It seems that we are all so keen to put an end to this long running battle over sow stalls and caged eggs, that we are treating Coles like a knight in shining armour that has ridden in to save the day. Coles have made a lot of promises that will allow many of the battle weary to get off the animal welfare treadmill, stop beating their drums and walk away with consciences appeased. But does Coles deserve such accolades?
Banning sow stalls, saying no to caged eggs - it’s just what the consumer wanted to hear, but how many of them will stop and think about the follow on effect these announcements will have on the pork and egg industries? Or even how Coles plans to implement this change and be in a position to verify that producers meet these requirements?
Has Coles forgone the details, or do they have standards, guidelines and auditing systems in place? Judging by recent activity in the egg and pork industries, I would suggest they have dumped this responsibility on the peak industry bodies, hence the mad scramble for the intensification of free range systems.
Free Range pork and eggs represent a small portion of those industries because of the size of this sector, not because of lack of demand. Most true free range systems are very extensive, labour intensive and require quite large areas of land for their operation. Already the Australian Egg Corporation has attempted to make dramatic changes to the stocking densities for free range chickens to accommodate Coles. Pork is moving to intensive outdoor pig production units.
How will Coles keep the price of free range eggs and pork down? How will it fulfill market demand when supply just isn’t available? These products presently come from farming systems with higher production costs. No doubt Coles will squeeze the farmer and force them to cut costs at the expense of animal welfare, the environment and the integrity of their product. Stocking densities will be increased, which has the potential to cause serious harm to the environment. A poorly managed outdoor system will impact not just on the welfare of the animals but also on that of humans with concentrations of manure leaching nutrient into our groundwaters and runoff into our rivers, and degradation of air quality.
Free Range is set to become a supermarket label with very little meaning. Coles will be happy for you to go on believing that free range means just that: free to range and that the animals grown under these systems spent their lives frolicking on grassy meadows. Free Range will become nothing more than a fantasy.
Without farming systems based on pasture, there will be no such thing as genuine free range. Instead we will have an unregulated industry driven by profit and the pressure of demand. What will the true cost of supplying free range to the supermarkets be? I don’t think any of us will be able to afford a supermarket version of free range.