Free Range Eggs are Less Environmentally Friendly: Should We Care?

A recently published study, partially funded by the government of Australia, found that free-range eggs have a higher carbon footprint than eggs produced from caged hens.  The reason involved feed, which can evidently be more efficiently administered to confined birds.

A few years ago I would’ve made a big deal about such a study. Much of my last book, Just Food, was dedicated to exposing the environmental myths of our so-called sustainable food movement. Today, while I still think such a finding is important, I’m both less excited and more daunted by this kind of finding.

I’m less excited because I’ve learned that, as the environmental promises of eating “sustainably” are revealed, foodies have quietly ditched the environmental justification for other justifications. They support small, free-range farms to build community, keep dollars local, support small farmers, and oppose industrial agriculture. Few advocates of free-range eggs, in other words, are going to stop eating free-range eggs just because their carbon footprint turns out to be higher.

I’m daunted because the framework in which the mainstream media analyzes the environmental consequences of eating animal products is flawed. Most notably, it completely excludes the ethical consequences of eating animals in the first place. It’s strange, but stories proliferate about the brilliance, emotional awareness, and social lives of non-human animals. These stories, however are usually limited to the science pages. They are, moreover, written in such a way as to elicit a “gee-whiz” reaction over morning coffee rather than motivate readers to think seriously about what animal sentience might mean with respect to consuming animal products.

Still, let’s not ignore the egg study. It has value, if only to remind advocates of “alternative” animal agriculture that their systems will never, ever provide more than a symbolic alternative to the industrial models we all despise.




About James McWilliams
I'm a historian and writer based in Austin, Texas. This blog is dedicated to exploring the ethics of eating animals and animal-based products.

One Response to Free Range Eggs are Less Environmentally Friendly: Should We Care?

  1. rick says:

    Leaving aside the subject matter and argument (which is, as per usual, spot on), this should be taught to schoolkids learning to write 5 paragraph essays.

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