Organic Eggs, Is It All Clean And Innocent As We Think?

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Recently, we begin to see Malaysians ‘copying’ western countries in their obsession for organic food, especially so in wealthier regions like the Klang Valley, where consumers have greater purchasing power. Although organic foods are usually more expensive due to moral, environmental and/or health reasons, clearly Malaysians are willing to pay a higher price for them. So what exactly is organic food?

According to the Oxford Dictionary, organic food is defined as food produced without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or other artificial chemicals.

It is important for Malaysians to be wary: simply having a label ‘organic’ does not mean that it is safe and free from any environmental baggage. Not only is organic food production often poorly regulated, there are other indirect issues and an example of this is the organic free range egg problem in Western countries.

Organic free range eggs are produced from animals kept in their natural conditions without the use of chemicals or artificial means. In the case of chickens, the lifestyle of our ‘ayam kampung’ is what comes into the minds of every consumer wishing to buy organic free range chicken eggs. Such chickens are allowed to roam freely, pecking on anything nature has to offer and free from any medicines (antibiotics/hormones). The demand for such eggs increases because the public think that keeping chickens in cages is cruel. Cases of greedy farmers cramming too many chickens into small cages enhanced this perception. Unfortunately, one rotten apple spoils the whole basket.

If reared responsibly and according to the recommended guidelines, most modern breeds of chicken will live better, healthier and stress-free lives in cages than if forced to live outside. This may sound surprising, but to appreciate this, we must learn the history of chicken farming.

Chickens were first bred by us 50,000 years ago and originated from our ‘ayam hutan’ in Southeast Asia, with our ‘ayam kampung’ being their closest relative. In the last hundred years, increasing demand for eggs drove humans to breed them in indoor caged environment for higher productivity. The most productive caged chickens will then be the fathers and mothers of the next generation of chickens. This process is then repeated thousands of times, generations over generations. Today, we ended up with chicken breeds adapted to lay the most eggs in an indoor environment. They still look like chickens, but how different are they from their ancestors?

As a comparison, our local ‘ayam kampung’ produces an average of 25 eggs per year, while modern breeds such as White Leghorn or ISA Brown can lay up to 300 eggs per year and smaller in size! It is important for us to realize that these industrial, modern-bred chickens are now ‘indoor/city’chickens. Just like we cannot live the life of our nomadic ancestors, they can no longer cope well living in the wild. However, due to ignorance, demand for free range eggs increased tremendously in Western countries in the last few decades,  organic free range farmers had to farm large numbers of these modern chickens outdoor in small areas due to the high cost of land.

Many studies have shown that these commercial breeds experience more stress living outdoor because they can no longer cope with challenges like changes in temperature, diseases and living with other chicken in an open space. Further scientific studies showed that intense free range farming of these industrial chickens resulted in higher death rates, suffering and chicken cannibalism (chickens attacking one another). So to put it simply, just as it is cruel to force our ‘ayam kampung’ to live in a cage, it is also cruel to force these industrial breeds to live outdoors!

Fortunately, all is not lost. Institutions like The University of Oxford recognized this problem and there are now efforts to breed specialized ‘free range’ chicken that thrives in the European outdoors and at the same time are productive enough to meet consumer demand. In addition, there are credible small-scale organic farmers in Malaysia trying to produce their own local breed of free range chicken. These efforts must be commended and theoretically should be able to fulfill our organic free range demand.

However, looking into the future, we see a different issue. What if one day, every Malaysian only buys organic free range eggs? The case study below showed that using organic free range farming method, we simply do not have enough land to cater to our high consumption of eggs, unless we de-forest the remainder of our beautiful natural land. This means unknowingly, as Malaysians demand more organic chicken, more land is cleared.

The lesson here is that while organic food created an awareness and a sense of responsibility in our community, Malaysians must be vigilant in demanding strict regulations when sellers labeled a food as organic. It is worth noting that the best form of organic foods are those that we grow ourselves in our own ‘kebuns’. In addition, buying from local farms near you can be sustainable. However, it is not realistic to feed the entire Malaysian population this way, as not everyone owns a kebun or live near a farm. As such, we must not boycott conventional farming systems as we need it to fulfil our growing population. Instead, we should give support on improving our nation’s industrial farming system towards a more sustainable, responsible and transparent system based on our nation’s needs and not that of another country. This also reminds us not to be mere ‘copycats’ of the West, but must be able to give due considerations of our own conditions and needs, and arrive at the best solutions in the interest of ourselves and mother nature.

What is your verdict from the example below of two countries with similar land sizes, but different in human population and egg consumption.

Country Land Size (million hectares) Human population (million) Percentage of natural land remaining (%) Annual egg consumption per nation
New Zealand 26 4 23 990 million
Malaysia 33 28 66 7 billion

 

A free range farm must NOT have more than 2,500 hens per hectare. Contrary, enriched caged systems adhering to guidelines can house up to 20,000 hens per hectare!

 

Written by:                
Ms Wee Hui Bieh, AFMSA, September 2016

Original  author:       
Sarena Che Omar, PhD student at The University of Oxford specializing in genetics & food security.

Full article available at www.scientificmalaysian.com magazine, Issue No. 1

This post is also available in: zh-hans简体中文 (Chinese (Simplified))

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