Factory Farms – An Overview
For many of us, the word “farm” conjures images of green pastures, red barns, and free-roaming cows, chickens, and pigs. Unfortunately, the modern reality of farming in America is not at all like those images. In the last few decades, many small and mid-size farms have folded as food production has been consolidated under the control of a few large corporations, or agribusinesses. The concept of farming as a family or small business has been replaced by the industrialization of agriculture and the rise of “factory farming.” This evolution has caused serious environmental issues, natural resource depletion, and animal and human health hazards, and it has institutionalized animal cruelty.
What is factory farming?
Factory farming is the process of raising large numbers of livestock in a high-density environment, where the farm operates as a factory rather than as a small business. Animals are viewed as commodities rather than as individual, sentient beings, and the operator’s goal is maximum production at the lowest possible cost. Factory farms include but are not limited to cattle and pig operations, egg-laying hen facilities, and dairies. These days, a majority of farm animals in the United States are raised in a factory farm environment.
Characteristics of factory farms
- Large numbers of animals are unnaturally confined in extremely close quarters. Feedlots owned by the large beef packers can house huge numbers of cattle. For example, JBS, the world’s largest beef processor, owns the Five Rivers Cattle Feeding Company. In 2010, Five Rivers had a capacity of 839,000 head on 13 feedlots in a handful of states. The largest of Five Rivers’ feedlots has a capacity of 125,000. A large egg-laying operation houses more than 125,000 hens, and some hen operations are home to more than one million hens.
- Many animals are inhumanely confined. They are denied access to the outdoors and sunlight and are confined in a way that restricts natural movement. In fact, many pigs and chickens live their entire lives without ever seeing the light of day, except perhaps when they are taken to be slaughtered.
- Because of the close quarters and the risk of disease, the use of pharmaceuticals is standard in the industry. Antibiotics are administered regularly to ward off the risk of disease caused by the unnatural, unsanitary conditions present in a factory farm environment.
- In addition to antibiotics, many factory-farmed animals are given hormones to promote faster growth and shorter time to slaughter.
- The animals are stressed from being in such a crowded, unnatural environment, and therefore may pose risks to one another. As a result, they are often mutilated through torturous processes like the removal of beaks, teeth, and tails (called “docking”), without anesthesia, to prevent them from harming one another.
- Operators expend a tremendous amount of natural resources feeding and watering factory-farmed animals. It is estimated that as much as 70 percent of America’s grain harvest and 80 percent of its corn harvest are fed to farmed animals. Plus, negative environmental impacts, based on this aspect of factory farming alone, include: deforestation of land for animal feed production; unsustainable pressure on land for production of high-protein/high-energy animal feed; pesticide, herbicide and fertilizer manufacture and use for feed production; and unsustainable use of water for feed crops, including groundwater extraction.
- Waste issues are managed poorly, when they are managed at all. Factory farms pose an environmental threat, especially to the communities in which they are located. Manure runoff can cause a host of problems which includes the contamination of local drinking water, and this is just the first of various damaging factors. Major environmental watchdogs, including World Watch, the Sierra Club, the Pew Commission, and Greenpeace, have singled out factory farms as one of the biggest polluters on the planet. There is now a scientific consensus that animal agriculture is the single largest contributor to global warming, exceeding even the transportation industry in its production of greenhouse gases. A 2008 New York Times article reported that “if Americans were to reduce meat consumption by just 20 percent it would be as if we all switched from a standard sedan – a Camry, say – to the ultra-efficient Prius.”
There is no question that factory farming has negative impacts on humans, the communities that are home to factory farms, and the environment, as well as the animals involved. The sustainability of factory farming is questionable, at best, and it is clear that the risks posed by the industry are much higher than the value of any benefits the current system of food production might offer. As stated by the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production:
“The present system of producing food animals in the United States is not sustainable and presents an unacceptable level of risk to public health and damage to the environment, as well as unnecessary harm to the animals we raise for food.”
Article by Traci Hobson
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http://www.farmforward.com. Factory farms are also known as Concentrated (or Confined) Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) or Industrial Farm Animal Production (IFAP) facilities.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Factory_farming‚ Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Livestock’s Long Shadow, 2007.