Backyard chickens won’t answer demand for humanely produced food

Leanne McConnachie
Georgia Straight online
Publication Date:
March 12, 2009

The Vancouver Humane Society’s Chicken Out program aims to phase out battery cages for egg-laying hens by encouraging those who buy eggs to purchase only free-range eggs from audited and certified farms. You might think then that the society would be supportive of Vancouver city council’s decision to allow urbanites to keep egg-laying hens in residential backyards.

Although we commend council members for endorsing a motion that helps get chickens out of cages, the Vancouver Humane Society opposes their decision.

In an ideal world where all humans care responsibly for animals, the movement to allow backyard chickens in the city might be acceptable. However, it is our experience that even the best-intentioned people too often fail to have the financial resources, husbandry knowledge, or permanency in their housing situation to properly care for their animals.

Every day we are reminded of cases of abuse, neglect, and irresponsibility towards domestic, farm, and exotic animals, despite the availability of training services and humane education programs, and despite laws and enforcement procedures to protect animals.

Although the motion does propose policy guidelines designed to ensure the humane treatment of hens, if interest becomes widespread, how will the city find the resources necessary to monitor potentially hundreds of urban backyard operations to see if people are following regulations?

One question that needs to be asked is why this motion came before council in the first place?

At the forefront is the public’s concern with the health and safety of our food supply, the mistreatment of animals on factory farms, and the environmental degradation industrialized agriculture can cause. But beyond ethical considerations, the answer also lies in the simple relationship between supply and demand.

All too often we hear of individual consumers and major corporate buyers of eggs who are frustrated with the price, inadequate supply, and choice available of cage-free eggs—particularly certified organic eggs. How is this possible when the industry itself has an egg board responsible for managing supply?

One only has to look to examples where the supply-management system fails to respond to the needs of consumers and the farmers themselves.

Take, for example, John and Willy Driesen of Rehoboth Farm in the Fraser Valley. Over two years ago, they applied to increase their quota from 399 to 3,000 hens to meet the huge demand for their organic free-range eggs. The Driesens invested significantly in their business, obtaining three levels of third-party certification—organic, SPCA, and specialty. They were then placed at the top of a waiting list, only to find out one year later that the waiting list had been scrapped and the board would switch to a lottery system instead to assign quota. They are still waiting.

Well, the Driesens may finally get their chance. The egg board’s supply-management system and its effectiveness, or lack thereof, is now currently under review by the provincial government. We anticipate that the board will finally enact the new entrant program for specialty cage-free eggs—as it was originally directed to implement in 2006 by the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture—albeit in a limited and gradual manner over the next two years. A small concession indeed, but at least it is a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, the board will likely proceed with a lottery to assign quota, which will not ensure the most qualified farmers obtain the right to produce our food.

There is no question we need more local, “greener”, and humanely produced food to ensure the public’s interest is being met. But allowing everyone to become backyard poultry farmers is the wrong answer.

City councils and their residents should leave egg farming to certified professionals such as the Driesens who have proven they know how best to take care of their flocks. With increasing demand for certified egg products, one can only hope that industry and provincial and federal governments will be forced to respond and provide the proper management and oversight our food system, and the animals, require.