What Is Factory Farming? Everything You Need to Know

Approximately 70 billion animals are farmed for food around the world every year. Around two-thirds, which is almost 50 billion animals, are raised in intensive factory farms. In the U.S., 99 percent of meat, dairy, and eggs come from factory farms.

According to data from the Sentience Institute, a social justice think tank, factory farms raise 70.4 percent of cows, 98.3 percent of pigs, 99.8 percent of turkeys, and 99.9 percent of chickens in the U.S. meat industry. While in the UK, intensive farming raises around 70 percent of all farm animals. Globally, the demand for animal protein has never been higher.

The Western pattern diet (WPD), also known as the standard American diet (SAD), typically includes a high intake of red and processed meat, high-fat dairy products, eggs, and refined grains. In general, meat production today is more than four times higher than it was 50 years ago.

Nutritional recommendations still frequently cite animal products as a key nutritional cornerstone. But changing ideas about nutrition, animal welfare, and the environmental impact of animal products have led to a boom in plant-based options and flexitarian diets.

However, if this global shift towards plant-based food is to continue, more people need to understand where our food actually comes from.

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By definition, factory farms prioritize profit over animal welfare.

What Is a Factory Farm?

Factory farming is an intensive, industrialized business model for animal agriculture. Each factory farm—or large concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO)—often raises thousands of animals at a time. By minimizing space and maximizing output, operating costs are kept to a minimum.

This almost always involves cramped living conditions for the animals. It also frequently incorporates modern technology and biotechnology. Antibiotics and supplemented feed increase muscle mass and speed of growth, increasing profits and decreasing expenses.

“Factory farming is an intensive form of animal agriculture which prioritizes profit above everything else,” Dr. Justine Butler, a Senior Researcher at science-based vegan advocacy group Viva! Health explained to LIVEKINDLY.

Opponents of factory farming criticize it for its extreme treatment of animals, significant impact on the environment, and its effect on marginalized communities. According to Animal Equality, factory farming is the most prevalent cause of animal suffering worldwide. Issues including overcrowding, mechanization, and excessive demand convert animal factory farms “into machines that generate meat, milk, and eggs.”

Following the Second World War, government subsidies encouraged an overall increase in output per farm. Then, in the 1960s, modern factory farming first became widespread across the U.S., UK, and other industrialized nations, further increasing the expectation of individual output.

Poultry birds were some of the first types of animals to be intensively raised. As far back as the late 1920s, farmers began producing chickens in large numbers, both for their eggs and for eventual slaughter.

Poultry is the second most popular meat in the world. Approximately 40 billion out of the 60 billion birds raised every year experience intensive farming.

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On factory farms, chickens frequently occupy spaces not much bigger than a sheet of letter writing paper.

Common Factory Farm Practices

Common conditions in poultry factory farming include extremely limited living space and a lack of access to important behaviors such as pecking, scratching, and dust-bathing. Excessive weight gain is commonplace. According to World Animal Protection, a factory-farmed chicken lives for an average of 42 days. In the wild, some chickens can live for over a decade.

Egg-laying hens experience the same severe confinement and mistreatment as those raised for meat. “Battery” hens in egg factories have a large section of their beak removed with a heated blade just a few hours after birth. Debeaking prevents hens from pecking each other, which happens as a direct result of the cramped conditions.

After two years of limited movement in an unhygienic space, the egg industry sends hens to slaughter. Frequently, these emaciated and diseased chickens can only be used in food for companion animals. The egg industry also suffocates or grinds male chicks at birth, as they have no financial worth.

Pork, which is the most widely-eaten protein globally, is also one of the most intensively farmed. Scientists have found that pigs are sensitive animals, with intelligence comparable to chimpanzees, but many are confined to steel cages throughout their short lives on factory farms.

Overcrowding in factory farms—whether in pens, crates, or cages—prevents most routine behaviors such as nesting, foraging, and play. Crowded animals frequently inflict injuries on each other out of stress, frustration, and lack of other stimulation.

In addition to pigs and poultry, approximately nine million dairy cows also live in factory farms in the U.S. According to the National Humane Education Society (NHES), intensively farmed dairy cows give birth around once a year for three to four years. They are slaughtered when they can no longer produce enough milk to be financially justifiable.

During their captivity, dairy cows experience forced insemination, tail docking, no access to grazing, and extremely limited space. Cows are also sociable, intelligent animals, and experience separation anxiety and loneliness when separated from their family and friends.

While beef cattle typically live outside, they may still experience crowded conditions, ear tagging, dehorning, castration, and sometimes, branding. The meat industry slaughters beef cattle at just one-year-old, while cattle can live up to 25 years in the wild.

What Is Factory Farming? Everything You Need to Know
Poor waste management can lead to both local and far-reaching pollution on factory farms. | Stephen Pedersen/Unsplash

The Environmental Impact of Factory Farming

Meat production is a leading cause of pollution, which is responsible for environmental destruction, chronic illness, and death around the world. Due to overcrowding, disease, and poor waste control, many factory farms also have an immediate and enormous impact on the local environment.

According to a report by CIWF, food-animal operations in the U.S. produce 133 million tons of manure per year.

Chicken manure is compostable in small quantities. But the scale of poultry farming frequently leaves farmers with more manure than they are able to process. Typically, factory farms still apply chicken manure to fields, albeit in enormous quantities. This can result in excessive nutrients, veterinary pharmaceuticals, pathogens, and heavy metals leaking into the ground and water system.

Industrialized hog farms rely on man-made, anaerobic manure lagoons to process the exorbitant quantity of manure they produce. These lakes produce toxic gas emissions and frequently overflow, causing both localized and downstream damage to both marine and terrestrial ecosystems. The fumes can render farmworkers unconscious, causing them to fall in and drown.

According to a study published in 2018 by the North Carolina Medical Journal, families living close to industrialized pig farms experience higher rates of kidney disease, anemia, tuberculosis, and even infant mortality.

Ineffective waste management, overcrowding, and other issues can also lead to food contamination by bacteria. While the frequent use of antibiotics in the meat industry causes and intensifies the prevalence of medicine-resistant “superbugs.”

According to a 2019 study published in Science, antibiotic-resistant superbugs are appearing in farms around the world. This is a direct result of increasing global meat consumption, and over-reliance on antimicrobials to meet an overwhelming demand for animal protein.

What Is Factory Farming? Everything You Need to Know
Policymakers around the world have worked to improve animal welfare but stopped short of a complete ban on intensive farming. | Jo-Anne McArthur/Unsplash

Should Factory Farming Be Banned?

Certain legislative measures have helped reduce the negative impact of factory farming. But no country has delivered an all-out ban on CAFOs.

Both France and Switzerland have banned the live shredding of male chicks within the egg industry. While earlier this year, the Swiss public voted on an amendment that guarantees better welfare for factory-farmed animals. This amendment followed pressure by animal rights groups such as Sentience Politics to ban factory farming entirely.

In the U.S., Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) introduced The Farm System Reform Act (FSRA), which would transition agriculture away from the factory farming model. By 2040, the FSRA aims to phase-out CAFOs. This bill would also prevent existing factory farms from expanding and thereby support smaller farmers.

The FSRA could help support improved animal welfare and working conditions, in addition to minimizing the enormous impact of factory farming on the environment.

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Some farmers are also moving away from the meat industry. | Refarm’d

Factory Farm Alternatives

The term “high welfare” typically refers to animals allowed the space and care to express themselves naturally. Ideally, “grass-fed” beef cattle also have space to roam. While eggs and poultry labeled “free-range” should have at least some access to the outdoors and their own natural behaviors.

In order to use these labels, producers must meet the expected welfare criteria. So many people regard free-range eggs, grass-fed beef, and “high welfare” meat, as more sustainable and ethical alternatives to factory farming.

However, farms bearing such labels frequently fall short of what customers expect. They may even retain their “high welfare” labels. PETA, Viva!, and other industry whistleblowers have carried out several exposes on “high welfare” farms. Those covered by the UK’s Red Tractor assurance scheme, in particular, have been the subject of repeated investigations—including the notorious Hogwood and Flat House farms.

Even if producers abide by the restrictions dictated by their welfare labels, living conditions can still be far from ideal. For example, free-range sheds may contain up to nine birds per square meter. Or, while beak trimming can be avoided by purchasing Soil Association certified organic eggs, the euthanasia of male chicks remains commonplace throughout the industry.

In addition to welfare concerns, critics suggest that many of these alternatives to factory farming—grass-fed, cage-free, or high-welfare—are still deeply unsustainable and, at best, cannot meet the perpetually increasing global demand for animal protein.

“In terms of the environmental impact, other forms of animal agriculture, such as grass-fed cows, would require more land and more water to produce beef. Which is completely unsustainable to meet the ​growing global demand for meat products,” said Dr. Butler.

Demand for protein is high, and people are searching for an ethical, sustainable, and nutritious alternative to factory-farmed meat. Plant-based meat is increasingly popular, and many mainstream meat companies are launching their own plant-based product lines.

Cultured and lab-grown meat could also be a viable replacement for traditional protein production. But overall, most people say they are more likely to swap animal-based meat with protein made from plants.

As global demand for vegan products grows, people around the world are increasingly aware of the health, environmental, and animal welfare benefits of swapping meat—and factory-farmed meat, in particular—with more sustainable alternatives.