Almost all hens kept by farmers for egg production in North America are raised in cages (called "battery" cages), sparking a huge debate about the animals' welfare.

These cages aren't big enough to let the hens engage in some natural practices, such as perching, nesting, wing flapping and dust-bathing to keep their feathers fluffy and less oily (fluffiness helps the birds retain heat).

Cage opponents say high-density, high-production cooped-up chickens end up with osteoporosis and other maladies.

But many farmers think the cages are efficient. Cages keep manure in one spot — it drops through the cage bottoms and is taken away by a conveyor — and eggs in another, as they roll forward on the slanted cages' floor for collection.

Overall, that means chickens and eggs are cleaner, so the chance of disease affecting the birds is reduced, and there's less bacteria being passed from birds to humans.

However, some nations have decided cages are inhumane, and have to go. For example, in 1999 the European Union proclaimed it would banish cages by 2012.

That's huge. Some European countries decided not to wait, and already instituted a ban. Swiss, Swedish and Finnish now live in other types of group housing, such as larger cages, and aviaries.

You can only wonder if the writing's on the wall for North America. Will farmers here be forced by law to make their hens happier? And are we pretty sure they're not so happy now?

Difficult questions like this helped propel a highly informative presentation last week at the University of Guelph by renowned animal scientist Dr. Joy Mench of the University of California, Davis.

Mench was this year's speaker for the F.W. Presant Memorial Lecture, an event supported by the Ontario Agricultural College Alumni Foundation and the university's Campbell Center for the Study of Animal Welfare.

Mench is not an extremist, but she's not a battery cage fan, either. Rather, she likes what's called furnished cages, those in which the chickens have more room and amenities, such as a nest box.

In her presentation, she discussed a gamut of housing options including conventional battery cages, free-run housing (where chickens are relegated to structures but allowed to move about on the floor), and free-range environments, which gives the birds routine access to an open-air farmyard or pasture.

To an extent, all these options are possible. Farmers know how to raise animals in a variety of ways, or can learn.

But all production practices come with a price. Farmers who raise chickens that lay eggs keep the birds in battery cages because it's a least-expensive option, and it's easier to stave off or contain disease. In fact, disease prevention and dirty eggs are what compelled farmers to get their chickens off damp floors and straw in the first place, back in the 1950s when battery cages started gaining popularity.

To me, farmers have given us just what we've asked for — a way to produce reasonably priced eggs that are safe and nutritious.

But if we decide through consensus that's not what we want, we need to tell them. Then, they can figure out other ways to raise their animals, and tell us how much it will cost.

Whether battery cages will be banished in North America remains to be seen.

But it's not hard to envision a scenario where animal welfare practices are used by importing countries as a barrier or a condition.

If your practices are deemed inhumane, forget about exporting there.

In that case, North America may be forced to make massive changes.

And if that's a likelihood, isn't this the time to start an open dialogue involving farmers, researchers, consumers and governments about what's wanted, needed, affordable and safe?

I think so. We can already agree on certain things, like the fact that there's no price that can be put on inhumane practices.

They're simply unacceptable, at any price. We can also agree that carefully measured decisions are more likely when your back isn't against the wall, like it is for some farmers in Europe.

To avoid that situation, let's keep supporting animal welfare and production research, present study results and issues at rural and urban forums such as the one hosted at the university, and try to reach accord.

When it comes to raising eggs and chickens — as well as many other aspects of farming — it's time to talk.