- India raises approximately 460 million hens annually to produce eggs and is currently the third largest producer of eggs in the world. More than 80 percent of eggs come from industrial animal farms called factory farms.
- The industry’s method to produce cheaper eggs, in addition to poor animal welfare standards, also has an environmental impact contributing to deforestation and threatening air, water and soil quality, writes Alokparna Sengupta of Humane Society International, in this commentary.
- Globally, food companies are switching from battery cage systems to cage-free facilities. Companies making this change are looking for progressive regulators and farmers to collaborate with.
India raises approximately 460 million hens annually to produce eggs and is currently the third largest producer of eggs in the world. More than 80 percent of eggs come from industrial animal farms called factory farms, where egg-laying hens are intensively confined in barren, wire cages, called battery cages, the name arising out of the stacked arrangement of cages that resembles that of batteries. The industry’s method to produce cheaper eggs is not only costing the animals their lives because of poor animal welfare standards but also has an environmental impact.
Factory farming or intensive animal agriculture contributes to deforestation and threatens air, water and soil quality. Battery caged farms in India, typically house anywhere between 10,000 and 3,00,000 birds. This creates waste in a concentrated land space, which, often, is poorly managed.
A common view in any battery caged farm in India is a 2 to 3-foot pile of litter and faeces. Add to this, the wastewater in these concentrated farms and what you get is contaminated soil, air and water. The high volumes of animal waste coupled with the lack of recycling of nutrients to replenish the soil and fertilise crops causes deterioration of soil and water quality of the adjacent areas of the farm. The air contains toxic gases produced by the breakdown of the faeces and urine of the hens confined in such close spaces. One such example of gas released is ammonia which in turn produces odour. A typical battery caged farm will also see houseflies by the thousands if not more. This not only affects the health of the workers, who in India, do not have any hazard safety work gear and are often barefoot; but also affects the health of the residents living in the surrounding areas of the farms. Long term exposure to such an environment has shown to cause chronic and often fatal respiratory diseases in humans.
It is important to note the harm intensive farming production causes, is not an isolated challenge – its impact on public health is one of its results. In addition to this, battery cages, impact animal welfare. These cages pack 8-10 birds per cage, do not allow the hens to even stand up straight, turn around or even spread their wings. They prohibit the hens from expressing any of their natural behaviours, such as perching, nesting, laying their eggs privately in a nest box, roosting, among others.
A study was conducted by the CSIR – National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) in 2017, on the environmental impact of battery caged poultry farms in India. An analysis of the groundwater collected at various sites found considerably high levels of nitrate, sulphate and Total Dissolved Solids (TDS), all indicators of contaminated water.
Long exposure to nitrates in drinking water can result in diseases such as cancer, adverse pregnancies and risk to methemoglobinemia (elevated amounts of haemoglobin that contains excess of ferric iron, thereby reducing its ability to transport oxygen, which is the primary function for haemoglobin in blood) children. Further, a heavy metal content analysis revealed higher than the maximum tolerable limit of lead in the bird feed. High lead content can lead to liver and kidney dysfunction of the animal and can be fatal.
In contrast to this, NEERI’s study also analysed samples of cage-free facilities and found that odour and housefly infestation in cage-free farms were less, and the welfare of the animals were greatly improved.
The Law Commission of India, in its report titled Transportation and house-keeping of egg-laying hens (layers) and broiler chickens published in 2017 recommended a shift away from battery cages, and towards the construction of housing systems, such as cage-free and free-range housing systems. NEERI, in its report, supported the notification of the standards recommended by the Commission. In NEERI’s report, which drew the comparison of environmental impact between battery cage and cage free housing, the body concludes that cage-free housing systems are better equipped to manage the environmental hazards that come with egg production.
Conscious consumers across the globe are shunning battery cages and other forms of intensive animal agriculture practices and moving towards more sustainably produced food products. The industrial animal agriculture sector must be held accountable for its many deleterious impacts and must achieve changes in their practices. The industry is able to keep the cost of the eggs low by externalising the cost of the environment and the welfare of animals. With the vision of the poultry industry double its production in the next five years, it is imperative that the public, the environmentalists and the animal protection movement come together to fight for a safer planet for both its human and nonhuman inhabitants.
Globally, food companies are switching from battery cage systems to cage-free facilities. More than thirty companies with international presence including India are making this change and are looking for progressive regulators and farmers to collaborate with. This is the opportunity the government of India must seize. With the courts leaning towards inculcating better animal welfare and environmental standards in poultry farming, the Indian government would be wise to put India on the map of the cage-free world and show the world that not only does it stand by India’s pride of “Ahimsa” but is also practising it. We must take care of the planet it before we compel it takes its own course. A small but humane way to do that would be to go cage-free.
[Alokparna Sengupta is Deputy Director of Humane Society International/India, a not for profit animal protection organization works to protect all animals through education, policy change and hands on programs. For the past decade, HSI India along with its partner organisation People for Animals has been working with the Government of India and food companies to end use of battery cages in India.]
- Humane Society International. 2010. An HSI Fact Sheet: The Impact of Animal Agriculture on the Environment and Climate Change in India: A Focus on Methane. Accessed on June 23, 2019
- The Humane Society of the United States, 2008. Accessed on June 23, 2019
- NEERI. 2017. Brief Report on Environmental Status of Some Poultry Farms in India. Accessed on June 23, 2019.
- Ward MH, Jones RR, Brender JD, et al. Drinking Water Nitrate and Human Health: An Updated Review. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2018;15(7):1557. Published 2018 Jul 23. doi:10.3390/ijerph15071557. Accessed on June 23, 2019
Banner image: A battery-caged farm in India. Photo courtesy Alokparna Sengupta/Humane Society International.