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Factory Farming Basics

March 31, 2021
Time to read: 3 minutes

Old MacDonald’s farm has morphed into giant concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), where tens of thousands of animals may be packed into poorly ventilated, windowless sheds hidden from public view.

When you were a child, did you sing about Old MacDonald’s farm? He had a pig that oinked, a cow that mooed, and a chicken that clucked. These days, however, Old MacDonald’s farm has morphed into giant concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), where tens of thousands of animals may be packed into poorly ventilated, windowless sheds hidden from public view. Mostly tucked away in poor rural communities, these vast, polluting enterprises raise and slaughter about 10 billion animals each year (or over one million animals every hour). The consequences for the environment and human health, as well as for the workers and animals involved, are disastrous. This post will provide a brief synopsis of the presentation Monica Chen from Factory Farming Awareness Coalition gave at Cisco on March 31.

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While factory farming detriments the environment in numerous ways, its impact on climate change has perhaps gotten the most press. Recent studies on global greenhouse gas emissions from animal agriculture calculate them to be nearly equivalent to the emissions of the entire transportation sector: that includes all emissions from cars, trucks, airplanes, ships, and trains.

Producing meat is also astoundingly inefficient. Around 80% percent of the world’s crops go towards feeding the livestock that produce around 20% of the calories humans consume. This makes sense when you consider that for every 100 calories you feed a cow, you’ll only harvest approximately three calories of beef. Most of them will be burned keeping her alive and growing.

All those crops she’s fed need water—lots of it. That’s why a pound of beef requires 660 gallons of water while a pound of soybeans (a healthier protein source) requires 216 gallons and a pound of potatoes only 119. In other words, meat is a giant waste of food—and water.

To create space for all of those crops and animals, rain forests and other land need to be cleared. Animal agriculture has become the most significant contributor to deforestation in the Amazon, causing around 63% of the overall deforestation between 2000 and 2013.

Those 10 billion animals are not just eating, they’re excreting as well. Where does all of that excrement go? Some of it gets sprayed out over the surrounding land and into the air, landing on the homes of the locals and increasing the incidence of respiratory disease, infant mortality and deaths from anaemia, kidney disease, and tuberculosis. Some of it ends up as runoff, contaminating crops. It also ends up in waters, creating dead zones where life ceases to flourish.

There are several other human costs to animal agriculture. Antimicrobial resistance grows with the overuse of antibiotics, and 80% of antibiotics in the United States are sold to factory farms. As you can imagine, keeping thousands of animals confined in their own filth creates a perfect breeding ground for bacteria and viruses. When people come into contact with sick animals and their waste, sometimes the bacteria or virus is able to infect the people. That’s what happened with swine flu, which is thought to have started at a Smithfield pork factory farm.

By now, most people are aware of the link between pandemic-causing diseases from animals, such as swine flu, bird flu, and COVID-19. Through climate change, deforestation, antimicrobial resistance, and intensified animal production these kinds of pandemics are likely to become increasingly prevalent.

Factory farming has enabled us to produce lots of animal products efficiently and cheaply—until you include all of the externalized costs, such as environmental degradation, carbon and water footprint, and increased healthcare costs. The cheap supply has increased consumption and, with that consumption, risk of heart disease, cancer, and all-cause mortality.

Finally, there is the impact on the animals themselves. Ninety-nine percent of the 10 billion animals raised for meat, milk, and eggs in the US are born into factory farms where they are crowded together in warehouses or in cages, mutilated without pain relief, and have their offspring taken from them, often within hours of birthing. Layer hens and dairy cows, after some of the worst suffering of any factory farmed animals, are slaughtered at a fraction of their natural lifespan.

At a personal level, the greatest action we can take to mitigate the damage animal agriculture causes is to eat more plant-based. There are plenty of ways you can experiment with this. Some people swap out cow’s milk for oat milk. Some begin by eating fully plant-based one day per week. An excellent resource is 10 Weeks to Vegan, where you’ll find recipes to try and a supportive Facebook community to answer any questions. Sign up here!

Jesse Tandler is Educational Program Director at FFAC

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