Cracking Food Prices, On The Front Line Of Brazil's Egg Rush
With the price of meat on the rise, Brazilians have turned to eggs. The country is now producing 55 billion eggs a year, presenting challenges for farmers and raising questions of animal welfare. And in Brazil's "Egg Capital", the climate crisis is complicating matters further.
CURITIBA — "After the 15th, it's almost impossible to eat meat," says salesperson Cristina Souza Brito, as she leaves a supermarket in Curitiba, capital of the state of Paraná in southern Brazil.
“Chicken or beef is only available when the salary comes at the beginning of the month," she adds. "Then we get by with omelettes, fried or boiled eggs."
Since the beginning of 2021, this has been the routine in the house where she lives with her daughter, a niece and two siblings. Brazilians might be replacing meat with eggs because of their budgets: meat has increased in price above inflation and, in April 2022, it cost 42.6% more than in early 2020, according to the Institute of Applied Economic Research.
The group Food for Justice pointed out that at the end of 2020, eggs had been the food that Brazilians had been consuming more of (+18.8%), and meat recorded the biggest drop (-44%), which reinforces the idea of substitution between the two foods.
Health and economic crisis aside, Brazilians have never eaten as many eggs as they do now. Egg consumption in the country has more than doubled in the last 15 years, rising from the annual mark of 120 eggs per capita in 2007 to 257 in 2021, according to figures from the Brazilian Animal Protein Association. The current level of eggs consumed by each Brazilian over the course of a year is higher than the world average, which is 227.
In a scenario where consumption is increasing, the egg industry in Brazil is rushing to meet all this demand. Since 2010, the poultry industry has practically doubled in size in the country, and today Brazil produces around 54.9 billion eggs per year. That's 1,700 eggs per second. Such increased productivity, however, does not occur without farmers having to deal with their own challenges.
In hot weather, hens end up laying fewer or smaller eggs, and they can die at temperatures of +40ºC. In Brazil's “Egg Capital” of Bastos, São Paulo, where about 6% of all eggs in Brazil are produced, such heat is becoming normal. In October 2020, they reached that temperature for at least five days in a row.
Danilo Florentino Pereira, professor of agricultural engineering at the São Paulo State University, explains why: “It is an effect of the bird's biological machine and its ability to acclimatize: they were used to a very cool climate and, suddenly, a heat wave comes along, and the chickens suffer confined in a cage, literally with nowhere to run.”
Dealing with high temperatures requires preparation from farmers. Some methods of mitigating the heat includes fans, nebulizers, painting the roof of the farms white, and reducing the number of chickens in the same cage.
A global report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change of the United Nations indicates that the average temperature on the planet will increase by 1.5ºC in the next two decades. That is why, researcher Daniel Lamarca concluded in his thesis in agribusiness and development that, in order to survive, the egg industry will need to adapt part of the current production systems. He shows fully air-conditioned systems as an alternative, and at least 30% of the chicken herd in the municipality are already raised in climate-controlled environments.
Bastos Egg Festival in Brazil
6,200 eggs per minute
The city of Bastos boasts a peculiar ratio of over 500 chickens for every person of the municipality. There are just over 20,000 inhabitants (humans) and 11.3 million chickens, spread over approximately 60 farms. They produce 3.2 billion eggs per year or 6,200 per minute.
In a conventional shed, with 5,000 chickens, around 4,500 kg of solid waste is produced every month.
Those who visit the municipality notice the strong smell of chicken feed and manure. The closer to the farms, the greater the number of flies circulating. Although the presence of these insects is more common in rural areas, it is not difficult to find restaurants or small establishments that sell food in the city suffering from the problem, and, from time to time, the infestation of flies causes the locals to complain.
Today, most farms in Bastos follow the model of creation in cages and in open sheds. Also known as the “Californian system”, the cages are arranged on two floors along a huge corridor, covered by a roof and without side walls, surrounded only by wire mesh. The more modern sheds, which are fewer but increasingly present, are built to house more than one row of cages. They have the highest ceilings and are completely closed.
In addition to climate control using a refrigeration system, in these closed sheds, the supply of feed and the collection of excrement produced by the chickens are done automatically, using a system of mats. In conventional sheds, waste removal is done manually. On average, a hen produces 30 grams of excrement per day. In a conventional shed, with 5,000 chickens, around 4,500 kilograms of solid waste is produced every month. Hence, the explanation for the large number of flies circulating around the city.
Impact on biodiversity
After being removed by the farmers, the excrement is sold to the so-called “manure collectors”, who transform the material into fertilizers. In addition to the fly problem, if not handled correctly, chicken excrement can cause problems both for the health of the animals themselves and for local biodiversity, explains Professor Nilsa Silva.
“Brazilian legislation and the procedures manuals adopted by the farms are quite strict in this regard, and producers know the importance of correct management. As there is this circular character, with the excrement being transformed into fertilizers, it is possible to say that the environmental impact of the farms is very low when compared to that of other animal productions,” says the professor.
With the correct handling of excrement and carcasses, egg farm production does not have a major impact on the ecosystems of the municipalities where it operates. In Bastos, except for flies and the smell of birds near the farms, there are no records of water or environmental impacts generated by the laying activity. When analyzing public data about the city, however, one fact stands out: the incidence of diarrhea in the population, but there is not a specific study to determine the correlation to the egg industry.
Bastos "Egg festival" in Brazil
The problem of going "cage free"
In Brazil, there is no federal regulation about this, although the discussion has started to appear in society and in the political sphere. In March 2022, State Deputy Carlos Giannazi proposed Bill of Law 138/2022 in the São Paulo Legislative Assembly, which intends to give priority to the acquisition of eggs from producers that use the rearing system of “cage free” birds in bidding processes promoted by the State.
Loose breeding requires totally different care
That change by law would be viewed apprehensively by farmers: “We learned how to raise chickens in cages. Loose breeding requires totally different handling and care. It's as if we had to learn from scratch, or we're doomed to lose everything,” says producer Sérgio Kakimoto, who sees the sanitary control of chickens as the main vulnerability of the new system.
In addition to making sanitary management more difficult, free-ranging chickens require a restructuring of the routine and structure of the farms, more labor and, in many cases, tend to cause a drop in the productivity of the birds.
The market can also force some farmers to change their production systems. With the increase in animal welfare discussions, companies that are part of the production chain have begun to publicly commit to the issue. However, there are more challenges for this transition: egg prices have risen since the beginning of the pandemic due to high production costs, which could increase even more if the free cages model were widely implemented as they require more labor.
"We already have the issue of heat waves that require special care on the part of producers and, as a result, more costs. Likewise, changing the production system away from cages also contributes to a price increase, which hurts the lower economic classes. It's a complex matter", summarizes Daniel Lamarca.
In some supermarkets in the country, there are egg cartons with the seal “happy chickens” or “free chickens”. This is an alternative type of production system, in which the birds are free in the shed. It remains a confinement system, with controlled food and lighting, but with more physical space for the animals to behave naturally. This model is known as “cage free”.
In Europe and Canada, for example, the production system of laying birds confined in cages is already prohibited. In other countries, such as the United States, Australia and India, the ban is under discussion.
“In terms of animal welfare, this is the ideal model,” says Patrycia Sato, technical director of the NGO Alianima, an environmental and animal protection entity. According to Sato, inside the cage, each hen has a little less space than a sheet of A4 bond paper to live its entire productive life of about two years. The chickens cannot even spread their wings or scratch on the ground.
This type of shed would also be more advantageous from a climate point of view. “A shed without cages is much easier if it needs to be air-conditioned because it is already closed. And the number of birds per square meter is smaller, an important variable in heat wave episodes,” explains researcher Daniel Lamarca.