Jordi Casamitjana, the author of the book “Ethical Vegan”, explains why vegans don’t eat eggs, even the backyard ones from rescued hens
It’s not a conundrum because the answer is obvious.
Who came first, the chicken or the egg? It was the egg, of course. You don’t need to be a zoologist like me to know that. Animals of all sorts (butterflies, bees, sharks, frogs, lizards, etc.) were already reproducing with eggs before any dinosaur had evolved into birds. Birds of all sorts were already reproducing with eggs before any one of them had evolved into the Indian Jungle Fowl, the species from which chickens were domesticated. Even if we imagine that the emergence of the first chicken came from a single mutation of a reproductive gamete inside an Indian Jungle hen’s ovary, or from the mating of a genetically unique Indian Jungle rooster and a hen that created the first chicken, that chicken would have not grown from a chick if that chick would not have developed from an embryo inside an egg.
Even if you see them only as food — which I don’t as I have been a vegan for over 20 years now— people were already eating eggs of wild birds before chickens were first domesticated in India about 10,000 years ago. Of course, the egg came first! Why is this even a cliche conundrum? Is there anyone out there thinking that chickens were born fully formed as mammals do, without any eggs?
Here is another ridiculously false conundrum involving eggs: how can humans survive without eating eggs? Easily, I would say. The existence of vegans in the world (some estimate there are currently 80 million people in the world who are surviving solely on a vegan diet), who avoid eating any animal products including eggs, proves that indeed people can survive without eating eggs, as many are living long lives. For instance, Donald Watson, one of the founders of the Vegan Society, died at the old age of 95, back in the mid-20th century when people did not live as long as we do now. Even Abū al-ʿAlā al-Maʿarrī, the fully vegan poet of the 11th century Islamic Golden Age — the very man who wrote, “do not grieve the unsuspecting birds by taking eggs for injustice is the worst of crimes” — lived till the age of 84 that long ago (general life expectancy in the region was only 35 years then).
Nevertheless, this false myth that humans need to eat eggs has been so engraved into people’s minds through carnist propaganda, that some people who had decided to become vegan felt later such a strong urge to yield to the pressure of the relics of their carnist indoctrination that they started eating eggs again and abandon veganism. Some of these people tried to rationalise it by deciding to eat only the eggs from particular birds in particular circumstances. For instance, abandoned eggs; or eggs from small “free range” chicken farms; or eggs from rescued hens; or eggs from backyard hens; or abandoned eggs from rescued hens from small “free range” chicken farms. Some of these people even created a different word to label themselves, mixing the term “vegan” with “egg”: veggans.
I do not consider veggans to be vegan, because vegans do not eat eggs. Not just the most radical militant animal rights ethical vegans avoid them, but all the other types of vegans I know do the same. No matter which of the five gateways pre-vegans use to enter veganism (spirituality, animal rights, the environment, social justice, or health), one of the first things they do when they enter what I call “the Vegan Mansion” (a metaphor I use to show veganism is a comfortable home big enough for everyone) is to stop eating eggs.
They all have good reasons to do so. Let me list some.
Spiritual Reasons Vegans Don’t Eat Eggs
Although the socio-political vegan movement aimed to create the vegan world arguably started with the secularisation of the abstinence of animal products (firstly, with the creation of the Vegetarian Society in 1847, and then, with the split into the Vegan Society in 1944), the philosophy of veganism that precedes the movement started millennia ago. The concept of trying not to harm others, to living avoiding violence, it’s very old, and possibly appeared independently in different parts of the world creating the philosophical seeds of the vegan philosophy.
About seven or eight centuries before the Common Era, in the area we call today northern India, this concept received the name ahimsa (in Sanskrit this means “do no harm”). By incorporating it as a tenant of several religions (Hinduism, Jainism, Ajivikanism, and later Buddhism), it transcended the theoretical realm of abstract thought into people’s lifestyles (which started by avoiding eating the flesh of other sentient beings). Those proto-vegans of ancient history followed the doctrines of their religions and applied ahimsa by rejecting many animal products. Most may not have rejected all of them to be classified as fully vegan yet, but some may have advanced more in their spiritual path than others and may have become the first vegans when they dropped all animal products. These entered veganism through the spiritual gateway, the first one that opened, and it continues to be open as many pre-vegans are still using it today to enter veganism (such as many yoga-type or New-Age people).
Even before those ancient historic proto-vegans entered veganism they were already avoiding eating eggs. All members of the Jain religion, and most Hindus as well, are lacto-vegetarians, which means that they may be eating dairy foods, but they avoid both animal flesh and eggs of any type. And they do it because the ahimsa principle, as they consider that eating an egg would harm a sentient being (and that is bad Karma for them). This is because although the egg is not sentient yet, has the potential to grow into a sentient being. They did not make a distinction between fertilised eggs that would definitively hatch into sentient beings if incubated properly, or those unincubated or unfertilised eggs that would not. For them, all eggs were taboo, not just for what they were, but for what they symbolised (the beginning of sentient life).
In other parts of the world, like in pre-Socratic ancient Greece, around the 6th century before the Common Era, Pythagoras, and all his followers, also avoided eating eggs, as they believed in the transmigration of souls, and there could be the soul of a friend or a relative inside an egg waiting to grow into another sentient being. Well before vegetarians began considering dropping dairy and moving into veganism (which is more than a diet but many start avoiding animal products in the diet first), they were already avoiding eggs for the same reasons they avoided meat.
In modern times, although people may have learnt that most eggs sold to the public are now unfertilised so no chicks can grow for them, there is a higher tally of chickens death per egg than in the past, as the egg industry kills all the laying hens after 2-3 years of being forced to produce eggs (while the natural lifespan of a chicken is 8-10 years), and systematically kills all the male chicks (which would be 50% of all the chicks hatched) right after being hatched (as they will not produce eggs when they grow up and are not the type of chicken breed for meat production). Therefore, anyone who avoids eating meat because of considering it to be either a sin, bad Karma, or simply unethical due to being linked to the killing of sentient beings, should also avoid consuming eggs.
This explains why not only vegans don’t consume eggs, but the majority of ethical vegetarians in the world, in the past and still today, don’t eat them either (India is the number one vegetarian country in the world with 38% of the total population being lacto-vegetarians who do not eat eggs).
Spiritual vegans do not consume eggs because eating eggs would stop their spiritual growth or would breach the religious principles they follow.
Health Reasons Vegans Don’t Eat Eggs
Some pre-vegans, especially since the 18th century, entered veganism from the health gateway, as what attracted them more to the philosophy is that it leads to avoiding consuming unhealthy food. For them — and for me too because although I entered veganism through the animal rights gateway I later embraced all five dimensions of veganism, including health — animal products are unhealthy because they contain many unsaturated fats that cause inflammation and obesity, cancerogenic components (the World Health Organization and the International Agency for Research on Cancer have stated that the consumption of processed meat is carcinogenic to humans), the dreaded disease-making cholesterol, and many other unwanted and dangerous substances such as hormones, antibiotics, heavy metals, and toxins that end up in such products due to the way animals are farmed or where they are hunted/fished.
However, are eggs somehow healthier than other animal products, such as flesh or dairy, to justify a dietary vegan (a vegan who entered veganism through the health gateway) wanting to consume eggs? No, they are not. They are as unhealthy as any other animal product, or even worse.
Eggs are extremely high in cholesterol (an average-size egg contains more than 200 milligrams of cholesterol) and saturated fat (about 60% of the calories in eggs are from fat, much of which is saturated fat) that can clog your arteries and can lead to heart disease (the number one health problem in western societies). A 2019 study found a significant association between a higher risk of cardiovascular disease and each additional 300 milligrams of cholesterol consumed per day.
A 2021 study in the US showed that eggs may contribute to higher all-cause and cancer mortality as well. It concluded the following: “intakes of eggs and cholesterol were associated with higher all-cause, CVD, and cancer mortality. The increased mortality associated with egg consumption was largely influenced by cholesterol intake. Our findings suggest limiting cholesterol intake and replacing whole eggs with egg whites/substitutes or other alternative protein sources for facilitating cardiovascular health and long-term survival.” This study found that the addition of just half an egg per day was associated with more deaths from heart disease, cancer, and all causes.
Then we have the problem of another of the modern health epidemics, diabetes. In one 2016 study, diabetes risk increased by up to 39% for people in the US consuming three or more eggs per week. In another study in 2021, Chinese adults who ate eggs regularly were found to be more likely to develop diabetes. A review of 14 studies published in the journal Atherosclerosis showed that those who consume the most eggs increase their risk for diabetes by 68%.
Eggs are also a common cause of salmonellosis, the infection from the bacteria Salmonella which is common in eggs as it is found in bird faeces (at least 25,000 people get salmonella in the UK every year, and 1.2 million people in the US). There are other types of food poisoning also linked to the consumption of eggs.
Unwanted antibiotics also end up in eggs, as the egg-producing industry massive overuse them to keep the overcrowded laying hens alive. This is also the cause of the emergence of dangerous drug-resistant human infections such as E. coli and MRSA.
Naturally, the egg industry has been trying to suppress all this research and created misleading research trying to hide the truth. However, it’s all been exposed now. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine published in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine a review examining all research studies published from 1950 to March 2019 that evaluated the effect of eggs on blood cholesterol levels and examined funding sources and their influence on study findings. They concluded that 49% of industry-funded publications reported conclusions that conflicted with actual study results.
Dietary health vegans do not consume eggs because eating eggs is very unhealthy for humans.
Social Justice Reasons Vegans Don’t Eat Eggs
Those pre-vegans who became vegan because they saw the connection between the oppression of non-human animals and the oppression of marginalised groups of humans entered veganism through the social justice gateway. The marginalised groups they were trying to protect could be a colonised indigenous community, a gender-defined group, a sexuality-defined collective, or any other oppressed group that is the victim of full-on patriarchal imperialist supremacist racist societies, or any society derived from them still carrying any of their oppressive and discriminative tendencies. They recognise that the oppressors within such societies were the same who orchestrated the oppression of non-human animals, so these vegans become social justice vegans (also known as intersectional vegans who I now prefer to call overlappinal vegans) and fought human and non-human animal causes together.
Perhaps the most outspoken of these would be the feminist vegans, as there has been a long tradition of vegetarians and vegans among feminists (and even more since Carol J. Adams published her book “The Sexual Politics of Meat” in 2009). Some of these vegan feminists had paid a lot of attention to female animals who had been exploited precisely because of the fact of being female, and the qualities such characterisation carries. For instance, milk can only be produced by female animals, so the dairy industry has traditionally disposed of males and kept females (cows, she goats, etc.) in captivity, impregnating them continuously — and cruelly separating them from their calves — to force the uninterrupted production of milk.
However, this sort of female exploitation is not unique to milk production. The egg industry does the same, as only female chickens produce eggs. Carol J. Adams wrote on her website the following: “I coined the term feminized protein for eggs and dairy products: plant protein produced through the abuse of the reproductive cycle of female animals. Feminized protein is taken from living female animals, whose reproductive capacity is manipulated for human needs. The unique situation of domesticated female animals required its own term: a sexual slavery with chickens in battery cages and dairy cows hooked up to milking machines. Even though the animals are alive, dairy products and eggs are not victimless foods. This is why vegan-feminist rather than vegetarian-feminist.”
Social justice vegans are better than any other type of vegan I know in identifying the symbolic meaning of the consumption and use of animals and products derived from them. They have exposed how meat is often portrayed as “the best food of the superior beings”, and in patriarchal societies, these are interpreted to be men (especially men of the higher class of the dominant race). They recognise the symbols of the commodification of feminized protein, with its oppressive and denigrating patriarchal meaning. And they know that symbols are precisely what perpetuate exploitation because they travel wide and fast into the collective conscience — this is why many vegans like myself do not use the pronoun “it” to refer to non-human animals, as using it symbolises their objectification.
“Conquerors” taking female animals easy to transport (such as egg-laying hens) to bring them home, where they would be kept captive in servitude to steal their eggs, and then killed when their “service” declines, could be seen as a symbol of colonial oppression. The expression “rape and pillage” associated with violent conquest in some cultures links together the abuse of females with the stealing of property, which the idea of egg production symbolically embodies.
Social justice vegans do not consume eggs because eating eggs is a symbol of the oppressor they fight against.
Environmental Reasons Vegans Don’t Eat Eggs
Considering the rise of awareness about the human-made climate crisis, many pre-vegans choose the environment gateway to enter veganism these days. They know animal agriculture is one of the leading emitters of greenhouse gases, one of the major polluters of land and water, and the driving force towards the sixth global extinction of Earth’s species. However, are all these caused by the exploitation of cows and bulls, or is the eggs-producing industry also a significant part of it? It very much is.
As far as the carbon footprint of the egg industry is concerned, high levels of the three main greenhouse gasses (carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide) and the pollutant ammonia are associated with industrial egg production. A 2011 study found that the mean emission per hen for ammonia was 410 mg d−1, for nitrous oxide was 3.12 mg d−1, and for methane was 81.7 mg d−1.
In comparison to industrial production of beef or even broiler chickens, egg production has a smaller footprint, but scientists from the University of Oviedo, Spain, found the carbon footprint per dozen eggs was 2.7kg of carbon dioxide equivalent, which was described as “a value similar to other basic foods of animal origin such as milk.” A 2014 study concluded that greenhouse gas emissions of the egg industry averaged a global warming potential of 2.2 kg of CO2e/dozen eggs (assuming an average egg weight of 60 g), with 63% of these emissions coming from the hens’ feed. There does not seem to be a significant difference between the cage-free barns and battery cages in terms of their respective environmental impact.
Eggs have been classed as the 9th food with the highest environmental footprint (after lamb, bull, cheese, pig, farmed salmon, turkey, chicken, and canned tuna). Another study based on the average of a Canadian large-scale free-range farming operation and a New Jersey large-scale confined operation found that one kilogram of eggs produces 4.8 kg of CO2. All vegetables, fungi, algae, and egg substitutes are below that value per kilogram.
Another environmental problem of the egg industry is the pollution of the water. Egg-producing farms create more manure than the surrounding land can typically absorb. It seeps into groundwater or runs off into surface water and carries excess nitrogen and phosphorous, which can contaminate drinking water or cause algal blooms and the local extinction of aquatic species. This manure may also carry the antibiotics that egg farmers use on the hens, contaminating the surrounding water with them.
Water waste is another problem. Egg production uses 6% more water than pig flesh production and 25% more than milk production. Regarding per-grams-of-protein calculations, egg production requires 94% of the water required for milk production.
There is currently a global avian influenza pandemic that is killing many wild birds, including those belonging to endangered species. These sorts of pandemics not only are made worse by factory farming of birds like those found in the egg industry, but intensive egg production may have caused the pandemic in the first place as the cramped conditions the birds are forced to endure are the perfect environments for the creation of new emerging diseases.
Eco-vegans do not consume eggs because the egg industry causes significant environmental damage.
Animal Rights Reasons Vegans Don’t Eat Eggs
The gateway I used to enter veganism over 20 years ago was the animal rights gateway, which is a very common route of veganisation among ethical vegans. Considering that the animal rights philosophy recognises that all animals, including hens, are sentient beings with moral rights, rather than commodities that can be exploited, using hens to produce eggs would be a violation of their rights.
The first part of the Vegan Society’s definition of veganism is, “veganism is a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude — as far as is possible and practicable — all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.” Therefore, for a vegan, regardless of whether hens have been exploited for their eggs in big factory farms or small free-range farms, their exploitation is wrong, and vegans should not participate in it in any way by boycotting all of its products. This not only means not buying eggs but also not consuming eggs or products that contain ingredients coming from eggs, because such consumption legitimises the speciesist concept of eggs as food for humans.
In addition to avoiding harming other sentient beings and seeking to exclude all forms of animal exploitation, ethical vegans also try not to be speciesist, and as such, they avoid discriminating against individual animals because of the species or group they belong to. Supporting the egg industry in any way (or the idea the industry promotes of eggs being good food for humans) is a speciesist act because it discriminates against the species Gallus gallus domesticus (domestic chickens), Anas platyrhynchos domesticus (domestic ducks), Meleagris gallopavo domesticus (domestic turkeys), Anser anser domesticus (domestic geese), Coturnix japonica (Japanese quails), Phasianus colchicus (common pheasants), and Struthio camelus (ostriches), which are the most common species whose eggs are commercialised.
For an animal rights vegan, consuming any egg would be wrong for many reasons linked to the cruelty of the egg-producing industry. For instance:
- Shredding millions of live male chicks to death (the global egg industry destroys 6,000,000,000 new-born male chicks every year).
- Genetically modifying hens to produce between 300 and 500 eggs a year rather than 20, as their wild counterparts lay. All modern hens, even those in free-range farms, are the result of this genetic manipulation.
- Sickening millions of animals. The unnaturally high rate of egg-laying of the genetically modified hens results in frequent disease and mortality.
- Practising “forced molting”, a method to increase “productivity” which changes the lighting conditions and restricts water/food access in certain seasons, generating a lot of stress in the hens.
- Being fundamentally unethical for convenience — stealing an egg from a hen whose instinct is to protect it, as she doesn’t know if it is fertile or not.
- Causing physiological stress to birds due to the demand for calcium (on top of the psychological stress of having her egg stolen) because taking the eggs induces the hen to produce more eggs. This is why some vegans cook the eggs of rescued hens and give them back to them in their feeding so they can recover the nutrients they lost.
- Keeping the birds in inhumane conditions. Most egg-laying hens (95% in the US, nearly 300 million birds) spend their lives in battery cages so small they cannot even stretch their wings (less than the size of an A4 piece of paper).
- Hurting the hens on purpose. Farmers in egg factory farms often cut off a portion of the hens’ beaks without painkillers to prevent hens from pecking at each other (including many “free-range” operations).
- Killing all their animals. In most farms (even free-range ones) hens are slaughtered at just 12 to 18 months of age when their egg production declines. In the wild, chickens can live up to 15 years.
- The egg industry is one of the industries with the highest blood footprint on the planet. The production volume of eggs worldwide exceeded 86.3 million metric tons in 2021, and it has continuously grown since 1990. Consequently, the number of hens forced to lay eggs in captivity has also grown every year. There are 6.6 billion laying hens worldwide, producing over 1 trillion eggs each year. The average number of egg-laying hens in the US during August 2022 was 371 million. China is the top producer, followed by India, Indonesia, the USA, Brazil, and Mexico.
- The ethical objection to egg consumption is not limited to eggs from chickens, but also from any other egg-producing industry (such as the one exploiting ducks, turkeys, or quails).
- Animal rights vegans do not consume eggs because the egg industry causes great suffering to both male and female birds.
Why Vegans Don’t Eat Backyard Eggs
Just looking at numbers, the egg industry is one of the worse industries in terms of animal suffering and death that humans have ever developed. Unfortunately, it’s a growing industry because many people are consuming eggs now after stopping eating beef or becoming vegetarian —the rise of flexitarians and reducetarians is causing a rise in animal suffering as more animals are being exploited to feed them than before they chose these types of diet.
Therefore, we need every vegan to do as much as they can to campaign against the egg industry and to promote the idea that humans should never consume eggs. The last thing a vegan should do is forget about the plight of hens and consume any egg, even from the most theoretically humane source, because this undermines the collective work of the vegan movement that is fighting against such a powerful industry. Every time that vegans argue why eggs are not human food, and better alternatives exist for people’s health, the environment, social justice, animal welfare and spirituality, their efforts are torpedoed by the so-called veggans who claim it is perfectly OK to consume a few eggs now and then from rescued hens living in their backyards.
A few years ago, a friend of mine who had rescued some hens contacted me asking me if it would be OK for her to eat their eggs. This is what I replied:
“Regarding your egg question (which is not the first time I have been asked), in short, I don’t consider it morally acceptable to consume those eggs, based, naturally, on my morality, not anyone’s else. This is because veganism, as I see it, is a ‘political’ act, as is not to be racist, not to be sexiest, etc. The important thing is to ‘change the world’ for the better. It’s not about me, about sleeping well at night or going to ‘Haven’ by doing the right thing — if I believed in such a thing. It’s about other people, about what they all do to animals. If I don’t consume any animal product, but everyone else still does, I fail in my quest to ‘change the world’ by doing the minimum harm possible and helping those that need more help. I failed the second part of that quest as most animals that need more help would still be suffering. To succeed, I need to persuade others to do what vegans do in stopping animal exploitation.
In the case of the eggs and those hens, for me, the important thing is ‘the message’ I am sending to others ‘watching’ me eating those eggs. For me, the message would be the wrong one. It would be that ‘eggs’ are food; it would be that something intrinsically wrong can be justified sometimes for convenience; it would be that eating eggs may be healthy for humans sometimes; it would be that genetically modified animals, that are now producing many eggs when before human intervention were producing only a few, is something acceptable as long as it only happens at a small scale; it would be that taking the ‘produce’ of an animal without explicit consent from the animal is justifiable, etc.
I often use the example of cannibalism to explain this. If you think about it, eating people that die, rather than burying them or cremating them, makes a lot of sense. If, as many carnist do, you would accept that eating meat is healthy, a human can feed many others. And after the person died, is a good ecological use of their body. Nobody suffers, reduces carbon footprint, we can use the space of cemeteries for housing, etc. And yet, this idea is preposterous, because cannibalism is already out of the human collective conscience as something unacceptable — even if in the past it was totally acceptable. This is what political ethical vegans aim for. To make the consumption of animal products so preposterous to anyone that the concept itself is completely out of the collective conscience. Only then, we will ensure that those in power will not find ways to continue exploiting them, or people will keep finding excuses for convenience. We are aiming at people reacting to the idea of eating an egg with the same revulsion as reacting to the idea of eating another human…it is the concept of “carnism” that we are fighting against.
So, if I was given a rescued hen and I could look after her properly, the way I would deal with it is looking after her until she dies…and letting foxes and other wild animals eat the eggs she may produce. I would give the eggs to Nature and be sure everyone knew I was not consuming them. This is how I, personally, would address this issue.”
My friend replied the following:
“Thank you, Jordi. Yes, I completely understand that principle. It makes perfect sense. I do think in the not-too-distant future it will be extraordinary to younger generations that we ever used animals in the way we do now. I like the idea of handing over the eggs to our local wildlife; I much prefer that to cook and feed the eggs to the chickens.”
I also prefer that, because feeding chickens their own eggs, even if it is for their benefit (to recover the calcium they lost), feels a bit cannibalistic to me. Instead, Calcium rich feed can be given to the hens and their eggs could be given to other rescued egg-eating animals (as in the case of animal sanctuaries when the rescued hens are kept with other rescued animals, such as pigs), or to the local wildlife, keeping them whole for animals such as foxes, badgers, or crows, or cracking them for smaller animals such as lizards or ants. In doing so, wild eggs of more threatened species could be spared by some wild animals who could otherwise have eaten them had not found the hens’ eggs you left for them — so, everyone wins.
There is another issue to consider regarding “entitlement”. In the case of hens rescued from the animal agriculture industry by vegan activists, I would consider it wrong if such “rescuers” consumed their eggs because this entitles anyone who frees “prisoners” to benefit from them and their work, without having acquired their explicit informed consent (which means they did not completely free them, after all, but just changed the format of their exploitation, and who benefits the most from it).
If we aim to ultimately achieve a vegan world, allowing the consumption of backyard eggs — even from just one single rescued hen — would be, tactically, the wrong message to send to those looking. It would damage the integrity of the philosophy of veganism, diluting it a bit more. It is already at risk of being diluted a great deal with all the plant-based people (who only apply veganism in their diet), the beegans (who consume honey), the ostrovegans (who consume bivalves), and the flexitarians (who only apply the philosophy when is convenient to them and does not require too much effort). And the vegan movement is still too small not to be damaged by the loss of members who, seduced by the convenience of easier post-vegan alternatives, return to these politically correct forms of carnism and animal exploitation.
True vegans do not consume eggs, even backyard ones, because doing so dilutes the vegan philosophy, harms the vegan movement, and delays the building of the vegan world all sentient beings urgently need.
This should be obvious to everyone.