factory farming: overview

“Does anyone want food that is (and unnecessarily) the number one cause of global warming? Does anyone want to make animals suffer? If we take these agreements as our starting point - rather than the strange and not-particularly relevant questions about the ‘rightness’ and ‘wrongness’ of eating animals - I am quite sure we will make progress and quickly.” - Jonathan Safran Foer

There is a broad spectrum of how our food is produced in this country.  But unless you make a conscious effort to avoid it, chances are the majority of the food you consume is a product of the factory farm system.  And whether you are a meat-eater or vegetarian, factory farming affects all of our lives in a variety of ways.  While the treatment that these animals endure is inhumane in the deepest sense of the word, factory farming is not exclusively an animal welfare issue.  It also has significant social, health and environmental effects.

How It Started:

Large scale factory farming has only been in existence for approximately 60 years.  Although the first chicken factory farm was created by accident in the 1920’s, our food was still being produced by the average family farmer well into the 1950’s.  The typical farm kept a variety of both livestock and crops in an ideal system of efficiency that created zero waste.  The animals grazed the land, and the animals fertilized the soil naturally there was no need for chemicals.  Crops and fields were also rotated to add nitrogen to the soil and avoid the onset of disease and insects. 

This began to change after World War II ended.  During the war, factories were using ammonium nitrate to make explosives.  Ammonium nitrate also happens to be an excellent source of nitrogen for plants, so when the war ended the government used its surplus to start producing chemical fertilizer instead.  (Pesticides were also produced based on the poison gases developed for war.)  Now that fertilizer could be bought in a bag instead of depending on animal manure and crop rotation, farmers could plant every year without rotating, and they could plant crops more densely. 

Corn yields exploded in the 50’s and 60’s with the government’s encouragement and prices dropped.  Eventually it was cheap enough to feed cattle on feedlots instead of grass, and chickens in factories instead of farmyards.  So farmers moved livestock to Concentrated Animal Feedlot Operations (or CAFOs).  The remaining livestock farmers couldn’t compete with factory farms.  As more animals left the farmland, more corn was planted in their place because it required little time or work to grow.  Eventually, monoculture took over and diversity dwindled on the farm.

When animals and crops are raised together it creates a circular system in which animals feed the land (with manure) and the land feeds the animal - there is no waste.  But when this system is broken up and crops and animals are raised independent of one another, the circle falls apart and problems arise.  When crops are planted over and over on the same land it depletes the soil and they require massive amounts of chemical fertilizer; it also invites insects and disease (and the need for massive amounts of pesticides).  And when thousands of animals are kept in small, concentrated areas, the manure that’s produced exceeds the carrying capacity of the land.  Over time these issues have lead to even more problems.

The Issues:

Animal Welfare

Even though we know farm animals are capable of feeling pain just like dogs and cats do, livestock are considered exempt from animal cruelty laws.  Deliberate acts of cruelty have been widely documented by audits and by workers with undercover cameras, yet they still receive no protection.

Most factory farm animals are kept in confinement systems such as battery cages, gestation crates, farrowing crates or veal crates that are too small for the animal to move properly or even turn around in.  They are denied the opportunity to perform basic behaviors such as flapping their wings, building nests, rooting in soil or caring for their young, and many are even prohibited from walking around or laying down comfortably. 

With the exception of cattle, all factory farm animals will spend their entire lives in cramped, unsanitary sheds with thousands of other animals crammed in beside them.  Living conditions are so stressful that most must undergo painful procedures like de-beaking, tail cutting, toe cutting and/or castration (all without anesthetic) just to minimize injuries from fighting. 

Their first breath of fresh air or feeling of sunlight will be the day they head for slaughter.  The air in these sheds is often so toxic from the urine, feces and dust that most animals develop respiratory illnesses and must be routinely fed low doses of antibiotics to keep disease from spreading.  Sheds often require 24-hour ventilation systems and workers typically must wear face masks to enter them to keep from getting ill.

Chickens and turkeys are bred and drugged to grow so quickly in such a short period that their legs often collapse under their own weight.  Cows and pigs are kept constantly pregnant and the physical toll this takes on their bodies causes numerous painful conditions.  None of these animals will receive proper vet care or be humanely euthanized when hurt or sick.  In most states it is legal and common to let downed cattle die of exposure over several days; some are even tossed into dumpsters while still alive.

Environmental Pollution

Farmed animals in the U.S. produce 130 times as much waste as the human population – and yet there is almost no waste treatment infrastructure for it and almost no federal regulations.  We all recognize the importance of treating human waste, yet animal waste is freely flowing into the environment untreated.  CAFOs build lagoons the size of football fields for the waste which then overflow and leak into the ground and waterways.  When the cesspools are overflowing, they spray the liquefied manure either into the air or onto nearby fields in quantities far greater than what the land can absorb.  Conservative EPA estimates indicate that chicken, hog and cattle excrement has already polluted 35,000 miles of rivers in 22 states (circumference of the earth is 25,000 miles).    

CAFO operators can’t grow enough grain on their own land to support the large number of animals they have so they must import feed.  Growing the grain to feed the animals requires fossil fuel-based fertilizers, pesticides and transportation.  According to the U.N., animal agriculture makes a 40% greater contribution to global warming than all transportation in the world combined and is responsible for 18% of greenhouse gas emissions.  Their report calls the meat industry “one of the top 2 or 3 most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems at every level, from local to global.”

Crops don’t absorb all of the synthetic nitrogen that’s applied to them.  Some farmers might use too much or apply it at the wrong time.  Some of the excess evaporates, acidifies the rain and contributes to greenhouse gases.  Some is washed off by rains and seeps down into the watertable and contaminates drinking water.  Agricultural runoff has polluted 60% of rivers and streams in U.S.  These rivers eventually feed into the ocean where the nitrogen tide stimulates the growth of algae, which kills millions of fish.  It has also created dead zones in the sea, one as large as the state of N.J., shrinking biodiversity.

Health Concerns

During the poultry slaughter process, 95% of chickens become infected with E. coli, which is spread through fecal contamination.  Between 70% to 90% are infected with a deadly pathogen called campylobacter.  Thousands of birds are communally cooled in refrigerated tanks of water, so the healthy chickens then become contaminated by the infected ones through the feces contaminated water. 

Legally, up to 11% of the birds’ weight at the time of sale is allowed to be absorption of this liquid, also known in the industry as “fecal soup.”  Chlorine baths are commonly used to remove odor and bacteria, but 39% to 75% of chickens in retail stores are still infected.  8% are infected by Salmonella.  According to the CDC, there are 76 million cases of food borne illness in the U.S. per year. 

Most microbes in a cow’s gut will be killed off by the strong acid in our stomachs.  However, feeding the cows corn has made their stomachs extremely acidic.  So now new acid-resistant strains of E. coli bacteria are developing and can kill us.  Feeding grass or hay a few days before slaughter can eliminate up to 80% of E. coli bacteria, but this isn’t considered practical to factory farms.

Mad Cow Disease evolved from feeding bovine meat and bone meal to cows and the practice was banned in 1997.  However, the FDA made an exception for blood products and fat.  In addition, even though they’re herbivores, rules still permit cows to be fed chicken, fish and pig meal along with feather meal and chicken litter (bedding, feces and discarded bits of feed).  Since bovine meat & bone meal is now being fed to chickens, pigs and fish (which are fed back to cows) Mad Cow disease could still evolve once again.

Low doses of antibiotics are regularly inserted into animals’ feed for non-therapeutic uses.  It makes animals grow faster, and it helps ward off the inevitable diseases that result from living in such stressful, cramped and unsanitary living conditions.  Humans consume 3 million pounds of antibiotics in the U.S. every year, and 18-25 million pounds of non-therapeutic drugs are fed to livestock.  This is creating virulent pathogens that are resistant to antibiotics, also known as “super bugs.”  The microbes then spread into the environment through our air, soil and water either from the animals themselves, their manure, the farm workers, trucks or flies etc.  As a result, some antibiotics are now ineffective at treating specific infectious diseases and the list will only continue to grow.

Many studies have shown that MRSA (which now kills over 20,000 people per year) likely originated on the farm, and not in hospitals as it is widely believed.  A study in 2009 of several farms in Iowa and Western Illinois that regularly used antibiotics showed 70% of pigs and 64% of workers contained a new strain of MRSA.  No MRSA was found on the antibiotic-free farms.  The current H1N1 swine flu epidemic was discovered to have originated on a pig factory farm in North Carolina, and not in Mexico as it was originally reported.   

For the communities surrounding factory farms, health problems abound.  Poisonous gases like ammonia and hydrogen evaporate into the air.  When the waste lagoons are overflowing, they spray the liquefied manure onto fields or into the air.  People living nearby suffer persistent nosebleeds, earaches, chronic diarrhea, burning lungs and children suffer from asthma.  Residents are frequently forced to stay inside their homes with the windows closed due to poor air quality.

Social Effects

The annual turnover rate for workers at slaughterhouses typically exceeds 100%.  This line of work is extremely dangerous and workers receive very low pay.  They tend to hire illegal immigrants or those with few job opportunities so workers rarely speak out against workplace health, safety or animal welfare violations.

Every time a factory farm operation springs up in a community the surrounding property values degrade.  However, since these operations are typically built in lower income rural communities there is often little the residents can do to fight these large, wealthy corporations.  The confinement facilities and waste lagoons give off such a strong odor that they can smelled for miles.  The waste that gets sprayed onto surrounding fields pollutes the air and water, and has been widely documented to cause health problems for those living nearby. 

The vast majority of grain harvested in the U.S. is fed to farm animals instead of humans.  Approximately 20% of the world’s population could be fed on the grain consumed by U.S. cattle alone.  It’s wasteful and inefficient.

Other Options:

Every meal we eat is a vote for how we’d like our food to be produced in this country.  When we hand over our money, we are rewarding that producer and their methods.  Some methods promote health, compassion and sustainability, while others perpetuate cruelty and destruction. 

If you don’t want to support a system that causes all of the issues associated with factory farming, there are other options.  Some people buy their animal products from more humane systems of farming, and some choose to give up consuming animal products all together.  We encourage you to do your own research and decide for yourself.  We’ve provided a list of recommended books, movies and websites as a starting point.  When we learn about the issues surrounding our food and become more informed consumers, we can make our daily choices truly reflect our values.

A Note About Our Video Clips:  It’s certainly understandable why many of us would prefer to cover our ears and close our eyes when stories of animal cruelty surface in the media.  But this is precisely why livestock continues to endure inhumane treatment.  If everyone saw the reality of what these animals endure every day of their lives, laws would be changed.  While some progress has been made (certain farming practices have already been banned in some states) MUCH more work needs to be done.  Sadly, the videos we’ve included for each animal on the following pages are not nearly the worst out there.