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Why Factory Farming Is (Still) the Worst

Since high school, Jonathan has a had a strong interest in animal welfare and environmental issues. He has a Bachelor's degree in English.

This article will take a look at the toxic and destructive world of factory farming.

This article will take a look at the toxic and destructive world of factory farming.

In the last 10 years or so, it seems that awareness of the conditions on factory farms has skyrocketed. Through an explosion of undercover online videos, documentaries, articles, and books, the public has become more aware than ever of how its meat, eggs, and dairy products are produced. In light of this, another article about the horrors of factory farming may seem old-hat. However, the vast majority of meat, dairy, and eggs Americans buy still come from industrial farms, and conditions on these farms are just as bad as they were 10 years ago.

According to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service, a little over 4.5 billion cows, chickens, ducks, pigs and turkeys were slaughtered in the U.S. in 2016 (3). The vast majority of these animals were raised on industrial, or factory, farms (1). Factory farming is a method of producing meat, eggs, and dairy products that emphasizes high quantity, efficiency, and maximization of profits. It involves raising livestock in confinement at extremely high densities on Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs (2).

The morality and sustainability of factory farming has been and still is subject to wide debate. Industrial agriculture’s treatment of animals, dangers to human health, and environmental impacts have led many to conclude that the negative aspects far outweigh consumers’ desire for cheap meat, eggs, and dairy products. Here are what I consider to be the very worst things about this pervasive industry.

The Treatment of Animals

It seems there are countless undercover videos, released all the time by various animal rights groups, documenting horrible abuse of animals on factory farms. Among many other things, they often show workers kicking, hitting, throwing, and stomping on animals (in some cases even sexually abusing them). But rather than focus on individual acts of cruelty (as horrifying and enraging as they are), what I am concerned with here is the systemic suffering of animals which is inherent to industrial farming as a system.

Growing Up Big and Sick

The one job of animals on feedlots is to stand around in their own manure and gain weight. Lots of it. Through selective breeding and growth hormones, today’s farmed animals grow bigger and faster than ever.

Back in the days when cows were raised solely on grass, it took them about four to five years to reach slaughter weight. Nowadays, cows are only 14–16 months old when they reach around 1,200 pounds and are ready to be killed (4). In order for them to gain as much weight as possible during the 90–300 days they are on the feedlot, cows are fed a mixture of corn, alfalfa hay, liquid vitamins, a protein supplement, and antibiotics. In addition, it is permitted for cows to be fed blood from other cows and protein from other animals, such as pigs and fish (4).

Many cows are also injected with growth hormones. The safety of growth hormone use has been widely debated. Japan, Australia, Canada, and the European Union all have a ban on growth hormone use and the importation of beef raised with growth hormones, and the U.K. is keeping its growth hormone ban in place post-Brexit. The U.S., however, still allows growth hormones, with two-thirds of its beef cattle being injected with them (9).

Industrial Agriculture is all about making the most money possible, and the welfare of animals is of little concern. Consequently, they are treated as mere objects which yield a sellable product.

Under normal, healthy conditions, a cow can generally live to be 20 years old. However, in the dairy industry, cows rarely live past the age of six. In the past, a mature dairy cow would weigh about seven-hundred pounds, but today, many of them weigh almost a ton (10). They have been genetically manipulated to produce more milk than ever before, and while the amount of milk produced has increased, the number of dairy cows in the U.S. has sharply decreased. In 1960, 18 million dairy cows in the United States collectively produced 120 billion pounds of milk. In 2008, just 8 million cows produced 190 billion pounds (10). This increase in the milk production of cows has led to many developing mastitis, which is a swelling of the glands of the udder that is very painful and can lead to pus and blood dripping into the milk. In addition, 22 percent of the dairy cows in the U.S. are still given Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH), the human health risks of which have been subject to much debate and questioning. This hormone also increases incidences of mastitis (9).

Like cows, the chickens on today’s factory farms have been genetically engineered to gain weight at a much faster rate than the chickens of the past. In fact, chickens grow so fat that their bones and organs cannot keep up. This results in many of the birds being unable to walk or having other severe health problems. Similarly, egg-laying hens have been genetically engineered to produce an amount of eggs so enormous that many of the chickens develop calcium deficiencies and suffer from broken bones (27).

Crammed Like Sardines? No, Like Pigs

One of the most obvious cruelties of factory farming is right in the name: Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations. Thousands of animals are crammed together into tight spaces. Industrial Agriculture is all about making the most money possible, and the welfare of animals is of little concern. Consequently, they are treated as mere objects which yield a sellable product. And if they are objects, why not cram as many as possible into one space?

An industrial feedlot for beef cattle can contain 100,000 animals (possibly more) at one time (4). The animals stand together all day in dirt and feces. Dairy cows live in similar cramped conditions and spend most of their lives indoors, often hooked up to milking machines. This constant connection to a machine can cause a cow’s teats to become sore and irritated.

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Chickens raised for meat, also called broiler chickens, live in warehouses with thousands of other chickens on factory farms. They do not have access to the outdoors or fresh air, and in many cases do not even get sunlight. Egg-laying hens, on the other hand, are destined to spend their lives in small wire battery cages. One of these tiny prisons can contain as many as ten birds, leaving each chicken an area of space roughly the size of a sheet of printer paper. Because such crowded, uncomfortable living conditions are very stressful for chickens, it can cause them to bite or attack each other. To prevent this from leading to fatal injuries, the standard procedure in the industry is to cut or burn the top portion of their beaks off at a young age, a process called de-beaking. No pain killers or anesthetics are given during this process (7).

Pigs raised for pork on factory farms are castrated and have a portion of their tale cut off (without any sort of pain relief) when they are just piglets. The removal of the tail is to prevent pigs from biting each other in the crowded pens where they will spend the whole of their lives. The floors of the pens are made of slats, and all the animals’ excrement ends up in pits beneath the floor. The animals do not have access to straw or earth, sunlight or fresh air. They live crammed together, constantly breathing in the fumes from their own waste. Because the air is full of gases from this waste, large fans have to be run 24 hours a day for ventilation (8).

Like milk cows, breeding sows for the pork industry spend their lives in a cycle of pregnancy and birth. While pregnant, they are kept in gestation crates, cages which restrict their movement so much that they are only able to stand up or lie down. They cannot walk, turn around, or roll over. The floors of these crates are made of slats which allow the pig’s waste to fall through, so the pigs live right above their own feces. This exposes them to high levels of ammonia and can cause respiratory diseases. Furthermore, the slatted floor can also cause damage to the pigs’ feet. Being stuck in such a small space understandably causes many of these sows to literally go insane. Many of them begin chewing on the bars of the crate or chewing with an empty mouth just to keep their minds busy. If you subjected dogs to this treatment, you would be put in jail for cruelty to animals.

As for the “Free Range” label, which can now be found on many meat and egg packages and brings to mind happy animals in wide open pastures, the term is essentially meaningless outside of specific situations. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has only defined the term “free range” for broiler chickens, not for egg-laying hens, cows, or pigs. And even then, all the definition specifies is that the chickens must have access to the outdoors. The definition on the USDA website simply says “Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside” (5). It does not specify how much time each day the animals must be given access to the outdoors, or even what kind of access. It could mean they get a couple minutes a day in a 2-foot x 2-foot concrete pen with access to sunlight and fresh air. And when the “free-range” label is slapped on beef, pork, and eggs, it is a completely meaningless marketing tactic. The only time “free-range” has any weight to it is when it is coupled with “Certified Organic.” Organic certification has very specific rules and regulations that must be met to receive the “USDA Organic” label (6).

Aside from the actual living conditions on the feedlots, animals experience perhaps even worse conditions when they are transported to slaughter. They are piled into trailers so tightly that it is not uncommon for animals to die before they reach the slaughterhouse. They are given no food or water while being transported, and receive no protection from the elements. In 2015, a Toronto woman named Anita Krajnc was put on trial for giving water to thirsty pigs in a transport truck on their way to slaughter. A judge ultimately dismissed the charge of criminal mischief brought against her (28).

On a personal level, I used to work on the highway, and I often saw trucks shuttling chickens to their deaths. I would have to do a double take before I realized they were actually live chickens, because they were crammed so tightly into tiny crates in the stifling summer heat. They could not move an inch or even ruffle their feathers.

The Value of Life

Male chicks born into the egg industry are immediately and brutally killed. This process is called culling. Males are of no monetary value to the industry because they do not lay eggs and they are not the same breed as chickens bred specifically for meat. The chicks are either gassed to death, suffocated, or ground up in what is basically a blender (7). When these new-borns are thrown into the cold, spinning blades, they are completely conscious.

The culling of male chicks.

The culling of male chicks.

Health Risks to Humans

Systemic cruelty to animals should be enough in-and-of itself to condemn an industry, but the health risks to people posed by factory farming are severe and widespread.

Reaping What We Sow

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that 3,000 people die each year from foodborne illnesses, many of which can be attributed to meat, poultry, and dairy products (11).

Since 1993, E. coli outbreaks in the U.S. linked to meat and cheese have sickened at least 650 people, led to at least six developing kidney failure, and killed another six (including three children) (12). In 2006, 199 people in 26 states were infected with E. coli that was traced to bagged spinach from the California-based Natural Selection Foods Company. The Food and Drug Administration later matched the E. coli strain to one found on a cattle ranch located next to the spinach fields (12).

Salmonella linked to meat, eggs, and contact with live chickens has infected at least 3,921 people in the U.S. and killed at least three since 2010 (13).

The industrial farming system exacerbates the risk of outbreaks of diseases like E. coli, salmonella, and MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) because of its consolidated nature. When you have many animals crowded into a small space, sickness spreads easily and quickly. If an animal on a factory farm becomes ill, it can infect hundreds of thousands of other animals. Similarly, if a single piece of meat at an industrial slaughterhouse or meat processing plant is diseased or contaminated, it can in turn contaminate meat which will potentially be sold all over the country to millions of people.

If you are going to keep large numbers of animals together in cramped, dirty conditions, you have to pump them full of drugs or they will quickly become sick. It is a catch-22 that is inherent to the industry.

This high risk of disease is why the majority of the antibiotics sold in America are fed to animals on factory farms (4). Because it is not cost effective on a CAFO to treat individual animals that get sick, antibiotics are given to all the animals in their food. Certain antibiotics can also help animals grow larger at a faster rate, and so they are often administered for this purpose to perfectly healthy animals (this practice has been banned in Europe, but not the U.S.). This overuse of antibiotics has led to the proliferation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. When antibiotics are mass-administered to animals, they kill off all the vulnerable bacteria and leave behind strains that are resistant. In the absence of competition, these antibiotic-resistant strains flourish. This leaves humans completely defenseless against these pathogens (14). By continuing to overuse antibiotics and give them to animals that are not even sick, we are running the risk of inadvertently creating a superbug that we are unable to fight. However, the factory farming system necessarily demands this overuse. If you are going to keep large numbers of animals together in cramped, dirty conditions, you have to pump them full of drugs or they will quickly become sick. It is a catch-22 that is inherent to the industry.

Please, Not in My Back Yard

Consuming hormone and antibiotic-ridden meat is one thing. Actually living next to a factory farm is another. People who live near CAFOs face a multitude of risks. From breathing toxic, foul-smelling air to drinking contaminated water, they know better than anyone else just how unpleasant (and unhealthy) industrial farms can be.

The manure produced by the thousands of animals on factory farms is dumped into huge holding ponds called lagoons (17). The manure sits in these lagoons and releases harmful gases like hydrogen sulfide, which can be lethal if breathed in for too long (15). In addition to polluting the air, the manure (and all the bacteria in it) can sink down into the ground and contaminate groundwater. These lagoons, which can be the length of several football fields, are essentially pools of toxic waste (8).

Manure lagoons on a CAFO

Manure lagoons on a CAFO

This animal waste is sometimes injected straight into the earth, where it can threaten ground water (16).

Manure is also sprayed over crops using irrigation systems. Residents who live near factory farms that spray manure have complained that they cannot go outside while the spraying is happening, and that the smell, which some say has permanently gotten into their house, is downright unbearable. They close all their doors and windows in an attempt to keep out the overwhelming stench (18).

People who live within three miles of factory farms are more likely to have asthma than people who do not (15), and those who live near hog lagoons suffer from nose-bleeds, diarrhea, bronchitis, headaches, mood disturbances, and throat irritation (8). When they go out of their houses, people can collapse from the smell.

This Job Is Killing Me

Despite all of this, perhaps it was incorrect to say that those who live near factory farms know better than anyone else how awful they can be. There are people who probably do know better. The people who work on them.

Imagine falling into one of the toxic lagoons. Imagine dying in a pond of hog manure. This has happened to factory farm workers on multiple occasions. Workers who make repairs to the linings of the lagoons (polyethylene liners, which can be punctured by rocks in the ground, allowing manure to seep out) risk being overwhelmed by the fumes, even choking to death. Some have fainted and fallen in. It is incredibly difficult to rescue people from the lagoons, so this can be a death sentence. In one such instance, a worker in Michigan fell in while repairing a liner. Four other people, one after another, dived in to save him. All five of them were killed (8).

Environmental Impacts

In the end, environmental impacts are human health impacts. We are part of the natural world, and depend on it completely for our survival. When we pollute water and worsen the warming of the planet, we are quite literally killing ourselves.

Eating the Ice Caps Away

Climate change is perhaps the greatest threat humanity currently faces, and contributing most to this threat is industrial animal agriculture.

According to a report published by the World Watch Institute, the raising of livestock globally is responsible for the emission of 32,564,000,000 tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere each year. This amounts to 51 percent of the total greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. The aspects of livestock production which contribute to this number include the respiration of livestock during breathing, the methane released into the atmosphere by the animals’ manure, and the land cleared of trees for the raising of livestock and the growing of food for livestock (20).

Another important factor of industrial animal farming that contributes to climate change is the burning of fossil fuels during transportation. A tremendous amount of oil is used to bring live animals to factory farms, then to the slaughterhouse, and finally to the store as meat (21). Michael Pollan writes in his article “Power Steer” that it takes about 284 gallons of oil to raise one beef cow (4).

It takes 1,799 gallons of H2O to make a pound of beef.

Hogging the Water

Climate change aside, however, factory farming has a huge impact on our water resources, in terms of use and pollution.

CAFOs are the largest per capita consumers of water in the United States (22). It takes 1,799 gallons of H2O to make a pound of beef, 468 gallons to make a pound of chicken, 576 gallons to make a pound of pork, 880 gallons to make a gallon of milk, and 600 gallons to make a pound of cheese. One pound of soybeans, on the other hand, requires only 216 gallons (23).

While using an incredible amount of water, factory farms also put waterways at risk of pollution.

When it rains or there is a severe storm, manure lagoons on industrial farms can overflow and contaminate streams and rivers. Hog manure contains nitrogen as well as phosphorous, both of which can create "dead zones" in bodies of water. In 1995, the dike of a pig lagoon in North Carolina ruptured and spilled 28.5 million gallons of manure into the New River. Over 1 million fish were killed and many people’s health was impacted. In 1999, Hurricane Floyd caused 120,000 gallons of manure to contaminate six different rivers. This killed off enormous amounts of marine life and contaminated beaches (8).

The Takeaway

We need to ask ourselves as a society whether having cheap meat, dairy, and eggs is worth the cruel treatment of animals, risks to our health, and environmental damage factory farming imposes. Especially in a world where it is increasingly easy to live without consuming animal products, accepting all this abuse, damage, and risk for the sake of cheeseburgers and wings is becoming less and less justifiable.

In a bleak situation, however, there are small signs of hope.

According to a study done by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Americans reduced their consumption of meat between 2005 and 2014. The reduction in beef consumption was most dramatic, as it fell by 19 percent (26).

Small victories for animal welfare are being won as well.

To date, 10 states in the U.S. have banned gestation crates, five have banned battery cages, and eight have banned veal crates (which are so small the calves confined in them cannot even turn around) (24). Most recently, my own state of Massachusetts passed a law in 2016 which bans the use of gestation crates, battery cages, and veal crates as well as banning the in-state sale of products made using any of these confinement systems. The law will take effect in 2022 (25).

But there is still a long, long way to go. Thirty-nine states still have no restrictions on the confinement of farm animals.

Awareness is key, and consumers need to think about what effects their choices at the grocery store have on the world at large. We must also support legislation that protects animals and our health, and guards our waterways from pollution.

Sources Cited

  1. Zacharias, Nil. “It’s Time to End Factory Farming.” The Huffington Post. December 2011. Web.
  2. MacDonald, J.M. and McBride, W.D. “The Transformation of U.S. Livestock Agriculture: Scale, Efficiency, and Risks.” United States Department of Agriculture. 2009. Web.
  3. “Farm Animal Statistics: Slaughter Totals.” The Humane Society of the United States. 2017. Web.
  4. Pollan, Michael. “Power Steer.” The New York Times Magazine. 2002. Web.
  5. Food and Safety Inspection Service. “Meat and Poultry Labeling Terms.” 2017. Web.!ut/p/a1/jZFRb4IwEMc_DY-lx3AG90ZIFmUTZsxm5WUpehSS0pK2jrhPP9wyExed9p569_vn7v5HC8poofhHI7hrtOLy8C_G77CAcTBJIM0nwSPMsrdF_pQkEC3vB2D9D5CFN-ovvBiu6dMbGtyZeTIXtOi4q0mjKk2ZQEe4sj0aS1ml9ZZYXqHbk4pvHLE1ovstSF6ibJSgrEV-UG1Jp3fSmf2xRBya1l4HVrQ4HReCIWZZuBxN0yyEfPQXOOPnD3DZsMERIXX5fbx1rMowGlY3WKFB4-_MkK6d6-yDBx70fe8LrYVEf6NbD85Jam0dZack7dpX9vkcT6F5aVeRjb8Ay-NlYw!!/#4
  6. Chait, Jennifer. “What Does Free Range Really Mean?” The Balance. 2017. Web.
  7. Capps, Ashey. “Debeaking Video Shows Standard Practice on Free Range Egg Farms.” Free From Harm. 2013. Web.
  8. Tietz, Jeff. “Boss Hog: The Dark Side of America's Top Pork Producer.” Rolling Stone. 2006. Web.
  9. Lin, Doris. “Factory Farmed Animals and Antibiotics, Hormones, rBGH.” ThoughtCo. 2017. Web.
  10. Mendelson, Anne. “The Milk of Human Unkindness: Industrialization and the Supercow.” The CAFO Reader: The Tragedy of Industrial Animal Factories. Headsburg, Calif. Watershed Media. 2010. 131-138.
  11. “Foodborne Germs and Illnesses.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2017. Web.
  12. “E. Coli Outbreaks Fast Facts.” CNN. 2017. Web.
  13. “Salmonella Fast Facts.” CNN. 2017. Web.
  14. Moyer, Melinda Wenner. “How Drug-Resistant Bacteria Travel from the Farm to Your Table.” Scientific American. 2016. Web.
  15. “Myths of the CAFO: Industrial Food Is Healthy.” The CAFO Reader: The Tragedy of Industrial Animal Factories. Ed. Dan Imhoff. Healdsburg, Calif. Watershed Media, 2010. 69-71. Print.
  16. Genoways, Ted. “Hog Wild: Factory Farms Are Poisoning Iowa’s Drinking Water.” Mother Jones. 2014. Web.
  17. Merchant, Brian. “Drone Footage Reveals Massive, Toxic Manure 'Lagoons' at Factory Farms.” Vice. 2014. Web.
  18. Seely, Ron. “Manure spraying under scrutiny.” Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. 2014. Web.
  19. Striffler, Steve. “Watching the Chickens Pass By.” The CAFO Reader: The Tragedy of Industrial Animal Factories. Healdsburg, Calif. Watershed Media. 2010. 125-130. Print.
  20. Goodland, Robert and Anhang, Jeff. “Livestock and Climate Change: What if the Key Actors in Climate Change are . . . Cows, Pigs, and Chickens?” World Watch Magazine. December 2009. 10-19.
  21. Lappe, Anna. “Diet For a Hot Planet.” The CAFO Reader: The Tragedy of Industrial Animal Factories. 2010. Healdsburg, Calif. Watershed Media. 240-247. Print.
  22. Wuerthner, George. “Assault on Nature.” The CAFO Reader: The Tragedy of Industrial Animal Factories. 2010. Healdsburg, Calif. Watershed Media. 182-189. Print.
  23. Hallock, Betty. “To make a burger, first you need 660 gallons of water ...” The Los Angeles Times. 2014. Web.
  24. American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. “Farm Animal Confinement Bans by State.” 2017. Web.
  25. Brulliard, Karin. “Massachusetts voters say no to tight quarters for hens, pigs and calves.” The Washington Post. 2016. Web.
  26. Strom, Stephanie. “Americans Ate 19% Less Beef From ’05 to ’14, Report Says.” The New York Times. 2017. Web.
  27. Lawrence, Felicity. “If consumers knew how farmed chickens were raised, they might never eat their meat again.” The Guardian. 2016. Web.
  28. Kassam, Ashifa. “Judge dismisses case of woman who gave water to pigs headed to slaughter.” The Guardian. 2017. Web.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

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