There are probably many ways we could discuss agriculture issues, but an article by Daniel Boffey in The Guardian explains about a recent effort for carbon-neutral eggs. Boffey states that organic and free-range varieties reflect farmers’ priority for the welfare of the chickens, at a cost to the wider environment. However, carbon-neutral eggs take a more all-encompassing perspective.
One step beyond organic or free-range: Dutch farmer’s chickens lay carbon-neutral eggs
There’s the much-criticised battery hen egg, and then the pricier organic and free-range varieties. But for the truly ethically committed, how about the carbon-neutral egg, laid in what has been billed as the world’s most environmentally friendly farm?
Dutch stores are now selling so-called “Kipster eggs” laid at a shiny new farm near the south-eastern city of Venray. “Kip” means chicken in Dutch, “ster” means star, and it’s no coincidence the name rhymes with hipster. The intention is to rethink the place of animals in the food chain, according to Ruud Zanders, the poultry farmer and university lecturer behind the farm, which includes a visitor centre, corporate meeting room and even a free cappuccino machine.
Mass-producing farms, even those that have moved on from cages, produce extremely cheap eggs at a heavy cost to the environment and the welfare of the animals laying them. The cost-cutting model is blamed by many for the regular food scares in northern Europe, including the recent enforced destruction of millions of eggs due to contamination by the toxic insecticide fipronil.
The organic and free-range varieties, where farmers prioritise the welfare of the chickens, often sell at a higher price – but again at a cost to the wider environment, feeding the chickens expensive imported corn that could be better used to feed people.
“It makes no sense for us to be competing with animals for food,” Zanders said. “And 70% of the carbon footprint in eggs is accounted for by the feed for the chickens.”
The 44-year-old, who once ran his father’s low-cost, high-production egg business, with a €45m annual turnover, believes he has hit the sweet spot with his new venture, home for the last five weeks to 24,000 chickens, whose eggs recently went on sale in Dutch Lidl stores in packaging made from potato starch.
Zanders’s selling point is that his farm has the highest welfare standards – as endorsed by Dutch animal activist group Animals Awake – matched with the lowest possible environmental cost. This second point is supported by Wageningen University, which has been examining the farm’s carbon footprint and fine dust emissions. The eggs, meanwhile, are sold at a more affordable price as the farm is not seeking to live up to some of what Zanders believes are the less sensible strictures necessary to describe his product as free-range or organic.
Every day at 10am, the shutters between the hens’ sleeping quarters and a covered courtyard at the Kipster farm slowly lift. With a flurry of feathers, thousands of plump white birds venture out into the daylight to climb, hide and bustle among the trees scattered over their play area until the shutters close again at 7.30pm.
The hens are not technically free-range, because there are not 10 hectares of open land for them to run around on, as demanded by law. But Zanders says chickens are naturally wood-living creatures, often fearful of open exposed land, and so a smaller outdoor area along with the covered courtyard provides the best setting. “Every free-range farmer knows that if you have 10 hectares, the chickens will only use nine,” he said. “We have 6.7 hens per square metre. A free-range farm would typically have nine hens per square metre.”
Above the courtyard is an irregular triangle of ceiling, a third of which is clear glass allowing daylight in while the remainder is frosted due to the farm’s 1,078 solar panels that provide enough electricity to keep the building running while selling power back to the grid.
Meanwhile, the chickens are fed a diet of broken biscuits, rice cakes and other “residual flows” (the edible stuff we throw away) collected from bakeries in the area and made into feed. The eggs produced are not organic because the feed is not organic, but the animal is fitting into the food chain rather than competing with humans for corn, Zanders said. By using waste food as feed, the farm is also cutting deeply into its carbon footprint.
“By reducing our carbon footprint, and making energy from the solar panels to be sold on, we believe, from Wageningen University’s initial calculations, that we are laying carbon-neutral eggs,” Zanders said. “If anything suggests that is not the case as time goes on, we will invest in solar panels elsewhere to make sure we reduce CO2 emissions”.
After 70 weeks the hens are slaughtered but not, as is often the case in northern Europe, dumped on the African meat market, which undermines any hopes of poultry farmers there running a profitable business. Instead they will be turned into chicken burgers and nuggets to be sold on the local market.
The Kipster farm has also struck an agreement with the chicken-rearing farm that provides the hens. In northern Europe, chicken farmers breeding for egg-laying farms tend to gas the male chicks when they hatch – 350 million a year across the continent. These are then used for feed in zoos or all to often are thrown away. “Ours will be reared for 17 weeks before they are slaughtered, and then we will make rooster burgers,” Zanders said. “People may have an issue with the treatment of the roosters, but at least we are trying to find a solution.”