12:29 AM on January 25

I don't think space is a big issue in agriculture.
I own a farm. It's not doing a lot these days for many reasons, but if I wanted to grow organic eggs, absolutely nothing would stop me from building the facilities I need. If anything, I have too much barn space. The transition from battery farms to organic in this country has been pretty painless.
posted by mumimor at 12:58 AM on January 25

I am actually planning to work with forest poultry, and my biggest challenge is a local wolf. Wolf fences are very expensive.
posted by mumimor at 2:54 AM on January 25

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