Factory farming

Factory farming is the practice of raising farm animals in confinement at high stocking density, where a farm operates as a factory — a practice typical in industrial farming by agribusinesses.

Confinement at high stocking density is one part of a systematic effort to produce the highest output at the lowest cost by relying on economies of scale, modern machinery, biotechnology, and global trade. Confinement at high stocking density requires antibiotics and pesticides to mitigate the spread of disease and pestilence exacerbated by these crowded living conditions. There are differences in the way factory farming techniques are practiced around the world.

There is a continuing debate over the benefits and risks of factory farming. The issues include the efficiency of food production; animal welfare; whether it is essential to feed the growing global human population; the environmental impact and the health risks.

The UN and OIE estimate that in coming decades there will be billions of additional consumers in developing countries eating meat factory farmed in developing countries, but currently only about 40 out of the around 200 countries in the world have the capacity to adequately respond to a health crisis originating from animal disease (such as avian flu, West Nile virus, bluetongue, and foot and mouth disease). Widespread use of antibiotics increases the chance of a pandemic resistant to known measures, which is exacerbated by a globally distributed food system. Decreased genetic diversity increases the chance of a food crisis.


Factory farming The Oxford English Dictionary attributes the first recorded use of "factory farming" to an American journal of economics in 1890. It is now used widely by mainstream news organizations, including the BBC, The Washington Post, and CNN. A 1998 documentary, A Cow at My Table, shows the term is also used within the agricultural industry, although it is regarded by sections of the industry as a term used by activists. The Encyclopaedia Britannica writes that the term is "descriptive of standard farming practice in the U.S." and frequently used by animal rights activists. Webster's New Millennium defines it as "a system of large-scale industrialized and intensive agriculture that is focused on profit with animals kept indoors and restricted in mobility.Animal Feeding Operation (AFO) "An animal feeding operation is defined by the United States Environmental Protection Agency as a lot or facility where animals are kept 45 days of the year or more [and] structures or animal traffic prevents vegetative growth. Note that this is different from a EPA's definition of a confined animal feeding operation which is an animal feeding operation larger than a given size.Confined Animal Feeding Operations In the U.S., some factory farms are also known as Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), concentrated animal feeding operations, or intensive livestock operations (ILOs). "A confined animal feeding operation means a lot or facility, together with any associated treatment works, where both of the following conditions are met. One, animals have been, are, or will be stabled or confined and fed or maintained for a total of 45 days or more in any 12-month period. And two, crops, vegetation, forage growth, or post-harvest residues are not sustained over any portion of the operation lot or facility." The definition is used as part of waste management and environmental protection laws to deal with the concentrated pollution from large quantities of animal waste..Confinement CAFOs and factory farms can be mostly indoors or mostly outdoors operations. The "confinement at high stocking density" aspect refers to lack of natural vegetation that the animals can eat and that can naturally process the resulting animal waste. High stocking density destroys the vegetation and produces unacceptable pollution from the animal waste in run-off and ground water unless it is handled appropriately, so laws have been enacted to deal with that; thus the legal definition for the term CAFO. Caged for life in pens too small to be humane is a completely separate issue from what "confined" refers to when used to define "factory farms" and "CAFO"s.


Agriculture adopted more intensive methods during the 18th century, with this growth in production best characterised by the Agricultural Revolution, where improvements in farming techniques allowed for significantly improved yields, and supported the urbanisation of the population during the Industrial Revolution.

Innovations in agriculture beginning in the late 19th century paralleled developments in mass production in other industries. The identification of nitrogen and phosphorus as critical factors in plant growth led to the manufacture of synthetic fertilizers, making possible more intensive types of agriculture. The discovery of vitamins and their role in animal nutrition, in the first two decades of the 20th century, led to vitamin supplements, which in the 1920s allowed certain livestock to be raised indoors. The discovery of antibiotics and vaccines facilitated raising livestock in larger numbers by reducing disease. Chemicals developed for use in World War II gave rise to synthetic pesticides. Developments in shipping networks and technology have made long-distance distribution of agricultural produce feasible.

According to the BBC, factory farming in Britain began in 1947 when a new Agriculture Act granted subsidies to farmers to encourage greater output by introducing new technology, in order to reduce Britain's reliance on imported meat. The United Nations writes that intensification of animal production was seen as a way of providing food security. The agriculture correspondent of The Guardian wrote in 1964:

Nature of the practice


Agricultural production across the world doubled four times between 1820 and 1975 to feed a global population of one billion human beings in 1800 and 6.5 billion in 2002.

During the same period, the number of people involved in farming dropped as the process became more automated. In the 1930s, 24 percent of the American population worked in agriculture compared to 1.5 percent in 2002; in 1940, each farm worker supplied 11 consumers, whereas in 2002, each worker supplied 90 consumers.

The number of farms has also decreased, and their ownership is more concentrated. In the U.S., four companies produce 81 percent of cows, 73 percent of sheep, 57 percent of pigs and 50 percent of chickens. In 1967, there were one million pig farms in America; as of 2002, there were 114,000, with 80 million pigs (out of 95 million) killed each year on factory farms as of 2002, according to the U.S. National Pork Producers Council. According to the Worldwatch Institute, 74 percent of the world's poultry, 43 percent of beef, and 68 percent of eggs are produced this way.

Although Europe has become increasingly skeptical of factory farming, after a series of diseases such as BSE (mad cow) and foot and mouth disease affected its agricultural industries, globally there are indications that the industrialized production of farm animals is set to increase. According to Denis Avery of the Hudson Institute, Asia increased its consumption of pork by 18 million tons in the 1990s. As of 1997, the world had a stock of 900 million pigs, which Avery predicts will rise to 2.5 billion pigs by 2050. He told the College of Natural Resources at the University of California, Berkeley that three billion pigs will thereafter be needed annually to meet demand.

Distinctive characteristics

Factory farms hold large numbers of animals, typically cows, pigs, turkeys, or chickens, often indoors, typically at high densities. The aim of the operation is to produce as much meat, eggs, or milk at the lowest possible cost. Food is supplied in place, and a wide variety of artificial methods are employed to maintain animal health and improve production, such as the use of antimicrobial agents, vitamin supplements, and growth hormones. Physical restraints are used to control movement or actions regarded as undesirable. Breeding programs are used to produce animals more suited to the confined conditions and able to provide a consistent "product".

The distinctive characteristic of factory farms is the intense concentration of livestock. At one farm (Farm 2105) run by Carrolls Foods of North Carolina, the second-largest pig producer in the U.S., twenty pigs are kept per pen and each confinement building or "hog parlor" holds 25 pens. The company's chief executive officer, F.J. "Sonny" Faison, has said: "It's all a supply-and-demand price question … The meat business in this country is just about perfect, uncontrolled supply-and-demand free enterprise. And it continues to get more and more sophisticated, based on science. Only the least-cost producer survives in agriculture." The animals are better off in total confinement, according to Faison:

Key issues

The environment

One of the most obvious environmental problems that arises out of high density farming is that animals produce significant amounts of waste that need to be disposed of, both within the housing and then also from the factory site. Whilst in low density outdoor farming this can be coped with by stock and crop rotation, intensive techniques, especially on the industrial scale of a factory farm, have the potential to create significant environmental hazards.

The designation "confined animal feeding operation" in the U.S. resulted from that country's 1972 Federal Clean Water Act, which was enacted to protect and restore lakes and rivers to a "fishable, swimmable" quality. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) identified certain animal feeding operations, along with many other types of industry, as point source polluters of groundwater. These operations were designated as CAFOs and subject to special anti-pollution regulation.

In 24 states in the U.S., isolated cases of groundwater contamination have been linked to CAFOs. For example, the ten million hogs in North Carolina generate 19 million tons of waste per year. The U.S. federal government acknowledges the waste disposal issue and requires that animal waste be stored in lagoons. These lagoons can be as large as . Lagoons must be protected with an impermeable liner, but can nonetheless leak waste into groundwater under some conditions, and run-off from manure spread back onto fields as fertilizer can leak into surface water in the case of an unforeseen heavy rainfall. A lagoon that burst in 1995 released 25 million gallons of nitrous sludge in North Carolina's New River. The spill allegedly killed eight to ten million fish.

Dennis Avery of the Hudson Institute's agricultural think-tank, the Center for Global Food Issues, has called modern farming a "conservation triumph," because it involves getting higher yields of crops and livestock from land. He predicts that, after 2050, three billion pigs will be needed annually to meet demand: "For the sake of the environment," he writes, "we had better hope those hogs are raised in big, efficient confinement systems."

The use of controlled indoor environments means that animals unsuited to the local climate can be farmed. As an example, the UK has one of the few climates well suited to the outdoor farming of pigs.

A 2006 FAO report says that the livestock sector of the world's economy that provides "one-third of humanity's protein intake" is one of the top three contributor's to the world's most serious environmental problems and that major reductions in impact could be achieved at reasonable cost through decentralization and intensification regulatory measures that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve livestock diets, improve animal waste management, and decrease land degradation.


The large concentration of animals, animal waste, and the potential for dead animals in a small space poses ethical issues. It is recognised that some techniques used to sustain intensive agriculture can be cruel to animals. As awareness of the problems of intensive techniques has grown, there have been some efforts by governments and industry to remove inappropriate techniques.

In the UK, the Farm Animal Welfare Council was set up by the government to act as an independent advisor on animal welfare in 1979. and expresses its policy as five freedoms: from hunger & thirst; from discomfort; from pain, injury or disease; to express normal behaviour; from fear and distress.

There are differences around the world as to which practices are accepted and there continue to be changes in regulations with animal welfare being a strong driver for increased regulation. For example, the EU is bringing in further regulation to set maximum stocking densities for meat chickens by 2010, where the UK Animal Welfare Minister commented, "The welfare of meat chickens is a major concern to people throughout the European Union. This agreement sends a strong message to the rest of the world that we care about animal welfare.”

However, given the assumption that intensive farming techniques are a necessity, it is recognized that some apparently cruel techniques are better than the alternative. For example, in the UK, de-beaking of chickens is deprecated, but it is recognized that it is a method of last resort, seen as better than allowing vicious fighting and ultimately cannibalism. Between 60 and 70 percent of six million breeding sows in the U.S. are confined during pregnancy, and for most of their adult lives, in by gestation crates. According to pork producers and many veterinarians, sows will fight if housed in pens. The largest pork producer in the U.S. said in January 2007 that it will phase out gestation crates by 2017. They are being phased out in the European Union, with a ban effective in 2013 after the fourth week of pregnancy. With the evolution of factory farming, there has been a growing awareness of the issues amongst the wider public, not least due to the efforts of animal rights and welfare campaigners. As a result gestation crates, one of the more contentious practices, are the subject of laws in the U.S., Europe and around the world to phase out their use as a result of pressure to adopt less confined practices.

Health problems and nuisance

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), farms on which animals are intensively reared can cause adverse health reactions in farm workers. Workers may develop acute and chronic lung disease, musculoskeletal injuries, and may catch infections that transmit from animals to human beings.

Pesticides are used to control organisms which are considered harmful and they save farmers money by preventing product losses to pests. In the US, about a quarter of pesticides used are used in houses, yards, parks, golf courses, and swimming pools and about 70% are used in agriculture. However, pesticides can make their way into consumers' bodies which can cause health problems. One source of this is bioaccumulation in animals raised on factory farms.

The CDC writes that chemical, bacterial, and viral compounds from animal waste may travel in the soil and water. Residents near such farms report nuisances such as unpleasant smell, flies and adverse health effects.

The CDC has identified a number of pollutants associated with the discharge of animal waste into rivers and lakes, and into the air. The use of antibiotics may create antibiotic-resistant pathogens; parasites, bacteria, and viruses may be spread; ammonia, nitrogen, and phosphorus can reduce oxygen in surface waters and contaminate drinking water; pesticides and hormones may cause hormone-related changes in fish; animal feed and feathers may stunt the growth of desirable plants in surface waters and provide nutrients to disease-causing micro-organisms; trace elements such as arsenic and copper, which are harmful to human health, may contaminate surface waters.

In the European Union, growth hormones are banned on the basis that there is no way of determining a safe level. The UK has stated that in the event of the EU raising the ban at some future date, to comply with a precautionary approach, it would only consider the introduction of specific hormones, proven on a case by case basis. The various techniques of factory farming have been associated with a number of European incidents where public health has been threatened or large numbers of animals have had to be slaughtered to deal with disease. Where disease breaks out, it may spread more quickly, not only due to the concentrations of animals, but because modern approaches tend to distribute animals more widely.. The international trade in animal products increases the risk of global transmission of virulent diseases such as swine fever, BSE, foot and mouth and bird flu.

Aspects of factory farming

  • Low cost — Intensive agriculture tends to produce food that can be sold at lower cost to consumers. This is achieved by reducing land costs and management costs.
  • Standardization — Factory farming methods permit increased consistency and control over product output.
  • Efficiency — Animals in confinement can be supervised more closely than free-ranging animals, and diseased animals can be treated faster. Further, more efficient production of meat, milk, or eggs results in a need for fewer animals to be raised, thereby limiting the impact of agriculture on the environment.
  • Economic contribution — The high input costs of agricultural operations result in a large influx and distribution of capital to a rural area from distant buyers rather than simply recirculating existing capital. A single dairy cow contributes over $1300 US to a local rural economy each year, each beef cow over $800, meat turkey $14, and so on. As Pennsylvania Secretary of Agriculture Dennis Wolff states, “Research estimates that the annual economic impact per cow is $13,737. In addition, each $1 million increase in PA milk sales creates 23 new jobs. This tells us that dairy farms are good for Pennsylvania's economy.”
  • Food safety — Reducing number and diversity of agricultural production facilities results in easier management. Smaller facility numbers permit easier government oversight and regulation of food quality. Processing foodstuffs through centralized mediums leads to standardization, which protects general food safety, removing unsafe rogue elements. There is dispute over food safety. It is noted that E. coli grows naturally in most mammals, including humans, and that only a few strains of E. coli are potentially hazardous to humans. They also note that diseases naturally occur among chickens and other animals. Properly cooking food can effectively remove some risk factors by killing bacteria.
  • Animal health — Larger farms have greater resources and abilities to maintain a high level of animal health. Larger farms employ more expert employees who devote all their working hours to farm work, rather than employing underskilled part-time workers as is common on smaller operations. Larger farms are more able to make use of expert veterinarians and the resources of state and federal agricultural extension services. Industrial agriculture generally provides more mechanisms for the use of antibiotics to prevent and treat diseases than non-industrial agriculture.
  • Diseases The use of intensive farming are thought to make it more likely to evolve harmful diseases. Many communicable diseases spread rapidly under such conditions. Animals raised on antibiotics may develop antibiotic resistant strains of pathogenic bacteria ("superbugs"). Use of animal vaccines can create new viruses that kill people and cause flu pandemic threats. H5N1 is an example of where this might have already occurred.
  • Pollution — Large quantities and concentrations of waste are produced. Lakes, rivers, and groundwater are at risk when animal waste is improperly recycled. Pollutant gases are also emitted. Concentrations of animals can produce unacceptable levels of foul smells as opposed to the tolerable odours of the countryside. In less intensive conditions, natural processes can break down potential pollutants. Large farms can maintain and operate sophisticated systems to control waste products. Smaller farms are unable to maintain the same standards of pollution control. By consolidating waste products, farmers can efficiently manage waste.
  • EthicsCruelty to animals: Crowding, drugging, and performing surgery on animals. On some farms, chicks may be debeaked when very young. Confining hens and pigs in barren environments leads to physical problems such as osteoporosis and joint pain, and also boredom and frustration, as shown by repetitive or self-destructive actions known as stereotypes.. Animal treatment is subject to welfare legislation, though there is not consensus on what is acceptable. Some harmful treatments, such as debeaking, are tolerated on the basis that the alternative is greater harm to the animals.
  • Destruction of biodiversity — A tendency towards using single adapted breeds (a mono-culture) in factory farming, both in arable and animal farming, gives uniform product designed for high yields, at the risk of increased susceptibility to disease. The loss of locally adapted breeds reduces the resilience of the agricultural system. The issue is not limited to factory farming and historically the problem is reflected in the rapid adoption of one or two strains of crops across a wide area as seen in the Irish potato famine of 1854 and the Bengal rice famine in 1942. The loss of the gene pool of domesticated animals limits the ability to adapt to future problems. This issue exists in all types of farming practices.

See also


Further reading

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