Opinion polls regularly show that most people care about the conditions under which farm animals are raised. But many still regard the problem of intensive farming of animals as the government’s responsibility, or have an “out of sight, out of mind” attitude. Some people feel that when buying food they can only afford whatever is cheapest on the shelves. Others, though, are using their consumer dollar to help put an end to inhumane practices.
The arrival of factory farming
By the 20th century, agriculture was feeling the effects of mass-production and, following World War II, factory farming practices took hold in Australia and New Zealand. The traditional family farm found itself in competition with large-scale farms producing battery eggs, broilers (meat chickens) and pigs. In these places, the dominant philosophy is one of maximising profits through high outputs, coupled with a low cost per production unit.
A small percentage of Australian and New Zealand cattle are raised in feedlots then are exported to countries such as Japan. This feeding method gives the meat a tender marbled texture, but unfortunately increases its fat content far beyond that of grass-fed beef.
The raising of large numbers of animals in one location requires vast amounts of feed and it has been estimated that 38 per cent of the world’s grain is used to fatten them. One important concept from a sustainability perspective is the “conversion ratio”, essentially the number of units of feed required to produce one unit of meat. It is generally accepted that the ratio for beef greatly exceeds that for both pork and chicken. For intensively reared meat, this grain is the largest component of its ecological footprint.
Feedlots and intensive factory farms have also spread into the developing world. Weaker regulation has resulted in a shift towards these practices in China, Bangladesh, India and parts of Africa and Latin America. This has come at a price, namely the loss of the livelihoods of many small-scale farmers in rural areas.
A waste nightmare
Imagine the biological waste produced by a city of hundreds of thousands of people. Now imagine that none of this is treated and is instead stored in the surrounding environment. In the US, where dairy farms are often industrial in nature, this is comparable to practices in a facility containing about 2500 cows. Disposal of manure is a headache for all factory farm operations.
America’s largest pig factory farms have a particularly bad reputation for their waste issues. It’s common for an E. coli-rich slurry composed of urine and faeces to be stored in many huge lagoons nearby. When seen from above, these lagoons are a strange shade of pink from various chemical reactions.
Factory farming emissions include the greenhouse gases methane and CO2, plus toxic ammonia and hydrogen sulphide. On occasion, workers carrying out tasks on the edges of these structures have died after being overcome by fumes. When the lagoons become too full, their contents are commonly sprayed onto nearby fields owned by the pig giant to fertilise the growing of crops. Nearby residents often report that their health is under siege.
In New Zealand, animal waste has become a political issue and plans on the South Island to factory-farm dairy cows alongside large effluent ponds have caused a major controversy. Such plans are opposed by the Green Party and there is wider concern that this move could mark a broader shift towards factory-farm dairying in New Zealand, in turn damaging the country’s clean image.