Throughout the 20th century, the practice of confining livestock in industrialized farms grew in prevalence across the United States. This practice, known as factory farming, creates conditions designed to maximize efficiency as well as profit and meet the ever-growing demands for meat and dairy of the American populace, even if it means cutting corners in terms of quality. Increase in the number of livestock across America has been exponential, with meat production continuously scaling upwards as a direct result of the growth of factory farms.
While individuals have lobbied against the practices of factory farms for decades, little action has been taken on part of the government, leaving factory farms largely unregulated. The only federal laws that address animals in factory farming operations focus upon transportation and effective slaughter of the animals, missing the mark of addressing the most crucial issues posed by factory farms. Furthermore, such regulations are extremely difficult to monitor and enforce due to the lack of accountability present on such operations, leaving room for violations to slip through the cracks.
The rapid industrialization of the meat industry and consolidation of agriculture has caused meat and dairy corporations to obtain massive amounts of political power through targeting key policymakers and political figures. The industry’s “friends in high places” allow for regulation surrounding factory farms to be excessively lenient and favor the large corporations that dominate the industry.
Factory farming and its lack of effective regulation raises a myriad of concerns among animal rights activists, environmentalists, and doctors alike. Factory farming is the second largest contributor to man-made greenhouse gas emissions, making it a key component of climate change. Moreover, the treatment of factory farmed animals has long been contested as unethical, as the lives of these animals are ridden with inhumane conditions such as cramped living spaces and lack of sanitation. Factory farming also poses threats to consumer health since meat is produced to maximize quantity, even if doing so jeopardizes the quality of the products. In fact, consuming red meat has been shown to heighten the chance of premature death, as proven by a 2019 study.
However, a further pressing matter remains largely untouched by activists: the monopolization of agriculture. Factory farms dominating the market and driving small farms out of business essentially creates monopolies on meat and dairy production. By controlling every aspect of the supply chain, from slaughter to meat-packing, these corporations are able to gain increased market control. For instance, 80% of all beef production is controlled by only the top four suppliers, a significant increase from 1970, when the top five suppliers controlled only 25% of production. Furthermore, 99.9% of chickens are raised on factory farms. Overall, two-thirds of all meat production in the United States is controlled by just six companies: Tyson, JBS, Smithfield, Cargill, National Beef, and Hormel. These companies constantly either drive competitors out of business or buy them out, with Tyson notably acquiring Keystone Foods and Hillshire Brands. The more that this consolidation occurs, the more that small farmers suffer at the hands of Big Ag. This is why, between the years 1970 and 2006, America lost 88% of its dairy farms.
When consolidation takes place in the farming industry, small farms have to face the ultimatum of either being driven off of the land and losing their source of income or working under a big meat corporation. The farmers that choose the latter are forced into unfair contracts that essentially treat them like indentured servants, with their compensation being inconsistent and extremely low in order to amplify profit for the big companies. The unreliability of their income leads to financial insecurity and excessive debt-taking, only further damaging the livelihoods of farmers overtaken by Big Ag.
As with all monopolies principally, gaining market control and eliminating competition allows factory farms unrestricted freedom over how their businesses are operated—particularly regarding worker treatment. Monopsonies over labor are established as a result of monopolization, thus leaving workers with fewer options for employment. Since employment in factory farms is the only option for these individuals, they continue working in farms owned by large corporations, despite the fact that the conditions are far from ideal.
Factory farms prioritize efficiency, even if such rapid production incapacitates the workers. Serious injuries such as amputations, fractures, and burns are commonplace occurrences on factory farm operations. Owners of farms repeatedly dismiss worker safety concerns. If someone works at any meat-packing plant for 5 years, there is a 50% chance that they will be seriously injured at least once.
The COVID-19 pandemic has only further exemplified the lack of regard that factory farms have for their workers, with major outbreaks of the virus linked to meatpacking plants. This is caused by negligence on part of factory farm owners, with many workers reporting lack of personal protective equipment as well as improper social distancing. Although COVID-19 prevention measures are absent on most factory farms, the low-income workers rely on their jobs in order to get by, meaning they have no choice but continuing to work. These workers are often uneducated and do not have the means to find other sources of income, so their families tend to depend entirely upon their jobs on factory farms. Such dependency means factory farms are able to exploit their workers with limited backlash against their harsh practices.
At the JBS meatpacking plant in Greeley, Colorado, for example, there were 245 confirmed COVID-19 cases and six worker deaths by April of 2020. These tragic losses are a direct result of Big Ag’s negligence and reflect the exploitative nature of the factory farming industry.
All in all, it is evidently true that meat and dairy monopolies currently exhibit unilateral control over the market with few limitations to their expansion and power. The solution to this is multifaceted: policymakers must close current loopholes that factory farms abuse as well as create new worker protection regulations that can actually be enforced. Furthermore, consumers need to shift away from supporting these monopolies by lowering their meat and dairy consumption. By freezing the demand for meat and dairy, consumers have the power to weaken these giant monopolies and, in turn, support small farmers and workers. If action is not taken, the future will only hold further abuse and devastation.
This article first appeared on International Policy Digest.
Kacey is a rising junior in high school and a continuing mentee for the summer of 2021. Having started her animal activism at age 9, Kacey is deeply passionate about the rights of farm animals and is currently part of Farm Sanctuary’s Youth Leadership Council.