Cage-free eggs will cost R5bn

Another debate coming to South Africa is the world-wide move to stop chickens, and particularly egg layers, from being housed in cages.

The campaign was started in 2019 by the World Organisation for Animal Health, pressing countries to move away from caged chickens due to animal welfare concerns.

South Africa’s National Agricultural Marketing Council (NAMC) has done a study of what would be involved. According to Farmers Weekly, the NAMC concluded that moving to an entirely cage-free system would cost billions of rand, result in significant egg price increases and cost thousands of jobs.

Currently, 94% of South Africa’s layer hens were being kept in cages, 5% in a cage-free system, and 1% in a shed. 

Dr Christo Joubert, NAMC’s manager for agro-food chains, said a direct investment of R4,93 billion would be necessary to convert South Africa to a totally cage-free system. Spread over five years, this would increase the cost of eggs by between R5.70 and R6 per dozen.

Dr Abongile Balarane, general manager of the South African Poultry Association’s Egg Organisation, told the publication that, while there was definitely a place for cage-free egg production within the layer industry, it was not feasible to move the entire sector to this type of production system.

“We first need to see an increase in consumer demand for free-range eggs and then production can shift towards this,” he said.

Balarane said cages helped farmers with biosecurity and protected against airborne diseases such as bird flu and Newcastle disease. South Africa was on the migratory route for wild birds, which carried bird flu, and chickens in open air systems would be more vulnerable.

“Even with our current, mostly caged system, the industry lost 2,7 million birds due to [bird] flu between April 2021 and April 2022. That is 10% of our entire layer flock.”

However the deciding factor is likely to be the NAMC projection that moving to an entirely cage-free system could result in the loss of 6 000 jobs. Balarane said many small-scale producers would be forced to leave the industry, dealing a blow to transformation.