Is brunch over? I hope so – like afternoon tea, it’s a stupid meal, sabotaging two perfectly good ones. Then there’s the queueing, all that sourdough massacring your soft palate, and dribbles of hollandaise, horribly reminiscent of baby posset. None of this has stopped people, but perhaps egg shortages will.
The UK egg drought never quite reached pandemic pasta proportions, but rationing was widespread through November and supply has not wholly recovered. The United States is now in the grip of acute shortages, with 60% year-on-year price rises, a dozen eggs reportedly reaching $18.
Why? Bird flu, of course, has meant huge culls of commercial flocks. But farmers say increased costs are equally, or more, to blame – energy and feed (the cost of raw materials has risen by 90% since 2019, according to the National Farmers’ Union). Major retailers remain unwilling to pay farmers a sustainable price for their goods – increased retail prices aren’t reflected in what farmers are getting – meaning many have concluded egg production is not economically viable.
I have hopes for the egg shortages and they go beyond outlawing hollandaise. The serious one is that it would be amazing if they let us face, and even challenge, the reality of intensive egg production. Is this a bait and switch: brunch provocation for hen welfare? Yes, sorry. But it is grim and it matters: “enriched” cages (giving each bird no more than a sheet of A4’s worth of space according to the RSPCA) are still legal and deprive birds of their natural scratching, flapping, dust-bathing behaviours. Barn-raised birds fracture bones moving around because they’re bred too heavy (86% of them, according to Henry Mance’s How to Love Animals). Then, regardless of the farming system, billions of male chicks are killed because there’s no use for them.
Hens aren’t supposed to produce eggs all year round. In the American hen-keeper and journalist Tove Danovich’s imminent book Under the Henfluence, she explains that, historically, “winter eggs” were a rare luxury, four or five times as expensive as summer ones. Now, artificial lighting keeps layers productive, giving us eggs on tap. That takes such a toll, UK producers only keep their hens for 72 weeks, on average. They aren’t sent to a sun-dappled orchard to peck out the rest of their days under the trees, if you’re wondering.
Cheap food has unacceptably high costs. Is that as bad as children dying from mould and malnutrition? Of course not. Millions of people don’t have the luxury of choice – especially now – and no one struggling to feed themselves and their loved ones should be thinking about this stuff. The problem is structural: our system is inhumane and it’s a disaster in waiting; a disaster that may have already happened. At minimum, intensive production has been instrumental in spreading the current, catastrophic bird flu strain.
My sillier hope is that, as the end times draw seemingly closer, backyard chicken keepers like me become the supply cornering barons of apocalypse narratives. I imagine myself sitting in a heavily guarded enclave, wearing a feathered cloak and stroking a pekin bantam, receiving supplicants hoping to exchange their treasured possessions (petrol, jewels, cashmere) for a single, precious egg. Finally, my girls would earn their keep and eggs would get their lustre back. Imagine how you’d revere an egg if it was as rare and luxurious as a truffle: imagine how differently you’d view the creature that produced it?
The only problem: my hens aren’t laying. They’re young, it’s winter and I chose them for aesthetics (they look like murderous Hollywood golden age widows), not productivity. In spring, they might manage an egg or two a day – between the six of them – at best. Since theirs are the only eggs I eat now, each one is a tiny miracle and a source of celebration. I’m fine with that. I don’t keep them for eggs, but because they’re funny, endearing and delightful to watch: they love digging for worms or dustbathing, wings spread in the sun; they have personalities and preferences. That’s how I know all hens deserve better.
• Emma Beddington is a Guardian columnist