It doesn’t matter any more which came first, the chicken or the egg. Because of industrialised farming practices, layers and laid are contributing alike to an outsized carbon footprint and environmental degradation that needs urgently to be tackled.
The humble egg may appear unassuming, sitting on your breakfast plate or whisked into a sponge cake, but with more than 80 million tonnes produced globally every year – up from 37 million tonnes in 1990 – industrial-scale production is having a huge impact on the planet. It isn’t just meat that’s the problem.
A new study by scientists at the University of Oviedo, in Spain, published in the Journal of Cleaner Production, looked at the effect the egg industry is having on the environment across 18 categories, including climate change, land use and ozone depletion. They based their findings on research at a poultry farm in Asturias that produces 13 million eggs a year. EU chickens lay 7 million tonnes of eggs a year, and Spain’s pollos are among the most productive in the bloc.
The scientists studied how the farm’s 55,000 hens were fed and watered, electricity use, how the hens and eggs were transported, how they were housed and cleaned, what packaging was used for the eggs, the birds’ waste and greenhouse gas emissions, and the process for replacing exhausted hens with fresh ones. On the last point, they concluded that the industry could become slightly greener by increasing the “useful life” of its layers, rather than sending them to slaughter after a mere one or two years.
According to Amanda Laca, a researcher at the university’s department of chemical engineering and environmental technology, the greatest impact was on the natural world, with the toxification of water and soil as a result of run-off from super-farms. Growing food for laying hens was one of the most harmful associated processes, with soybeans far and away the most environmentally destructive feed crop. “Of all plant protein sources,” the study says, “soybean cultivation alone occupies most land needed for production of animal products.”
Laca added that the average carbon footprint of a dozen eggs is 2.7kg of carbon dioxide equivalent, “a value similar to other basic foods of animal origin such as milk”, although “much lower than that of veal, pork, or lamb”.
While global egg production has more than doubled since 1990, however, it is heartening to see demand for vegan egg replacements also on the rise. Companies such as Just Egg and Follow Your Heart have created alternatives so convincing that, according to some vegans, they would scramble omnivores’ minds.