May 20, 2012
While I was at the weed summit I got an e-mail from Jane Bush about some MSU eggs that have been showing up in local supermarkets. In the interests of full disclosure, I should note that Jane owns Appleschram Orchard, which is where Thornapple CSA has leased some hoop houses and a plot of land to produce its weekly distribution of veggies. Jane has been very generous in the terms for these arrangements, and she is extremely supportive of the whole CSA project and the local food ideal. I need to write one of my “food ethics icons” blogs about her, but I haven’t gotten around to it yet.
But she was e-mailing me because of another hat she wears in connection with the Grazing Fields Co-op. This is a consortium of small scale farmers who market animal products in a number of mid-Michigan outlets. Most especially they produce eggs. That may be all they produce, but since I lack a full-time fact checker for the Thornapple Blog who could call up Jane and double-check, my tendency (you may have noticed) is simply to hedge my prose whenever there’s something I’m not pretty confident about. At any rate, it’s eggs she was inquiring about. Her concern was that these MSU produced eggs were going to undercut the market for Grazing Fields eggs. And she does not think that that is fair. Hence, another egg blog on food ethics.
I haven’t seen these MSU produced eggs, so I did a little bit of poking around and learned that they may be a side effect of the major expansion of research into systems for egg production in our Animal Science Department. I know a little bit about that, but I’m still not sure what’s what about eggs in local markets, and I’m totally in the dark about what will happen when the full scale research gets rolling sometime next year. I’m pretty confident that we (I mean MSU) will be producing more eggs that all the Grazing Fields producers put together. Again I hedge (“may be”, “pretty confident”, “still not sure”). As I’ve said before, not everything you read in the Thornapple Blog is strictly true, but today I’m trying.
So it wouldn’t be fair for MSU to put eggs into local stores in competition with Grazing Fields. The research in question is being sponsored by a coalition of retailers who want some impartial info on the welfare of hens being raised in different housing systems. I’ve written a couple of previous blogs about this debate. There’s “conventional cage production” which is the current norm for something like 96% of the eggs produced in the U.S. If you did read the essays in the NY Times on the ethics of meat eating, you know that people do not generally like it. I know, I know. Eggs aren’t meat, and in truth most people don’t know that there’s no more connection between chicken meat (e.g. broiler) production and eggs than there is between rutabagas and Maseratis. They are separate industries. But what can you do?
Sticking to eggs, the big alternatives to conventional cage production are, number one, birds wandering around on the floor, pretty much like broiler chickens. They can have more or less room on the floor, and they can have outside access or not. It may be more important whether they have good air circulation, a place to perch and a way to escape predators, but that’s another blog altogether. I believe (hedging again) that this is what Grazing Fields producers are doing. (Jane, if you’re out there, a bunch of us at MSU would indeed like a chance to visit some of these producers.) Number two, you can also build some pretty elaborate facilities called “aviaries”. These look a lot like caged production, but there are no doors on the cages. Birds can move around, but again overall space allotments and issues such as amenities like perches and outdoor access are variable.
Finally, number three, there’s “colony housing”. I wrote about this last July, so I’m just going to link to that blog here. MSU is doing some controlled experiments to determine how each of these different systems perform with respect to a) animal welfare; b) environmental impact; c) food safety (don’t expect much here) and d) a producer’s cost structure. As a byproduct, they will have quite a flock of egg laying chickens, and being egg laying chickens, they will lay eggs. And here we ask, “What are we supposed to do with all those eggs?”
Say, here’s a thought: People love MSU Dairy Store Ice Cream, and they love to support the Spartans. Let’s put ‘em in local grocery stores so folks can “Go Green” when they make an omelet. But whoa! This is the thought that has Jane in a tizzy. In fact, land-grant universities like MSU have been facing this quandary for over a century, and they have generally decided that it is a bad idea for them to take agricultural commodities that they can produce without needing to make a profit and then put them into a market where they compete head-to-head with the products of small producers who struggle to keep their heads above water.
But are they just supposed to put all their production into a hole in the ground? That seems wasteful, and when it comes to food, wasteful also seems morally wrong. And what about the University’s responsibility to taxpayers? Wouldn’t someone who saw us dumping potentially salable goods be entitled to complain when we show up at the legislature, hat in hand? Sometimes the University tries to absorb their production in on-campus food service, but truth to tell, that just elicits an angry e-mail from the Presidents of Sysco, Sodexo and US Foods, rather than Jane Bush. You can sell the stuff in ordinary commodity markets, though there you’re competing with Herbrucks. You can give ‘em to the Food Pantry, but it still means eggs that someone else didn’t get a chance to sell. It’s a dilemma—an ethical dilemma—and frankly, I’m not at all sure how this will wash out.
Sorry, Jane. I wish I could be more definitive.
Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University