Spring officially begins at the vernal equinox, but most people don’t feel the season in their bones until the birds return and the trees bud. The clearest sign that spring is here may be the arrival of Easter and its rituals. For many, it’s all about the eggs: Children paint them in bright colors, hunt for them in backyards, and eat handfuls of those foil-wrapped chocolate candies shaped like ovoids. I did, my kids did, and now my grandchildren do. In my early farming life, we had 300 laying-hens, carrying on my parent’s tradition.

Eggs are universal symbols of rebirth and renewal.

The Humane Society of the United States, however, would like to turn them into emblems of cruelty and death.

The crusade against conventional eggs has made surprising advances in recent years. A growing number of restaurants now pledge to use only certain kinds of eggs. The issue is starting to show up on election ballots as well–seven states have passed restrictions on egg production. Before long, even the Easter bunny will face scrutiny: Do the eggs in his basket come from “cage-free” chickens?

The assumption is that “cage-free” chickens are somehow superior to “caged” chickens–not from the standpoint of taste or nutrition, but ethics. It’s more humane, goes the thinking, to let cooped-up chickens mill around freely.

Yet the truth is more complicated. Arizona Republic columnist Linda Valdez visited an egg farm that uses cages. She confessed to thinking that she would see chickens treated “like cogs in an industrial machine.” She discovered something different. “It wasn’t nearly as bad as I expected,” she wrote. She described a clean and efficient operation that produces good eggs at a reasonable price.

Then she visited a “cage-free” farm. “Layers of chicken excrement build upon on the floor,” she reported. This is what the eggs lay in until someone picks them up.

For consumers of eggs, it’s a discomforting thought. As it turns out, however, this “cage-free” environment is no poultry paradise for the chickens, either.

When chickens are crowded together, rather than separated into cages, they peck each other incessantly. It’s animal instinct–an avian attempt to establish a social hierarchy. This behavior is where the phrase “pecking order” comes from.

The result isn’t pretty. After months of going at each other, older birds have few feathers on their scarred necks. “The cage-free block has twice the mortality rate,” wrote Valdez. “Broken bones are common among the cage-free birds. If the block gets spooked, they pile up on one another, crushing those at the bottom.”

Maybe “cage-free” is best understood as a euphemism. Perhaps what we have here isn’t a debate between “caged” and “cage-free” chickens, but between “protected” and “unprotected” chickens. Maybe you’ll even see "free-range" eggs. The hens are running around loose, outside, being pursued by foxes and dogs. Some are getting hit and killed by cars – that doesn’t seem humane to me.

If you thought the Humane Society was a do-gooder group that looked after the welfare of cats and dogs, then you’re thinking of an organization that existed a generation ago. Today, activists and ideologues run the show. They support a radical vision of animal rights that is far outside the mainstream.

We shouldn’t play games with eggs. Around the world, they’re an important source of affordable nutrition, especially protein. During a time of deep recession in the United States, as families struggle to put food on the table, we should make sure that egg production is not only humane, but also sustainable–in both an environmental and an economic sense.

It turns out that large-scale operations–often sneered at for creating “cogs in an industrial machine,” as Valdez put it before she learned better–are far more sensible than other systems.

A tractor that hauls a refrigerated trailer and travels more than a thousand miles is a much more fuel-efficient method of egg transportation than a small vehicle that drives between a local farm and consumers. This may sound counterintuitive, but it’s also true, as J.L. Capper of Washington State University, R.A. Cady of Elanco Animal Health, and D.E. Bauman of Cornell University show in a recent paper called “Demystifying the Environmental Sustainability of Food Production.” The big rigs consume far less gas per egg, even though they travel much longer distances.

The moral to the story is simple: Don’t count your cage-free chickens before they’ve hatched.

Dean Kleckner, an Iowa farmer, chairs Truth About Trade & Technology. http://www.truthabouttrade.org