Most people in the U.S. have never visited a farm, seen a cow face to face, petted a pig, or held a chicken. This distance from the production of our food helps to foster belief among the public that animals on farms are cage-free, graze in meadows surrounded by their offspring, and are farmed sustainably. The reality for the vast majority of animals on farms is much bleeker.
Factory farming is a form of intensive, industrial agriculture that is widely used to maximize efficiency in animal agriculture. Factory farming generally consists of thousands of animals being raised on one site to produce food such as milk, eggs, meat, cheese, or other products for human consumption. Another common term used to refer to factory farms is concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). The requirements for a CAFO, as outlined by the United States Department of Agriculture, are that the farm houses 1,000,000 pounds of live animal weight (equivalent to about 1,000 cattle being raised for beef, 700 cows being used for dairy, or 125,000 chickens being raised for meat); that animals, feed, waste, and production processes are confined to a small land area; and that feed is delivered to the animals rather than the animals being able to graze or seek out their own food. Smaller operations can be termed CAFOs if they discharge wastewater or manure into an open waterway.
Powered by developments in transport and refrigeration, the Chicago meatpacking industry in the late 19th century pioneered the industrial scale of animal slaughter. These processes were condemned for harsh and unsanitary working conditions in Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel “The Jungle.” Factory farming animals to minimize cost and maximize production and profit was introduced in the 1930s when the slaughter of pigs was mechanized. 20 years later in the 1950s, chickens were being packed into sheds by the thousands. In the 1970s, government policy began to favor industrial farming, and agriculture secretary Earl Butz told farmers to “get big or get out.”
An increase in demand has also been the driving force behind the increase in factory farming around the world. A 2017 analysis of 10 countries classified as “developing,” including Brazil, China, Ethiopia, India, Myanmar, and others, found that factory farming of pigs, chickens, and cows was significantly increasing. The number of animals produced in the 10 subject countries increased by 200 million between 2008 and 2013. This increase was primarily due to an increase in the demand for meat and other animal products from the population in the subject countries.
The industrialization of agriculture happened quickly. More changed about farming in the 20th century than changes that occurred since the agricultural practices began. The process was abetted by the invention of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides in the early 20th century. In the 1940s and 1950s, antibiotics began to be added to the feed of pigs, cattle, and other animals on farms, making it easier to keep them alive while confining them in smaller quarters.
Factory farms as the systems of large-scale confinement we know today began in the United States with the industrial raising of chickens. From early experiments in the 1920s, the practice of keeping vast numbers of animals confined in small spaces and delivering feed to them has spread to countries throughout the world. The United Kingdom is one country that has gradually adopted the U.S. model of factory farming. A 2017 analysis revealed that the UK had at least 789 megafarms that meet the definition of a CAFO as laid out by the United States Department of Agriculture.
Factory farming is the dominant form of animal production globally. Over 90 percent of all farmed animals around the world spend their lives on factory farms. This includes virtually all farmed fish and approximately 74 percent of farmed land animals such as chicken, cattle, and pigs. Factory farming tends to increase as demand for meat and other animal products increase. An increase in per capita income has been correlated with an increase in demand for animal products. From 1975 to 1990, China experienced a 6.5 percent increase in per capita income and a 7.5 percent increase in per capita meat consumption.
Prior to the industrialization of agriculture, farmers tended to have diversified crops and animals that were allowed to graze widely. Farmers were also able to make decisions about their own farms, crops, and animals, and were not beholden to contracts with massive corporations. The food that these farmers produced was distributed to communities nearby because there were no means of refrigerating large quantities of food for transportation.
Though factory farming has hugely increased the number of farmed animals and the quantity of animal-derived food products, the price for the increase in productivity is a high one. The lower cost of production and the prices for consumers do not take into account the animal cruelty, or environmental, health, and social impacts of factory farming.
In order to achieve the greatest productivity, standard practice on factory farms has come to include painful procedures for the animals. Piglets are often neutered and have their tails docked without anesthesia in order to prevent unwanted breeding and tail chewing. Chicks have the tips of their beaks sliced off to prevent them from harming each other when packed by the thousands into sheds with no access to the outdoors. Dairy cattle are repeatedly bred and have their young taken away to be sold for meat, often just hours after birth.
Factory farming has had, and continues to have, disastrous impacts on the environment. The demand for land on which to graze cattle that are being raised for beef, as well as growing the corn and soy needed to get them to a desirable slaughter weight, is a major driver of deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest. Factory farming is also responsible for the release of large quantities of methane, carbon dioxide, and nitrous oxide, three greenhouse gases that drive climate change. These are produced at every stage within the animal agriculture sector— from the production of fertilizers intended to be applied to the crops for feeding farmed animals, to the manure and waste produced by the animals themselves and the transportation of the animals to slaughter.
The health impacts of factory farming are far-reaching and include the many health concerns associated with eating a diet high in meats and animal products, including high cholesterol. Though such dietary health concerns can be serious, there are other public health trends that should also be considered. The pollution from factory farms severely impacts local communities, overuse of antibiotics is hastening the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and factory farms provide environments that increase the likelihood of viral transmission from animals to humans. The high number of animals being raised leads to an increase in numbers of animals needing to be slaughtered, and extremely high slaughter-line speeds. These speeds can lead to injuries for workers.
Factory farming has a long history of damaging both communities and economies. CAFOs tend to be built in socioeconomically disadvantaged communities. In addition to the cries and stench of thousands of animals, the many health impacts and aesthetic problems that stem from living near a CAFO cause property values to drop.
In addition to the havoc wreaked on neighboring communities, the rise of factory farms has also run many small farms out of business. Larger farms’ minimize costs more efficiently than smaller operations via economies of scale, as well as through lobbying and policy decisions. This has resulted in monopolies within the meat industry. Three-quarters of the market for beef in the U.S. is controlled by just four companies.
The primary reason that factory farming still exists is that the demand for cheap meat and other animal products is still extremely high. In fact, meat consumption globally has steadily increased, especially in lower- and middle-income countries.
Thankfully there are a variety of ways by which to help fight back against factory farming and the methods employed by the agricultural conglomerates.
Perhaps one of the most impactful changes that each individual can make is to reduce the amount of meat and dairy products they consume. By limiting the intake of animal-derived ingredients focusing on eating a greater number of plant-based foods, the demand for animal products is reduced and demand for plant-based items goes up. This encourages companies to create and support more plant-based products and continue to shift away from animal items.
In order to be the best advocate for sustainable farming methods, it is important to know as much as possible about factory farming, as well as alternate farming practices. By having greater knowledge in these areas, we can be more equipped to advocate against factory farming.
There are a plethora of organizations with which one can volunteer in order to combat the growth of factory farming and industrial methods of animal agriculture. Getting involved with one or more such organizations provides a hands-on method by which one can make a difference in the movement.
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