What is “factory farming”?
The handful of giant corporations that control the meat industry in the US tout factory farming as an efficient, cheap way to produce meat. In reality, factory farming comes at a huge cost to health and safety, the environment, and consumer pocket books, and that’s why we’re working with members and allies to phase out factory farming.
Over 90% percent of the meat, dairy and eggs stocked in American grocery stores come from animals that were raised in factories. Factory farms, also known as Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), are a form of intensive industrial agriculture in which farm animals are raised in crowded, confined spaces for human consumption. A factory farm may have as few as 500 animals to upwards of 1,000 beef cattle, 2,500 pigs, or 100,000 broiler chickens. About 10 billion animals are raised on US factory farms every year. Factory farms generate tonnes of waste that pollute our air and water ways, hold animals captive in unhygienic and inhumane conditions, are hazardous environments for people to work in, and rely heavily on chemically intensive agriculture and fossil fuels to maintain their production and supply chain. Similar to land-based farms, farmed fish are housed in overcrowded conditions which make them prone to injury, infection and disease. Despite all that, meat from factory farms is less healthy, carries the risk of disease and is still too expensive for many eaters.
That’s because the main goal of a factory farm is not food production, but to generate maximum profits at the minimum cost to the farm owner — and they do that by externalizing the above costs to nearby communities, small and medium producers and businesses, working people, and the confined animals. As Sean Carroll, Policy Director at Land Stewardship Project puts it — “It’s hard to think of a worse thing that can happen to a rural community than a factory farm opening up in the neighborhood”. Here’s why that is:
Air and water pollution from factory farming cause chronic health issues
A 2021 study found that agricultural production results in over 17,900 air pollution related deaths annually and about 80% of those can be attributed to factory farms and the production of animal feed for factory farms.
To begin with, animal feed is grown using chemically intensive agricultural techniques that deplete the soil, release chemical runoff from the fertilizers and pesticides into local air and waterways, and reduce biodiversity by converting rich ecosystems into monocropped farmland.
Factory farming also has a waste problem. Factory farms produces 82 billion additional tons of manure yearly. A small portion of this manure is sprayed onto crops as fertilizer, but most of it ends up in a “manure lagoon” along with waste like antibiotic residues and other medical or chemical waste, bedding waste, and even dead animals. A Google Image search for ‘manure lagoons’ will give you a sense of how they have been taking over the rural landscape in areas with a high concentration of factory farms. The resulting air pollution contains a range of toxic pollutants such as ammonia (which is contained in chicken manure), methane, hydrogen sulfide, particulate matter, and antibiotic resistant pathogens.
Studies have linked exposure to these gasses to respiratory conditions, chronic lung disease, stress, anxiety, and high blood pressure. This waste can also contaminate groundwater and local waterways through leaching and runoff. Across the country, pollution from factory farms threatens more than 14,000 miles of rivers and streams and 90,000 acres of lakes and ponds. Scientists have also warned that factory farms are raising our risk for the next pandemic.
Factory farms perpetuate environmental racism
While factory farms exist across the country, certain communities are burdened with a disproportionate number of them. This is by design: since the negative impacts of factory farming are well known, factory farms receive a lot of pushback from rural communities. However, communities of color and low income communities who have been historically excluded from accessing economic and political power are less likely to be able to push back against giant factory farm corporations. These communities often get burdened first and worst by the negative impacts of the farming operation, and are also least likely to have the resources to relocate. Examples of this exist across the country, from hog operations in North Carolina that burden Black residents to dairy farms in the California’s Central Valley where low-income Latino communities are dealing with drinking water contamination
Factory farms accelerate the climate crisis
Factory farming is responsible for 14.5% of all human sources of greenhouse gas emissions. They are resource intensive operations that often rely on fossil fuel energy across the entire production and supply chain. Growing corn and soy feed for factory farms are responsible for almost half of the total emissions from animal agriculture as well as one of the primary drivers of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. Enteric fermentation is another significant source of methane emissions. Though this is a completely natural and integral part of the digestion process of cows, the current national and global population of cows has led to dangerous levels of methane emissions across the country and the globe. Large off-shore fish farms, and the proposed use of GMO Salmon also poses an existential threat to ocean biodiversity.
Factory farms cause undue suffering to animals
Factory farms are inherently inhumane in their treatment of animals. Animals are held in cages or crates, or are crowded together in pens with no access to sunlight or fresh air. Confining animals in small, overcrowded spaces comes with its own set of problems including disease, but rather than providing animals more space and access to the outdoors, factory farms resort to extremely cruel tactics such as debeaking and tail docking. Animals are routinely pumped with antibiotics to prevent infections resulting from the conditions in which they are kept, have been selectively bred for the market, and often suffer from physical problems resulting from these genetic modifications. Learn more about what animals face on factory farms from our members at ASPCA >>.
Factory farms harm rural economies and communities
Factory farms represent another worrying food industry trend: corporate consolidation. Historically, small and medium scale farmers raised livestock on a small scale or as part of a diversified farming operation. This meant that most animals were pasture raised and processed at local slaughterhouses for regional consumption. Today, a handful of giant corporations control the meat and poultry supply chains. Once a giant corporate processor sets up in a town, they contract growers to grow livestock for them in factory farms. The corporations provide the chicks and dictate the conditions in which the animals are grown, provide the feed they eat, and set the price at which they can be sold.
As more farmers take up contracting farming to serve a large corporate processor, smaller slaughterhouses and packaging facilities are forced to close shop leaving small and medium scale farmers with few options for processing infrastructure. This erodes the local economy, increases debt, and drives farm loss.
Factory farming leads to hazardous conditions for working people
The meat industry supply chain poses several risks to those that work in its many different stages. People working in factory farms may be subject to long-term exposure to hazardous chemicals and disease-causing bacteria, and workers in meat packing facilities have to contend with dangerously fast line speeds that puts them at risk, long working hours without breaks and unfair working conditions. Since factory farms are owned and operated by ‘contractors’, they are also exempt from certain Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations that would normally apply. Learn more through the work of Rural Community Workers Alliance, Migrant Justice, Venceremos, Idaho Organization for Resource Councils and the Food Chain Workers Alliance.