In the last few decades, consolidation of food production has concentrated power in the hands of fewer and fewer corporations. Many of today’s farms are actually large industrial facilities, not the green pastures and red barns that most Americans imagine. These consolidated operations are able to produce food in high volume but have little to no regard for the environment, animal welfare, or food safety. In order tomaximize profits, factory farms often put the health of consumers and rural communities at risk.
Does Industrial Agriculture Feed the WorldSome argue that factory farming is the only way to meet the growing demand for food in the world today, but this is not true.
Industrial production of food has resulted in massive waste,i while hundreds of millions of people still live with hunger.ii
Many believe that the answer to global malnutrition and famine is small farms and sustainable agriculture, not industrialized food production.iii
What is a Factory Farm?The government calls these facilities Concentrated (or Confined) Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines a CAFO as “new and existing operations which stable or confine and feed or maintain for a total of 45 days or more in any 12-month period more than the number of animals specified” in categories that they list out. In addition, “there’s no grass or other vegetation in the confinement area during the normal growing season.”
Numbers for both large and medium CAFOs (factory farms) are listed on the EPA’s site. A large CAFO includes 1000 cattle (other than dairy, which is 700), 2500 hogs over 55 pounds, or 125,000 chickens (as long as a liquid manure system isn’t used). A liquid manure system is when the animal’s urine and feces are mixed with water and held either under the facility or outside in huge open air lagoons – these manure systems create a lot of pollution (which many times taxpayers end up paying for). The chickens they refer to are chickens other than laying hens – laying hens must number between 30,000 – 82,000, depending on how the manure is handled.
A medium factory farm (CAFO) has between 300-999 cattle other than dairy (200-699 if dairy), 750-2,499 hogs if 55 pounds or more, and 37,500 to 124,999 chickens (other than hens that lay eggs) if the facility doesn’t use a liquid manure handling system.
These industrial facilities share many characteristics, including:
- Unnaturally large numbers of animals are confined closely together. Cattle feedlots generally contain thousands of animals in one place, while many egg-laying businesses house one million or more chickens. The main animals for such operations are cows, pigs, chickens and turkeys, but this practice is also applied to sheep, goats, rabbits, and various types of poultry.
Disregard for Animal Welfare
- Metal buildings confine animals indoors, with minimal room for normal behaviors and little or no access to sunlight and fresh air.
- Animals are mutilated to adapt them to factory farm conditions. This includes cutting off the beaks of chickens and turkeys (de-beaking), and amputating the tails of cows and pigs (docking).
- Pens and cages restrict the natural behavior and movement of animals. In some cases, such as veal calves and mothering pigs, the animals can’t even turn around.
Misuse of Pharmaceuticals
- Low doses of antibiotics are administered regularly to animals in a preemptive move to ward off the diseases bred by unnatural, unsanitary conditions.
- In addition to preventive medicines, animals are fed hormones and antibiotics to promote faster growth.
Mismanagement of Waste
- Excessive waste created by large concentrations of animals is handled in ways that can pollute air and water.
- Man-made lagoons on industrial farms hold millions of gallons of liquid waste, from which contaminants can leach into groundwater. The manure is normally sprayed on crops, but often excessively, leading it to run off into surface waters.
- Nutrients and bacteria from waste can contaminate waterways, killing fish and shellfish and disturbing aquatic ecosystems.
Factory farms are also known as:
- Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO)
- Confined Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO)
- Industrial Agricultural Operation
- Industrial Livestock Operation (ILO)
Socially Irresponsible Corporate Ownership
- One corporation often owns or controls all aspects of the production process, including animal rearing, feed production, slaughter, packaging and distribution. Known as vertical integration, this approach leads to tremendous consolidation of power that is leveraged against small farmers and diminishes corporations’ accountability for irresponsible practices.
- Contract growing indentures independent farmers to grow livestock for a corporation. In the contract system, the corporation dictates all aspects of raising the animals, while the farmer is left with the risk, overhead, waste, and the disposal of any animals that don’t survive until slaughter.
The True CostsIndustrially produced food appears to be inexpensive, but the pricetag doesn’t reflect the actual costs that we taxpayers bear. Factory farms pollute communities and adversely affect public health, thereby increasing medical costs for those living near such farms—costs that are often shouldered by public budgets.iv Taxpayers fund government subsidies, which go primarily to large industrial farms. Jobs are lost and wages driven down, as corporate consolidation bankrupts small businesses and factory farms pay unethically low wages for dangerous, undesirable work.
Because factory farms are considered “agricultural” instead of “industrial,” they are not subject to the regulation that their scale of production (and level of pollution) warrants.v Because they employ powerfullobbyists that can sway the government agencies responsible for monitoring agricultural practices, industrial farms are left free to pollute, to hire undocumented workers (and pay them next to nothing), and to locate their businesses without regard to the impact that has on surrounding communities.
What You Can DoWe can all help put an end to the factory farming system by buying our food from smaller, sustainable farms. These businesses still aim to profit from their labor, but that’s not their only objective. They have essentially a triple bottom line – of social, environmental and financial gain – which means they won’t sacrifice the health of the land or the quality of food simply to make a few dollars more.
- When you buy local fruits, vegetables, and meat products, you support your local economy. More of the money you spend goes directly to the farmers themselves because less goes to transportation and middlemen. Buying locally also means burning less fossil fuel to get food from the farm to the table, which benefits the environment.
- You can buy local foods by joining a CSA group, visiting a farmers market or using the Eat Well Guide to find a farm near you.
Did You Know?
- Two percent of livestock farms now raise 40 percent of all animals in the US.vi
- In the United States, three percent of farms generate 62 percent of all agricultural production.vii
- In 2002, half of all hogs in the U.S. were raised on large-scale farms that managed more than 5,000 hogs at a time.viii
For More Information
- Find a local farmer through the Eat Well Guide and start asking questions about how they produce food.
- For more resources and reports about the factory farm system, please visit www.factoryfarm.org. Click here to see photos of factory farms.
- To find out which corporate farms received the bulk of government subsidies from 1995-2004, visit the Environmental Working Group’s Farm Subsidy Database.
- Watch this Sierra Club video, “Living a Nightmare: Animal Factories in Michigan”, a 24-minute documentary about the horrors of industrial agriculture.
Reports and Articles
- Is Your Meat Fit to Eat?: The GRACE Factory Farm Project’s online brochure about industrial farming.
- How Sustainable Agriculture Can Address the Environmental and Human Health Harms of Industrial Agriculture – This article lays out the main problems with industrial farming today, and gives sustainable solutions to these problems.
- Going to Market: The Cost of Industrialized Agriculture
Examines industrialized agriculture and its negative effects on our natural resources. This report looks at of the structure of the agriculture industry, the position of the livestock industry within the global food system, and the role of the farmer within the livestock industry.
- Harrison, Jeff. 2004. Study: Nation Wastes Nearly Half Its Food. uanews.org, November 18, 2004.
- Hine, Rachel and Jules Pretty. “Reducing Food Poverty with Sustainable Agriculture: A Summary of New Evidence.” Center for Environment and Society, University of Essex, 2001.
- World Watch Institute. “From Rio to Johannesbourg: Ecological Farming – Reducing Hunger and Meeting Environmental Goals.” June 2002.
- Weida, William J. “Considering the Rationales for Factory Farming.” Paper presented at Environmental Health Impacts of CAFOs: Anticipating Hazards – Searching for Solutions, Iowa City, Iowa, March 29, 2004.
- U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service. “National Program 206: Manure and Byproduct Utilization Action Plan.” 2005.
- Reuters News. “Powerhouse Big Farms Dominate U.S. Ag Output.” June 3, 2004. (See also U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Statistics Service, 2002 Census of Agriculture. 2002.
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