The Egg Farmer's Conundrum - Do Ethics Equal Choice?

BC Egg Board's response to the cage-free question:

I recently read Ann Hui’s extensive exploration of some of the issues of the egg industry (The cage-free egg trend: Is it just a shell game?) in the Globe and Mail last week and was impressed by her fair and well balanced presentation.

The article discusses the cage or no cage debate among industry stakeholders. Hui says that scientific research is either driven by health and safety of the bird or the natural environment of the bird.

“Above all, the scientists have tried to help the companies distinguish between feelings – the visceral, emotional response that the public has to animals – and the facts. But in the move toward cage-free eggs, feelings appear to trump the facts.”

Dr. Grandin a livestock expert says most consumers “know little about food production, she says. They pick up their meat neatly sliced and packaged at the grocery store, or use an app to have fully prepared meals land on their doorstep within minutes.

This lack of knowledge, she says, is exploited by all those who have a stake in telling people how to eat – producers, companies and activists alike. And instead of getting their information from credible sources, people increasingly make snap judgments based on information from the Internet, images from social media – and their emotions.”

“Complicating matters is the philosophy underpinning the science, says David Fraser, a professor of animal welfare at the University of British Columbia. Some researchers consider animals’ health and production the main indicators.

Others focus on the stress, pain or fear they may experience. Still others take Dr. Duncan’s approach, arguing that, above all else, animals must be free to express natural behaviours.

Animal welfare is “sort of an umbrella concept,” Dr. Fraser says. “There are components you can measure, but there is no scientifically or purely objective way of balancing different goods.”

In other words, science can measure factors such as animal health or natural behaviours, but choosing which is more important is an ethical decision – not a scientific one.”

I find the keyword here is ethics. Choosing is an ethical decision; but whose decision is it? This is the farmer’s conundrum today.

Right now in British Columbia the egg producers have 22% of their production outside of cages. This is driven by the consumer’s demand at grocery level. This demand is growing at a pace of say 10 – 15% per year and you would need a crystal ball to know when it will reach its peak and if it will flatten out. After all, 50% of consumers in BC do not care about this issue and over 80% are purchasing eggs because they are an inexpensive source of protein and other health benefits.

Currently the ethical decision rests with consumers and they vote at the grocery counter when they make a decision. Research by the Hartman Group suggests that 39% of consumers feel that the grocery decisions are as important as casting a vote for social issues.  

At the production level the farmer can make his/her own ethical choice if he/she wants to change production methods or not. It is apparent that a lot of farmer’s are very much aware of social issues and are switching their production methods. Fortunately the market is taking care of itself – supply equals demand currently!

Now what happens when activists and lobbyists convince grocery chains or restaurant chains to switch across the board and stop buying furnished eggs? Does an activist, who has no concern from a home grocery budgeting point of view and is not risking spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to change production, trump the consumer who manages the family budget and heart strings, or the farmer who has to take financial risk to convert production?

In today’s society it does not seem that choice rests with those managing budgets or spending the money, or it does not matter what your emotional position is on an issue, as a paid activist organization has more power in the marketplace than you.  Is this where we are going?

When the consumer has a heightened sensitivity to food prices is it ethical for a lobby group to drive up prices? 

What if the environmentalists pressed the auto industry and convinced Ford, GM, Chrysler and Toyota to stop selling gasoline or diesel cars and trucks tomorrow and only go with electric vehicles next week? The price of your transportation would double. The consumer no longer has a choice! The ethical decision for the consumer just got discounted and the consumer lost their voice!

Farming with integrity is far broader than just cages or no cages. It involves waste management, water conservation, energy management, safety and health care of workers, as well as animal care. It is a balanced report card and the egg industry does an excellent job ensuring the farmers are managing sustainability issues at the farm. Activists whether environment or animal rights associations have a large voice in raising the bar on sustainability and their voice is definitely heard and accommodated by the BC egg producers.

The BC Egg Marketing Board ensures the producers are good caretakers of the public interest and guardians of our social license, by using a principles-based decision-making process. It focuses on broad guidelines which we entitle SAFETI (Strategic, Accountable, Fair, Effective, Transparent and Inclusive). Inclusive means engaging all stakeholders and not just the ones on your side in a position). Lobby groups should be held to the same higher ground in their requests, as opposed to, taking a singularly focused view on their point of interest.

Historically, one’s ethical stance on any issue, is personal. Are we all being truly ethical in the debate and engagement process? Is choice how this should be managed in the marketplace? Is choice how you exercise your ethical vote?  Should specialized groups take “Individual Choice and Rights” out of the marketplace?

Definitely a conundrum for the industry and its stakeholders – all of them!

Brad Bond

Chair

BC Egg Marketing Board

RELATED LINKS:

The cage-free egg trend

Huffington Post on Canadian food prices