Fussy eaters who need to be reassured that the chicken on their plate longed to die or over-educated wine/cheese/coffee snobs are easy comic targets. We laugh because they reflect our cultural uneasiness about our food — no surprise given food recalls, warnings about the dangers of high-fructose corn syrup, pesticide contamination and GMOs.
Our food has changed radically in little more than 50 years. Our government, supporting vegetable oil producers, urged eating less animal fat. Margarine replaced butter. Pork fat and lard were ousted by a new vegetable shortening, Crisco, originally created for making candles.
Proctor and Gamble re-purposed hydrogenated cottonseed oil as electricity replaced candles.
As family farms yielded to industrial agriculture, our food shifted from home-grown to factory-produced. Before 1950, obesity and coronary heart disease were rare; only 500 cardiologists practiced in the U.S.; today we have more than 30,000.
The humble egg, once a dietary staple that provided farm families with pin money, was demonized.
We’re now recognizing that eggs provide excellent protein. But are pastured, organic eggs worth any extra cost? The answer: a resounding yes.
Start with their nutritional benefits. In 2007, “Mother Earth News” published an analysis by Cheryl Long and Tabitha Alterman showing that free-range hens produce healthier eggs, with about one-third less cholesterol, one-fourth less fat, two-thirds more vitamin A, three times more vitamin E, twice the amount of omega-3 fatty acids and seven times more beta carotene than eggs from caged hens.
Organic eggs also contain high levels of selenium, a cancer and heart disease-fighter often lacking in modern diets; lecithin, which helps prevent heart disease and gallstones; and iodine, which supports healthy thyroid activity.
This 2007 nutritional analysis hasn’t been repeated or challenged. However, a USDA study led by food technologist Deana Jones found no difference between factory-farmed eggs and those from pasture-raised hens.
The 2010 USDA study used Haugh units, an egg-quality metric named for the technologist who developed it in 1937. It examines how high yolks sit and whites flow when an egg is cracked into a pan. Nothing about nutritional content, just a way of quantifying appearances, yet, it’s cited as the definitive answer about the difference between eggs from pastured hens and those from factory farms.
The study didn’t address which conditions are best for the hens — because there is no question. Factory hens, crowded into cages virtually unable to move, are simply egg-laying machines. Free-range and organic chickens move freely and receive higher-quality food.
No doubt about the hens’ preference.
Letting chickens roam offers other benefits. Chickens scratch out weeds and gobble pests. Insect infestations, grubs and slugs don’t stand a chance.
Bonus: these clucking bug munchers fertilize as they roam. Cleaning the hen house feeds the compost heap, which then feeds the crops in a natural cycle of biological interdependence.
Crowd thousands and thousands into battery cages, however, and chickens need food constantly dosed with antibiotics simply to keep them alive and laying. This unnatural, unhealthy environment for poultry creates a smelly nuisance as well as disposal problems. Large-scale animal farming operations create an unhealthy environment for critters and human neighbors alike. Reeking, concentrated disease-breeding excrement threatens streams, rivers and groundwater.
It’s difficult to put a price tag on the environmental benefit of having a small farm in your neighborhood compared to a factory operation, but there are economic benefits as well.
Many local small-scale farmers keep healthy, free-ranging chickens and sell eggs from their homes or from small stands on back county roads. Buying eggs from backyard producers is a simple, wholesome way to support the local economy.
Not long ago, most homeowners in rural Clallam County raised chickens; some bred varieties adapted to our local climates. Others helped keep genetic diversity alive by raising heritage breeds.
Commercial chicken factories raise only one breed, heedless of Mother Nature’s antipathy to monoculture. When we lose genetic diversity, a species becomes vulnerable to diseases that can wipe out whole populations.
Raising only one variety literally puts all our eggs in one genetic basket.
Eggs exemplify the economic, social and environmental benefits of locally raised organic food. And they’re a tasty nutritious bargain, too.
Diana Somerville writes about creating more sustainable communities and our personal connection with the environment. A Clallam County resident, she’s a member of the National Association of Science Writers, the Society of Environmental Journalists and the American Society of Journalists and Authors. Reach her at www.DianaSomerville.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.