News - September 3, 2015

Cage eggs more sustainable than free-range eggs

Albert Sikkema

The most sustainable eggs in the Netherlands come from chickens in enriched cages. Barn eggs score lowest, shows a Wageningen study comparing the sustainability of cage, organic, barn and free-range eggs.

Researchers from Rikilt, Biometris, the LEI and Food & Biobased Research used their own research and the literature to see how the different eggs scored in terms of environment (including CO2 emissions), welfare, food safety and price. This led to sustainability scores in the areas of people, planet and profi t, with a production system coming out as the ‘best practice’ in each category.

From the environmental point of view, eggs from enriched (or ‘furnished’) cages (cages with 750 cm2 per layer hen) came out best. This system produces the least ammonia and CO2 per animal, the researchers established. Free-range and organic eggs had the lowest environmental score. But when it came to ‘people’ issues (welfare, food safety and the consumer), free-range eggs scored best and the enriched- cage and barn hen scored low. As for economic performance, the enriched cage and the organic egg were the best bets. If you give equal weight to all the criteria, the enriched-cage egg scores highest on sustainability and the barn egg the lowest, conludes researcher Esther van Asselt of Rikilt.

She did the study for the ministry of Economic Affairs, which wanted to gain insight into the sustainability of various agricultural production systems. ‘If you prioritize animal welfare, you want a different egg than you do if the environment is more important to you,’ says Van Asselt. The egg research is part of a triad of studies. Van Asselt previously studied the sustainability of milk and potatoes. In the potato study she distinguished between standard, organic and urban farming potatoes. The urban farming potato scored best in ‘people’ terms, the standard potato in ‘planet’ terms, but the differences in the overall sustainability scores were negligible.

In the milk study she differentiated between standard, organic and raw milk. To her astonishment, raw milk came out best and standard milk worst. ‘The energy and transport costs are lower for raw milk. At Rikilt we are not so happy with that result, because raw milk poses a food safety risk. At the end of last year a child died in Australia after drinking raw milk infected with e. coli. A government can stimulate production, but then the producer must install hygiene measures and monitor more.’