If the harms of factory farming are well known, why are we seeing an expansion of factory farms across the country? Since the 1970s, food and agriculture policy in our country has favored large industrial farming and ranching operations at the cost of small and medium producers. In the past few decades, scientists, activists, organizers and public health advocates have studied the impacts of factory farms on animals, the environment and on community health. Yet factory farms continue to sprout up across the country. Why is this the case?
The short answer: Factory farming is a highly profitable business. Factory farms may be an unsustainable system that perpetuates harm for health and safety, the environment, and rural communities. But a handful of giant corporations and greedy politicians have created a food system in which factory farms are the dominant form of animal agriculture. Here’s a quick breakdown of what brought us here and what keeps things from changing.
Extreme consolidation in the meat and poultry promotes Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) or factory farms, while making it extremely difficult to remain viable as an independent livestock or poultry producer.
The poultry industry is a strong example of this. Prior to consolidation of the poultry industry, growing and processing a broiler involved several small businesses (or verticals) — hatcheries, feed mills, farms and slaughterhouses and processing facilities. However, in our current system, these small businesses have been replaced by one company that vertically integrates the entire supply chain. These ‘integrators’ contract farmers to grow their chickens, and control the entire process of raising and processing chickens from feed to shelf — not just in one region but across the country. Today, over 97% of chicken growers in the US work for a large integrator, and over 75% of the chicken supply chain is controlled by five integrators — Tyson Foods Inc., Pilgrim’s Pride Corp., Sanderson Farms Inc., Perdue Farms Inc. and Koch Foods Inc. The meat industry is similarly consolidated, with four companies, Cargill, JBS, Smithfield and National Beef Packing controlling over half the beef and hog supply chains.
Without small businesses and local infrastructure, smaller growers are left with few options when it comes to processing and distribution. This has led to fewer and fewer farms and a further decimation of rural economies. Cracking down on monopolistic practices and holding giant corporations accountable to the economic and environmental costs of factory farming is a critical step towards phasing out factory farming.
Corporate money in politics
Giant agribusinesses and affiliated trade associations are aided by some of the most effective lobbyists in the country, and in 2021 alone they spent over $150 million in lobbying. A significant portion of that spending went into shaping policy that enabled factory farms to exist and expand across the country, while blocking regulations that would make it difficult for them to operate.
In September 2020, a ProPublica investigation revealed that Trump’s April 2020 executive order allowing meat companies to operate despite being COVID19 hotspots was a direct result of lobbying by the meatpacking industry. Big meat and dairy corporations also spend millions lobbying against climate policies, contributing to political campaigns, and funding academic research that downplays the direct link between factory farming and the climate crisis.
It doesn’t end there — big meat and poultry lobbies influence where federal funding goes, who receives aid, and almost every new policy that impacts the animal agriculture industry. In 2008, the agribusiness lobby spent $173.5 million to influence the farm bill legislative process. Unless we push back against big meat and poultry lining the pockets of decision makers and politicians, factory farming will continue to be the norm.
Failure of regulatory agencies
Stopping the expansion of factory farming requires multiple government institutions to act in the interest of rural communities, small farmers, and ranchers and the environment. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Labor (DoL) collectively have the power to shape policy and programs to phase out factory farms and support sustainable animal agriculture but they are not structured or resourced to actually implement that change.
Many decision makers at these agencies maintain close ties to the very corporations they are meant to regulate. More than 80% of the lobbyists at the largest food industry trade associations are “revolvers” who now lobby the officials and agencies they once worked for, and vice versa. As a result, agencies often act in the interest of giant corporations, rather than small and medium farmers and rural communities.
Unless these agencies are independent of corporate influence, and have the necessary resources and funding to implement regulation like and invest in alternatives, factory farming will continue to expand.