'Ghost food waste' is another reason why the UK must ban rearing of farm animals in cages – Philip Lymbery

It might sound like a space-saving idea, but more than half of the UK’s cropland is devoted to feeding farm animals kept in cages

Browse the shelves of major supermarkets these days and you’ll be hard-pressed to find any eggs from caged hens. Not because they’re sold out, but because most of the big retailers have either stopped selling them or are about to. It’s a trend that’s been going on behind the scenes for a while now.

There used to be a concern that not selling ‘cheap’ eggs from hens in cages so small they can’t stretch their wings would lead to price hikes. But this fear was largely artificial. It stemmed from retailers selling cage-free alternatives, like barn or free range, at premium prices, which made the differentials so much steeper.

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It's been great to see leaders in the corporate world getting behind ending cage farming by taking such products off their shelves. What is now needed is for politicians to do the same. To take action to end the ‘cage age’ on animal welfare grounds, and thereby create a level playing field in the marketplace.

But there’s more to it than that. The use of cages is a symbol of all that’s unsustainable in farming these days. By taking animals out of fields and putting them in cages, it may look like a space-saving idea, but it isn’t because they must have their food grown for them in arable fields that could be growing food for people. And most of the food value in calories and protein of these confined, grain-fed animals is lost in conversion to meat, milk and eggs.

More than half of the cropland in Britain and Europe is destined for the feed troughs of industrially reared animals. It’s what I call ‘ghost’ food waste – just as wasteful but not as obvious as throwing it in the bin. In this way, globally, we squander enough food to feed four billion people – that’s half of humanity alive today. Which makes food scarcer and pushes up prices for us all.

But there’s even more wrong with it: cage farming is deeply damaging to the environment. Industrial feed crops tend to be grown with copious amounts of artificial fertiliser and chemical pesticides. These wipe out wildlife from our countryside and erode the soil. No wonder that the United Nations has warned, rightly, that carry on as we are, and we have just 60 years left in the world’s soil. Then that’s it.

But a big breakthrough was being talked about in Brussels recently. The European Commission announced two years ago that it would propose legislation to ban all cage farming, whether it be for egg-laying hens, pigs, or rabbits.

The only problem is that this new legislation has become stuck, spiked on the thorn of political uncertainty. With elections looming for the European Parliament, there’s no sign of the ambitious legislation once promised. And that matters for people everywhere, whether in Europe, Scotland, England, or the USA. What happens in the EU matters elsewhere.

And what’s becoming increasingly obvious is that being kind to animals is the least we can do to save the future for our children.

Philip Lymbery is the chief executive of Compassion in World Farming, a former United Nations Food Systems Champion and an award-winning author. His latest book is Sixty Harvests Left: How to Reach a Nature-Friendly Future. Philip is on X/Twitter @philip_ciwf



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