Are backyard chickens sustainable, or just stylish?

It must have been sometime in 1975 when my sister called from our grandmother’s place to say that the egg she had been working on in biology class at McGill had hatched. Whatever the bylaws governing backyard poultry on the West Island of Montreal at the time, we gleefully accepted the bird – Benjamin, as we called him – into the family. We kept him for several weeks, and a fascinating thing it was to watch him grow into a bantam-league pet. I still remember the blue plywood frame covered with fine wire mesh, the scent of sawdust, newspaper and chicken shit, and being curious about the fellow who adopted him after Benjamin became too large for us to keep in the house.

Shift forward to today, and the whole notion of having a chicken in the family, whether a layer or a broiler – as I suspect Benjamin was – has become a politically charged topic.

The promise of “a chicken in every pot” has long been shorthand for prosperity, but advocates of food security are calling for amendments to local bylaws that would permit a hen – or a flock of them – in every yard to enhance access to homegrown food and self-sufficiency. On the other hand, even advocates of sourcing food locally acknowledge that gathering your own eggs is merely a step up from growing your own vegetables. It may not save the world, but it’s a nice hobby to have.

More on backyard chickens

Backyard chickens in Vancouver – Read Granville Online's comprehensive coverage of the debate. 

FAQs on backyard chicks – Check the City of Vancouver's backyard chickens page

Or will be, once Vancouver city staff finish drafting policies aimed at establishing a baseline for the keeping of poultry in the city and mitigating community concerns. City council passed a motion approving backyard flocks in principle in early March, and now staff are preparing guidelines aimed at protecting the health and welfare of citizens, ensuring the humane treatment of backyard hens (roosters will remain prohibited) and advising councillors on the steps needed to repeal the existing legislation prohibiting backyard hens. The recommendations could come back to council later this year, legalizing the small-scale but potentially widespread production of eggs in the city.

The legalization of flocks (a handful of which already exist in the city, some making themselves at home in designer hutches known as eglus) will put Vancouver on a par with Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York, all of which allow backyard flocks. Smaller cities have also taken action; Castlegar is even expanding its legislation to allow miniature goats, too.

The shift in Vancouver began almost a year ago, as a steady stream of letters began arriving at city hall urging the city to change its bylaws to allow citizen to keep poultry. While more exotic birds are allowed as pets, municipal bylaw 9433 forbids livestock (horses, donkeys, cattle, swine, sheep, goats) as well as poultry and fowl from being kept within city limits.

That didn’t sit right with food security advocates, for whom enhancing local access to local food – the closer to home, the better – is a priority. Since its first meeting in September 2004, the Vancouver Food Policy Council has lent its support to the expansion of community gardens and supported the amendment of municipal bylaws four years ago to allow backyard apiaries.

Changing the law to give homeowners the option of gathering homegrown eggs from their own hens will be more challenging, says Samara Brock, a social planner working on the recommendations regarding backyard hens, but it’s a natural extension of what has been done to date.

“People want to keep chickens because they want to keep chickens and they want to have a connection to where their food comes from,” Brock says, likening it to the penchant prompting many people to plant vegetable gardens. “It could be more efficient for them to buy a tomato, but they’re growing a tomato because they want to grow a tomato because they want to have that connection.”

Having a henhouse in the backyard may breed an appreciation for where food comes from, but Brock acknowledges that home-based egg production is just one small step toward more sustainable food systems for city dwellers.

“I think there’s a lot of work to be done on a lot of different levels in terms of creating sustainable food systems, so this isn’t the answer,” she says, noting that the quota system governing commercial egg production is one area that could bear scrutiny. “Obviously there are larger policy questions that need to be asked, too.”

Straightforward food politics underpins the attitude of Jeff Neild, operations manager with the Vancouver advocacy group Farm Folk/City Folk. “We operate from the idea of food sovereignty,” Neild says, defining the concept as “one step beyond the idea of food security” to entail control of food’s origins. It means “being able to control where your food comes from,” he explains. “We believe if you have land in your backyard, that you can keep chickens. I would consider it a right.”

Neild goes so far as to suggest that someone with enough land should be able to raise a pig in the city, though the husbandry required might be more complex.

But why should anyone care to raise their own livestock? Were food sovereignty a concern, wouldn’t it be sufficient to have, say, municipally owned egg farms?

“It’s a bit of a stretch,” Neild says. “When you have a food sovereignty, you have control over your own food; you also have the choice of how that food is produced, and most people who would be interested in food sovereignty wouldn’t necessarily think a commercial, industrial chicken operation is the way we would want to go.”