I don’t have many kitchen philosophies, but for a long time my maxim (especially when cooking just for myself) was “put an egg on it.” Salad? Toast? Pasta? Rice? Asparagus? All turned into a complete meal with an egg. They’re fast, healthy, relatively inexpensive, and satisfying.
But sadly, my mission to eat fewer animal products has also meant eating fewer eggs, though I still sometimes put an egg on it. As far as food goes, eggs aren’t a complete climate villain, but cutting back can make for a positive environmental impact.
As with all industrial animal agriculture, manure management is a serious challenge, often leading to water pollution thanks to all that nitrogen and phosphorous. But let’s focus on the carbon context: we know that producing 100g of egg (roughly two large eggs) generates, on average, 3.8 kg of CO2, which puts it solidly in the middle of my favourite chart, producing more greenhouse gases than milk, wild fish, or most vegetables but less than all other meat products. In Canada, we eat about 14 kg of eggs per person per year, one of the highest amounts in the world. (If you’re curious, the U.S., China, Argentina, Mexico, Russia, Lithuania, and Malaysia eat more.) It’s possible our national bird should be the chicken.
Even vegetarians can be loath to give up eggs, and, like me, you may not want to kick the carton completely. But I think most of us also want our eggs to be less of a strain on the environment and on the lives of those mother hens. So let’s crack on in pursuit of more ethically sourced eggs.
Decoding egg labels
Is there a more confusing section of the grocery store? I don’t think so. And I will tell you that once I started researching this, any hope I had of cut-and-dry conclusions flew the coop. But I’ve explored some of the common labels so that you can at least make an informed choice.
No label: These are your cheapest eggs, generally under $3 a dozen, and it’s where almost all our eggs come from (95% in the U.S. in 2017). They may justly conjure images of factory farm horror, specifically “battery” cages so small a hen can’t extend its wings, and where it may be crammed in with up to six others, its bones and muscles deteriorating with lack of movement. (These cages are outlawed in the European Union. 71% of Canadian eggs still come from these conditions, but the egg industry has committed to removing a minimum of 85% from these cages by 2036.) “Enriched cages” have more humane cage sizes (so the birds can lay down, spread their wings, rotate, interact with objects, etc.). But many hens still don’t get to do hen things, like perching, pecking, dust bathing and laying eggs in a nest. There are some benefits to this system: manure may be removed by conveyor belt three times a day, and eggs can roll away cleanly and safely. These eggs are certainly the lowest cost and have a lower environmental impact than free-run, so ultimately I think it comes down to your opinion on a sentient (even smart) being’s life behind bars.
Cage-free/free-run: These birds aren’t caged, and they should have two to four times more space than their caged counterparts, though they’re still very crowded. They can perch, lay in nest boxes and peck at the ground. But manure can’t be easily removed, so chickens spend far more time in their own waste, promoting disease, and 10–20% of eggs are spoiled from too much time in poo (and remember, food waste is a major foe). This can also mean an increase in airborne pathogens, which can be inhaled by the birds and their keepers. The houses also use about 14% more feed (the biggest part of egg farming’s environmental impact) and heating. And from a welfare perspective, while the chickens have more freedom of movement, they like a pecking order, established in groups of around a dozen birds, but when thousands are in play, violence can break out.
Free-range: The setup here is similar to the free-run, except the birds may have access to a small area of access to the outside. It can simply be a caged concrete pad, so put aside any bucolic fantasies.
Pasture-raised: These birds have the life you might be hoping for when you buy free-range eggs: pecking about outside, eating bugs, sleeping in a coop at night. These small operations can be more sustainable, though pasture-raised chickens are more susceptible to predation and parasites than their indoor counterparts. From a human health perspective, there are benefits here: studies have found these eggs to have more vitamin A and omega-3s. They also have thicker shells and darker, sometimes orange yolks. Manure is harder to manage in this scenario, but many farms compost that manure to enrich their crops, reducing the need for other fertilizers.
Organic: Eggs are certified organic when chickens are fed organic, GMO-free feed and when they’re only given antibiotics when sick (as opposed to preventatively, which isn’t legal in Canada anyway). To be certified in Canada and the U.S., they also must have some outdoor access (free-range) and the operation must be audited by a third-party. They require about 20% more feed than caged hens.
SPCA certified (logo with a little red barn): The animals must be cage-free and be able to perform natural behaviours.
Hormone-free/antibiotic-free: Hormones and antibiotics aren’t used on laying hens in Canada, so the label is just some convenient green-washing.
I know, you thought fish were complicated! So what to take from this? You’ll have to triangulate your budget, options, environmental concerns, and animal welfare. I usually buy pastured eggs from my local co-op, which are about $6 a carton but make me rest easier.
As if figuring out the kind of egg to buy isn’t enough, you have a choice about cartons. But this is a bit easier: choose paper. In the past we’ve talked about the paper vs. plastic tradeoffs, but those egg cartons are made from recycled pulp, and they can be recycled once more (or are a great addition to your compost or worm bin). And avoid eggs packaged in styrofoam cartons altogether. You can also find package-free eggs and bring your own carton at many wonderful low-waste stores.
Raise your own
Many municipalities allow homeowners to play poultry farmer on a small scale. There are currently four trial wards in Toronto where you can legally keep birds in your backyard, though rebellious fowl enthusiasts have been secretly raising them all over Hogtown for years.
If you’re chicken-curious, but worried about the commitment, operations like Rent the Chicken will deliver you two to four birds, a coop, feed, and all the supplies you need. They’ll come and collect them when your rental period is over. (Here in our cold climate, people rent spring through fall, so they don’t have to worry about overwintering.)
I dream of being a mother hen to my own little flock of dinosaurs: aside from the eggs, chicken manure is an ace compost enhancer and I wouldn’t mind some help with the garden pest control. If you want to learn more, the Alberta Farm Animal Care group has informative webinars and videos to help you learn more and get started.
Don’t waste the eggs you have
Got a little overzealous at Costco, and the best before date looms? First, remember best before is just a suggestion. If you’re not sure if an eggs is still good, fill a bowl with water and gently drop the whole egg in. If it floats, it’s toast. But if it’s lying down or standing on the bottom, you’re good to go. (Horizontal is freshest, vertical means it’s time to get crackin’.)
If you’ve got a bunch of eggs past their prime, you could hard boil them to buy a little time, or crack the eggs, whisk yolk and whites together, and freeze. (Egg yolks don’t freeze well unscrambled, but if you have some whites leftover, they freeze just fine on their own.)
Eggs are a lower-carbon animal product, but still have a much bigger impact that most plants.
If animal welfare is a priority, you’ll spend more on eggs: pastured or organic are your best bet. But if you’re just looking at eco impact, you might choose cheaper eggs for lower emissions.
Choose paper cartons over plastic ones
Don’t waste your eggs: check them for freshness and freeze or boil as needed.
Wins of the Week
Last week’s gleaning newsletter bore fruit, and this week I’m putting my berry stained hands together to celebrate:
Sue, who did her first pick with Not Far from the Tree and scored a bunch of beautiful cherries right on her street. (Hard to get more local than that.)
Julie, who came over to shake my mulberry tree (not an innuendo, but weirdly sounds like one?). Hurray for sharing food and foraging skills!
Don’t forget to email me with your successes, large and small — your actions aren’t just awesome in themselves, they’re #greenspo for the rest of us.