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Organic Eggs Take a Beating

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Every week, Rosemary Gilberson drives an hour to drop off eggs from her 600 hens to a Calgary whole foods market

Every week, Rosemary Gilberson drives an hour to drop off eggs from her 600 hens to a Calgary whole foods market. The eggs come from chickens who have access to sunlight, fresh air and open space. They ingest no herbicides, pesticides or antibiotics. Customers usually scoop the eggs off the shelf, knowing how much healthier these eggs are compared to conventional eggs.

Organic eggs can be hard to come by in southern Alberta and Rosemary and her husband, Dean, have been expanding their operation to 600 hens to try and meet the demand. Yet in May, the Poplar Bluff farm received a letter from the Alberta Egg Producers Board, an agricultural regulatory body, stating that they had too many hens and had to reduce their flock to 300 birds immediately! After painstakingly building up their business, the Gilbersons were not willing to cut it in half. The alternative was to pay for quota. To ensure price stability in the volatile agricultural sector, marketing boards decide how much is produce by selling quota to producers.(Notice that the Egg Board treats conventional eggs and organic eggs as serving the same market, saying they are basically the same product. They should try telling that to the thousands of Canadians who have switched to buying only organic/free-range eggs!)

In Alberta, there are 172 quota holders with an average of 8,700 birds each. For Poplar Bluff Farm to pay quota fees for 600 hens at current market prices, they would need to pay $45,000 plus bank loan interest. Add another $9000 in annual fees and levies, and the price increase on Poplar Bluff eggs would push them out of the market and into bankruptcy.

The Egg Board's policies protect the large industrial farms that have 10,000-20,000 birds crammed into small square cages in artificially-lit barns. It comes at the expense of family farmers who want to make a living following sustainable and ethical organic practices. The large quota holders are those who elect directors to the Egg Board, and seem to be afraid of little 600-bird Poplar Bluff.

Meanwhile, 89 percent of the levies charged on eggs in Alberta go to the Canadian Egg Marketing Agency. In 1999, the national body bought $91 million of fresh eggs and sold them to egg processors for $40 million. The reason for the discrepancy seems to be to improve the competitiveness of Canadian egg processors in the growing global market for powdered egg products. This means that Canadian egg consumers are paying an export subsidy for the processed egg industry to the tune of $50 million a year. This clearly indicates that government policy favors industrial egg processors over small producers and consumers.

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