Geese are likely the first birds domesticated by humans. For thousands of years humans have been exploiting geese for their flesh, organs, eggs, feathers, and security (yes, your read it right, they are very alert and noisy when strangers approach, so they are used as guard animals).
Farming geese has been common all over the world, but in some places, it has taken a particularly nasty turn. Together with ducks, geese are one of the very few animals who farmers deliberately make sick, because, in one of those macabre twists of humanity’s consumerism, the organs of sick geese are more “profitable” than those of healthy geese. Although this horrible practice has been banned in many countries, it remains legal in several, including European countries that supposedly should have many animal welfare laws that protect animals.
This article will lay out the cruel reality of farming geese, for whatever purpose, and at whatever scale.
Who Are the Geese?
Geese (singular goose) are aquatic birds of any species of the family Anatidae, formed by the genera Anser (the grey geese and white geese) and Branta (the black geese). Other birds may be called geese although they are not true geese. Geese are generally larger and more muscular than ducks and have more elongated bodies. Ducks have a broad, flat bill which reaches to about eye level and with nostrils that are positioned high up, but geese have shorter, humped-shaped bills with a notch that can reach the top of their heads and with nostrils that are positioned further down.
Geese are mostly herbivores (more than ducks which can be omnivores) and use their bill to graze grass on the ground. They normally live around ponds, lakes, and marshes, and they tend to hold their necks straight out or slightly upward when on land or in the water.
Like ducks, they are considered monogamous, but geese partner for life (like swans, with whom they are closely related) while most ducks may have a different partner every season. Male geese (called ganders) take equal parts in taking care of their young, and they build the nest together with the female, making constant improvements to it by adding feathers, twigs, barks, and leaves. Males are typically taller and larger than females and have longer, thicker necks. They have elaborate courtship displays, which involve head-bobbing, honking, and wing-flapping. They are very loyal and attached, and if they lose a partner or their eggs, they mourn for them.
Geese are highly social animals and are often seen in large groups known as flocks or gaggles. They communicate with vocalisations, and they have a distinctive “honking” sound louder than the quacking of ducks. If a goose gets sick or is wounded, a couple of other geese may drop out of formation to help them. When feeding in groups, there are usually one or two “sentries” who keep watch for predators while the others feed, and each goose takes turns to do that job.
They are very good flyers and fly long distances during migration, often in a distinctive V-shaped formation (as it allows at least 70 % greater flying range). To navigate they use the sun’s position, the Earth’s magnetic field, and landmarks. The typical lifespan in the wild is around 20 years, but they can live up to 30 years.
The individuals of species of the genus Anser live in the majority of habitats found throughout the continents in the Northern Hemisphere (Holarctic distribution). They mostly migrate south in winter, typically to regions in the temperate zone between the January 0 °C (32 °F) and 5 °C (41 °F) isotherms (lines that connect points on a map that have the same temperature).
All Anser geese have legs and feet that are pink or orange, and bills that are pink, orange, or black. The species of this genus include Bar-headed goose (Anser indicus), Emperor goose (Anser canagicus), Ross’s goose (Anser rossii), Snow goose (Anser caerulescens), Greylag goose (Anser anser), Swan goose (Anser cygnoides), Taiga bean goose (Anser fabalis), Pink-footed goose (Anser brachyrhynchus), Tundra bean goose (Anser serrirostris), Greater white-fronted goose (Anser albifrons), and Lesser white-fronted goose (Anser erythropus).
Geese of the genus Brata (known as black geese) are mostly found in North America and can be distinguished from all other true geese by their legs and feet, which are black or very dark grey, and for having black bills and large areas of black on the head and neck. The species of this genus include Brant (Branta bernicla), Red-breasted goose (Branta ruficollis), Nene (Branta sandvicensis), Canada goose (Branta canadensis), Barnacle goose (Branta leucopsis), and Cackling goose (Branta hutchinsii).
The Domestication of Geese
The domestication of geese began in several parts of the world simultaneously during the Neolithic Period (some 11,000 years to 4,000 years ago). European domesticated geese are derived from the greylag goose (Anser anser), and Chinese and some African domesticated geese are derived from the swan goose (Anser cygnoides). Like in the case of chickens, the original wild ancestors of all domesticated geese still exist in the wild.
Geese domesticated from these two species have been exploited for thousands of years for their meat (their flesh is widely consumed in China, especially in the south, and it is popular in Germany too, especially during the Christmas season), fat (used for cooking and lighting), eggs (popular in south-east Asia), organs (foie gras is goose or duck liver), feathers/down (for insulation in quilts, pillows, sleeping bags, and coats — the infamous Canada Goose brand), as guard animals (500 geese were even used to patrol the 533-km boundary between Chongzuo and Vietnam during the COVID-19 pandemic), and as weeders (because they like grasses but do not like many broadleaf plants).
Like all domestic animals, domestic geese are genetically modified individuals who have changed compared with their wild counterparts. Domestic geese have been selectively bred to increase their size, with some breeds weighing up to 10 kilograms compared to the maximum of 3.5 kilograms for the wild swan goose and 4.1 kilograms for the wild greylag goose. Although wild geese have a horizontal posture and slim rear end, domesticated geese lay down large fat deposits toward the tail end, forcing a more upright posture. Like in chickens, the genetic modification geese have undergone through domestication has also increased the number of eggs they lay (up to 50 eggs per year, compared to 5–12 eggs for a wild goose).
The domestication of greylag geese is thought to have begun in several locations in Europe, northern Africa, and western Asia, during the Neolithic Period (some 11,000 years to 4,000 years ago), spreading to Egypt about 3,000 years ago. Modern breeds of European geese are mostly descended from the greylag goose.
Geese were possibly also domesticated around 3000 BCE in ancient Mesopotamia. By the time of the Roman Empire (1st century BCE–5th century CE), farming geese was well established and involved several breeds.
The domestication of swan geese is believed to have occurred in eastern Asia, probably in China, where they are known as Chinese geese. They have a distinctive knob at the base of their bill that distinguishes them from European geese. There is archaeological evidence for domesticated swan geese in China dating back to 10,000–2,000 BCE, where they were kept for food and feathers. Swan geese were also domesticated in other parts of Asia, such as Japan, Korea and Mongolia, where they adapted to different climates and environments.
The Farming of Geese
Like in most farmed animals, farmed geese ended up factory farmed so their exploitation could be scaled up and the profits from it increased.
Some of the most common geese breeds for meat production are the Embden, Toulouse, and Pilgrim. These breeds are heavy-bodied and can reach weights of 20 pounds or more. Other breeds that are used for meat production are the African, Sebastopol, American Buff, Saddleback Pomeranian, Chinese, Tufted Roman, and Canada. Geese for meat production are usually killed at 10 to 12 weeks of age. Based on a comparison of 34 countries in 2021, China ranked the highest in goose and guinea fowl meat production with 4,277,000 tonnes, followed by Egypt and Madagascar. This year saw the highest global amount of goose flesh production recorded (almost double the amount for 2018).
Some of the geese breeds used for egg production are the Chinese, Roman Tufted, and Egyptian. These breeds are light or medium-sized and each individual can lay up to 50 eggs per year. Other breeds that are sometimes used for egg production are the Pilgrim, Sebastopol, American Buff, and Toulouse. Geese for egg production are usually kept captive for several years before killing them, as they can lay eggs until they are 8 to 10 years old.
Geese are also farmed for their feathers or down, and the breeds used are Embden, Toulouse, Chinese, and Egyptian (this is a wild goose species that is sometimes kept as an “ornamental” bird). For live geese, the feathers or down are usually taken by hand during the natural moulting period, which occurs every 6 weeks from 9 to 10 weeks of age until the end of the laying season. For dead geese, they are collected after slaughter, for those farms that also keep the birds for meat and organs. Most of the worldwide feather and down production originates from slaughtered geese, and only 1–2% of the global production is removed manually. The largest producer of down from geese and ducks is China, accounting for 80% of global production, followed by Taiwan, Thailand, Hungary, Poland, Russia, Ukraine, Romania, Siberia, France, the US and Canada,
The goose breeds used in foie gras production are primarily the grey Landes goose and the Toulouse goose. The Dewlap Toulouse was bred particularly for the production of foie gras, while French Toulouse were bred for several purposes. These breeds were chosen because, apparently, they are easier to handle (and handling is an important part of foie grass production as they have to be force-fed). Traditionally, foie gras was produced only from geese, but by 2004, geese accounted for less than 10% of the total global foie gras production (the rest were produced from livers of domestic ducks). The age of slaughter for geese used to produce foie gras varies depending on the country and the production method, but it is generally between 9 and 20 weeks.
Because of its obvious cruelty, the production of foie gras has already been abolished in Argentina, Austria, Denmark, Czech Republic, Finland, Flanders, Israel, Turkey, Germany, India, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Malta, Norway, Poland, Sweden, Switzerland, Netherlands, and the UK. In India, they also banned the sale, and in the state of California, the US city of Chicago, and the Brazilian city of São Paulo, they had bans that were eventually partially or totally overturned (in California, after many court cases, the production of foie grass continues to be banned, but not the trade anymore, although restaurants and retailers are still forbidden from selling it or giving it away).
China, the United States and Canada are foie gras producers, and in Europe, foie gras is produced in only five countries: France, Bulgaria, Spain, Hungary, and Belgium (only Wallonia). These countries have formed the European Foie Gras Federation since 2008. However, 75% of the world’s foie gras is produced by France by force-feeding ducks or geese until they develop the distinct diseased ‘fatty liver’. France is also the largest exporter of foie gras, with over 20,000 tons produced and approximately 700,000 geese and 37 million ducks slaughtered by the French foie gras industry each year. Between 2013 and 2021, the production of foie gras worldwide fluctuated slightly, with a significant drop in 2016, 2017, 2020 and 2021 (when the production volume dropped to around 21,640 tons).
What is Wrong with Farming Geese
All geese farmed are kept captive against their will and they are killed many years before their time. These are two of the major things that are wrong with farming them. The third is that the domestic geese used in farming are genetically modified versions that are bigger and fatter than their wild counterparts (with associated diseases coming from that), have a different shape (that makes flying more difficult), and produce more eggs (which puts their bodies under a higher physiological strain).
When kept in factory farms, diseases are another big problem, especially infectious diseases such as avian influenza. Here are the most common diseases farmed geese suffer when farmed: Avian influenza, Duck virus enteritis (DVE), Duck virus hepatitis (DVH), Fowl cholera, Fowl typhoid, Goose parvovirus infection (Derzsy’s disease), Newcastle disease, Pasteurellosis, and Salmonellosis.
At the slaughterhouse, many birds survive the electric stunning process and are still conscious as their throats are cut and they are thrown into the scalding-hot water.
As far as the farms that keep geese for their feathers or down are concerned, the “gathering” (the removal of loose feathers by hand from a live duck/goose during moulting, which is the period when these birds naturally lose their feathers) may also cause distress. According to the 2010 EFSA Panel on Animal Health and Welfare, poor handling at gathering is likely to result in increased fear, stress and injury. Also, as the moulting season is influenced by age, breed, and genetics, moulting times can vary within a flock, which means that some birds who are not moulting at the time of “harvesting” may be subject to painful “live-plucking”.
We then have the suffering specifically caused by farms that keep geese for foie gras production. Foie gras is a food produced by force-feeding ducks and geese. Farmers shove foot-long tubes down the birds’ throats (which stresses the animals), purposefully inducing hepatic steatosis (or fatty liver disease), which causes them discomfort. After slaughter, the birds’ swollen and yellowed livers are sold whole or ground up into a pâté, normally considered a luxury food. In a process known as “gavage”, foie gras farmers ram pipes down the throats of male geese three times a day, pumping up to 4 pounds of grain and fat into their stomachs every day. The force-feeding causes the birds’ livers to swell to up to 10 times their normal size. As a consequence, many birds have difficulty standing because their engorged livers distend their abdomens.
The birds are kept in tiny cages or crowded sheds, and as they cannot get to the water, they become coated with excrement mixed with the oils that would normally protect their feathers from water. Other common health problems in these factory farms include damage to the oesophagus, fungal infections, diarrhoea, impaired liver function, heat stress, lesions, and fractures of the sternum.
Mortality rates for birds that are being force-fed are significantly higher than for birds of the same age that are not undergoing that torturous process. Studies in Belgium, France, and Spain have seen mortality rates between 2 and 4 per cent for birds being force-fed. The mortality rate for birds being force-fed is 10 to 20 times higher than that of birds not being force-fed. This is because, during feedings, a bird’s oesophagus and throat could be injured due to poor handling. They are also more susceptible to heat stress than birds that are not fattened.
In 2018, Animal Equality released new shocking footage of geese being force-fed corn at a farm near Toulouse in southern France. The footage obtained by the investigators showed the geese struggling and suffering as they were trapped in metal cages and fed by tubes inserted into their mouths. It also showed birds trying to pull away before being trapped, and workers grabbing their necks while forcing food into their stomachs.
Not only does farming geese cause animal suffering, but its environmental impact is cause for alarm, as faeces and antibiotics end up polluting the surrounding land. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, foie gras operations have breached countless environmental laws. According to Animal Equality, Hudson Valley Foie Gras, the largest foie gras farm in the US, has violated multiple Clean Water Act obligations over the last decade and has faced numerous inspections with thousands of dollars in fines. And by relying on feeding animals that would breathe out CO2, the carbon footprint of geese farming is high, contributing to our current climate crisis.
Farming geese also help to spread pandemics. The most recent avian flu outbreak in the US took place in 2022, and in 2021, France’s avian flu outbreak largely occurred on foie gras farms.
Farming geese is a cruel practice wrongs at many levels.