The City of Toronto has started a pilot project that allows for limited numbers of chickens per household inside the city limits within a pre-selected number of wards. The chickens are to be kept for egg-laying purposes only.
According to some sources, there are dozens of American cities that already permit the keeping of hens within all or part of their territories. Toronto – and Canada – it seems is quite late to the party when it comes to allowing the cluckers within its borders. Only five major Canadian cities allow the keeping of chickens inside their borders in some form.
This Toronto initiative raises several questions that are both specific to the City of Toronto and applicable to other large global cities and touch on a range of issues – accessibility, economic equality, the potential impact of urban agriculture, food security, and resource issues.
On the accessibility and economic equality issues, the pilot is only available in four wards within the city of Toronto and is only available for households that are detached houses or townhouses. The wards are comprised of generally well-off neighbourhoods.
Given these facts, are only wealthy residents going to ultimately benefit from this initiative, even if it gets extended to the whole city? An argument can be made that the rules of the pilot exclude less affluent residents who are apartment renters, people who might benefit the most from keeping egg-laying hens. Some accommodation would be welcomed to allow renters to maintain hens on common land the same way that co-ops and community gardens are run in parts of the city. The children and families who have the least access to good food should be prioritized so that equality of access is guaranteed for people who need it and could benefit from it the most.
On the issue of urban agriculture and food security, pundits have been predicting that urban agriculture has vast untapped potential to address the needs of urban populations and would relieve the food distribution system from some of the responsibility for supplying the growing urban populations of the 21st century. Allowing egg laying hens in cities would certainly be a step in the direction of feeding the growing appetite for locavorism but little data is available about the productivity of urban egg laying from other cities that allow chicken keeping. There is some evidence that there is at least a perception that backyard egg production is beneficial. In one survey, owners thought that eggs/meat from their chickens were more nutritious (86%), safer to consume (84%), and tasted better (95%) than store-bought products, and also that the health and welfare of their chickens was better (95%) than on commercial farms (C. Elkhoraibi R. A. Blatchford M. E. Pitesky J. A. Mench).
Resource wise – there can be a concern that hens inside the city could become a public resource drain. The City of Miami, for example, employs a full time squad of chicken catchers whose sole job is round up stray egg-layers and return or destroy them at public cost. The City of Toronto’s budget is already an annual source of fervor – an additional line item may not be welcome in the long run. The fear of resource eating initiatives should not however preclude pilot programs that might have benefits that outweigh the costs.
There are a lot of issues that this pilot project touches on and certainly much to point out that could be improved. Relatively wealthy, single family home dwellers aren’t going to have their lives changed by four chickens but disadvantaged lower income families should be at least afforded the opportunity to benefit from access to unprocessed fresh eggs and the educational value for city kids on knowing where a portion of your food comes from. Done in the right way and tracked properly, an expanded program could provide an entire range of benefits, if not just the psychological and educational ones, for Toronto and other cities in Canada. Toronto is known more for geese than chickens, but this could be a golden egg in the making.
Image source: publicdomainpictures.net