This is a short version of the article published as

Trainer,T., A. Malik and M. Lenzen, (2019), “A Comparison Between the Monetary, Resource and Energy Costs of the Conventional Industrial Supply Path and the “Simpler Way” Path for the Supply of Eggs”, BioPhysical Economics and Resource Quality, 4:9. September.


There is now a strong case in support of the general “limits to growth” claim that planetary resource demands and ecological impacts have far exceeded sustainable levels. The magnitude and significance of this overshoot is not well understood. The basic implication is that present rich world per capita rates of resource and ecological impact are in the region of ten times the levels that would enable a sustainable world. Yet the supreme priority is economic growth, i.e., to increase levels of production, consumption, living standards and GDP without concern for any limits. The belief that technical advance could enable all people to rise to present rich world levels, let alone enable further growth, is quite implausible. (TSW: Tech-Fix.) If this summary of the limits case is sound it means that the rapidly worsening global predicament cannot be solved unless there is De-growth down to per capita resource consumption rates that are around 10% of current rich world rates.

The main goal of The Simpler Way project is to show that this can be done, but only if there is large scale and radical change away from the structures, systems and values of the present society. (TSW: Main.) Understandably this perspective is usually regarded as so unrealistically optimistic as to be not worth attention. However the Remaking Settlements study derives a detailed numerical assessment of the technical feasibility of reorganising the land uses and socio-economic arrangements of a normal outer Sydney suburb to achieve reductions of the required order. The study shows that it would be possible for the inhabitants of such a suburb to live well on something like 10% of present Australian per capita dollar, energy and footprint costs, while greatly improving the quality of life. Lockyer’s study (2017) of an Eco-village arrives at similar conclusions.

The large scale reductions envisaged in resource use and ecological impact are attributable firstly to changes away from affluent-consumer personal lifestyle values, but more importantly to transition to highly localised and self-sufficient systems. These enable part or whole elimination of the need for many functions that are essential for the supply of goods and services in the present globalized economy, especially transport services. This study focuses on the supply of one item, eggs, to illustrate the magnitude of the differences achievable. It will be argued that in general the large differences in dollar and resource costs applies to many other of the infrastructures, products and services require for a satisfactory quality of life in a sustainable society, and that the implications for sustainable development are profound.

          The two supply paths.

Following are lists of components and characteristics of the two supply systems. The indented passages refer to backyard poultry keeping, and to a neighourhood cooperative system involving 50 chickens.

 Long chains and complex networks for the provision of large volumes of industrial inputs, including power, fuels and materials needed to produce and run steel mills, fishing fleets, factories, tractors, chemicals, silos, warehouses, trucks and supermarkets, and the associated indirect need for roads, hospitals, skilled personnel, offices, insurance, etc.

Small scale community co-operative and backyard poultry keeping can be organized with almost none of these material or energy inputs, for instance where shelter takes the form of mud brick “vaults” and fencing is made from bamboo.

Many vehicle and transport links are involved, e.g., in farm machinery, delivering inputs to feed producing factories, delivering feed to farms, moving eggs to warehouses  and supermarkets, and finally to households. At several stages wastes have to be transported to disposal sites.

Little or no transport involving fuels needs to be involved.

Agribusiness must provide large quantities of inputs to feed production factories, thereby contributing to soil-mining, soil carbon depletion and non-return of nutrients. Use of pesticides and artificial fertilizer has damaging effects on soils such as acidification and runoff into waterways. Similarly commercial feeds include fishmeal involving various resource and environmental costs

Local production can use local feed sources which avoid these inputs and effects.

Agribusiness requires production of artificial fertilizers which is an energy-intensive process and contributes to greenhouse gas emissions.

When feed is largely or entirely recycled nutrients from household and garden wastes and provided by free ranging no artificial fertilizers are required.

Factories need to be constructed to produce chicken feeds, farm sheds, trucks, packaging etc.

Need for factories is at most very low and can be negligible.

Dollar, materials and energy costs for the operation of egg farms are considerable.

Local egg production via backyards and cooperatives typically involves no operational dollar or energy costs, apart from feed (which might be provided at no cost from local sources; see below.)

Various chemicals need to be produced, including growth stimulants and hormones, and disinfectants and biocides to control disease in cramped sheds. These substances are rarely needed in small scale local systems.

Several kinds of waste must be dealt with in the energy-intensive industrial system, including agribusiness wastes, manures from egg farms, packaging, kitchen wastes and various sources of greenhouse gas emissions. Contaminated manure cannot be recycled, and is far from the soils that produce the feed. Thus large quantities of material have to be transported, processed and/or dumped.

All “wastes” from local production not only do not need to be dumped but are valued inputs to other functions. Most obviously manures go to gardens, methane digesters and aquaponic systems, contributing to almost total recycling of a constant nutrient stock from soils through kitchens and human and animal waste streams back to food producing soils.

There are significant post-farm costs, including packaging, marketing, transport to supermarkets, supermarket overheads (e.g., lighting), transport to households, waste disposal from households.Local production typically includes no energy, resource or dollar  costs for these items.

There are many overhead costs at all stages, such as for insurance, health inspectors, workers’ travel to workplaces, OH and S systems, consultancies and legal services, interest on loans, and corporate profits. Some of these are compounded at several levels, e.g., the markup on grain sold to the feed producer contributes to the price at which he sells to the farmer and the farmer’s markup is on a cost total including the grain producer’s markup. Usually none of these costs are involved in local production.

Many highly trained and expensive people are required, mostly working at screens in offices.

No formal skills or credentials are needed. The necessary expertise is relatively simple and can be maintained through informal local interaction. Thus children, ordinary people and those physically or mentally disadvantaged can make valuable contributions to egg supply.

Systems are capital-intensive, involving dependence on the finance industry and competition for scarce/expensive capital. New and small producers have difficulty getting started in the industry. Payments for use of capital transfer wealth out.

Village production need involve no capital investment, and production in normal rich-world communities need involve no more than use of savings as distinct from borrowing capital at interest.

Large scale, industrialised, capital-intensive and globalized production contributes to the decline of country towns and country living. Small farms and towns cannot compete.

Local production contributes to community self-sufficiency and resilience, and these enable small private farms within village economies.

The conditions poultry experience are undesirable. The minimum legal per chicken for ”caged” egg production is 0.07 m2, about the size of an A4 sheet and barely sufficient for a chicken to turn around. (Doorstop Organics, 2018.)

Ideal conditions can easily be provided.

The “co-products” are mostly if not all negative; e.g., wastes, packaging, emissions, requiring resources to deal with.

Co-products are positive. In addition to manures provided poultry can clean up and cultivate garden beds, they eat slugs and fallen fruit fly infested fruit thus reducing/eliminating the need for pesticides, they can find much of their own feed by free-ranging, they provide meat, spread manure on fields, can be housed in greenhouses enriching CO2 content, help to keep grasses down in orchards and on fire breaks, and they reproduce themselves. In addition they are sources of diversity, leisure and entertainment in settlements.

          Numerical findings: a) The Industrial production path.

This section of the full report derives dollar and energy costs involved in these two different supply paths, assuming Australian conditions, using the national input-output tables that are available for various industries. (ABS, 2016a, 2016b, BREE, 2013.) Following are conclusions on dollar and energy costs, without any of the derivations

The lowest supermarket retail price for “caged eggs” eggs is c. 30c/egg. (Woolworths Catalogue, 2018.) This is the price for free range eggs can be more than three times as high. The appropriate comparison in this study is between the cost of local production and that of free range commercial eggs (not caged), as the local production figures below assume a) pens providing 1 m2 per chicken which is the minimum area for free range commercial eggs, along with b) free range conditions in which chickens spend most of their day.

The national input-output tables show that the total energy cost of production at the supermarket checkout counter is 828 TJ, corresponding to 0.166 MJ per egg. This value includes both “direct” energy used in production such as energy used on the farm and in transport links, and “indirect energy” used in the production of all inputs to the farm and other elements of the supply chain, including for instance (the relevant fraction of) the embodied energy that went into construction of the factories that made the packaging, warehouses, trucks etc.

However the industrial path generates significant costs that it has not been possible to feed into the foregoing derivations, such as those associated with the ecological effects of agribusiness feed production, greenhouse gas emissions, chemical pollution, impacts of relevant transport accidents on public heath budgets, etc.

           b): Numerical findings: The alternative path

The system assumed is a neighbourhood chicken cooperative with 50 hens in the flock, each laying 240 eggs/y. (Deze 2018 reports the total per chicken can be up to 319.) Chickens are kept in a 7 m x 7 m pen to midday then allowed to free range in paddocks, gardens, woodlots and orchards. (Further derivation of cost values are not included here.)

The costs arrived at for the alternative path are...

Dollar cost:

Sheds and pens, $265, i.e., $5.3/y and 0.044 cents/egg.

Feed, 0 to 0.25c/egg

Total dollar cost  =  0 to 0.3c/egg.

 (Or 5.3 cents if labour is included.)

Energy cost:

67 kg of steel, assuming 35 MJ/kg, 2,345 MJ.

Wood 10 kg @ 0.5 MJ/kg = 5 MJ.

Cost per egg 2,350 MJ/(50 hens x 240 eggs/y x 50 years) =  3.9 kJ.

 Feed .00044 MJ.

 Total energy cost   = 4.3 kJ/egg

Thus the industrial path results in a dollar cost at the supermarket check out that is at least c. 20 times that of the local path if a labour cost is included, and 100 times if one is not. The multiple for energy costs when the industrial total ends at the factory out-gate is about 166 kJ/4.3kJ = 39/1.

Note again that both for suburban back yard, cooperative and Third World situations both dollar and energy costs can range down to zero, through the greater use of earth etc. for chicken house and pen construction, use of food and garden wastes, and the local growing of supplements.

However these figures for the two paths are not comparable as those for the industrial path do not include any costs after the eggs leave the supermarket. These would be considerable as they include the cost of travel to and from the supermarket, home refrigeration (daily distribution of eggs from cooperatives reduces or eliminates need for preservative storage), and dealing with egg and packaging wastes. Local supply systems do not involve these dollar and energy cost components. Note also that the above energy costs for the industrial path also do not include those incurred between the farm out-gate and the supermarket check-out, such as for packaging, warehousing, distribution, transport, advertising and supermarket operation, including overheads such as insurance, lighting and marketing.

Transport from the supermarket to the household is likely to be a significant cost. If it assumed that one dozen eggs make up 3% of a 20 kg load of groceries from the supermarket requiring a 10 km vehicle round trip, the energy cost per egg might be in the region of 1.3 MJ. Therefore a complete account which added the energy costs of waste disposal etc. might raise the cost for the industrial path to above1.5 MJ per egg, i.e., to the region of 350 times the energy cost for the alternative path.


This study provides a concrete illustration of the large savings that can be associated with production in small scale, highly self-sufficient and  cooperative local economies. It draws attention to the rarely recognized “diseconomies of scale”. The implications of this perspective with respect to the general issue of sustainability, and especially to that of Third World “development” are considerable. They reinforce the emerging alternative view which seeks to avoid the dominant capital-intensive trickle-down approach and explores the potential of local, sufficient, cooperative, participatory, resource-cheap and frugal ways.

In complex, multi-functional and integrated local economies the close proximity of productive activities along with informal networks of communication and production enable many functions to be carried out easily and spontaneously, eliminating the need for many intermediary functions, industries, and costs. Often outputs such as manures can immediately become valued inputs to other activities, many tasks and problems can be dealt with informally with minimal need for equipment, and many functions such as transport and warehousing can become unnecessary. Design can ensure that elements perform overlapping and multiple functions. For instance forest gardens can provide wind breaks, fruit, vegetables, grazing, honey, dyes and perfumes, leisure resources, habitat for birds that feed on garden pests, roofing shingles, chemicals such as eucalyptus and creosote, mulch, sawn timber and firewood. Familiar informal communication and sharing networks involving multi-skilled citizen performance of many functions can enable rapid action at little or no material cost.

Many functions in addition to egg supply can be organised at the local level to take advantage of the opportunities created by proximity and familiarity. For example a diverse and highly self-sufficient community with its own small firms and farms, gardened landscape, variety of artists and craftspeople, automatically provides a rich variety of spontaneous leisure activities, reducing the desire to spend money or energy on entertainment, travel or holidays away. In addition leisure committees can organize concerts, talks, adventure outings, picnics, field days, celebrations and festivals, drawing on costless local resources.

This paper began by pointing to the argument that global sustainability cannot be achieved unless current rich world per capita levels of resource use and environmental impact are more or less decimated, noting that The Simpler Way project is concerned to show that this can be done. This study illustrates the magnitude of the potential reductions that the alternative would make possible by examining the supply of a single product but the much more extensive study Remaking Settlements (TSW, 2018) considers a larger number of items and finds that the implementation of Simpler Way principles could achieve reductions in the order of 90% in the total energy and dollar costs for normal outer city suburbs.

The feasibility of such reductions is supported by the findings arrived at in Lockyer’s study of Dancing Rabbit Eco-village in Missouri. (Lockyer, 2017.) It was found that the community’s per capita rates of car use, distance driven, and liquid fuel use were 6 -10% of the US national average, solid waste and electricity use were 18%, and water use 23%. One third of water use was recycled and three times as much electricity was generated than was used, the surplus being sent to the grid. Lockyer and also Grinde (2017) confirm the common finding that members of Eco-villages report much higher than national average quality of life.

In many regions efforts are now being made to develop some version of the alternative path sketched above, or to retain and reinforce traditional forms of it, such as in Chiapas, Mexico and the global Via Campesino movement. The government of Senegal has the goal of converting 1,400 villages into Eco-villages. (Saint-Onge, 2015.) This alternative path focuses on enabling people to directly and immediately meet various basic needs via mostly low-tech, cooperative local systems, as distinct from relying on capital-intensive growth and trickle down within national economies. The significance of this study of egg supply is that it indicates the potential magnitude of the difference in monetary and resource costs involved between the conventional and alternative paths, and therefore how the latter could be facilitated at very low cost to state budgets. It also points the to the need to reconsider the wisdom of defining “development” in terms of aspiring to rich world goals and means, and it adds weight to the case that “sustainability” should be conceived in terms of localism, sufficiency, integrated systems, cooperation, simplicity and frugality.

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