The facts about factory farming
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.
Industrial farming facilities are ideal incubators for disease. Large numbers of animals are crammed into small spaces, often in unsanitary conditions, and their health is neglected for the sake of greater profits.
Behind the headlines, factory farms harbour a range of food-poisoning bacteria that can be fatal when consumed in food. E. coli, salmonella, campylobacter and listeria are all regularly found in a range of meat products and some groups such as the elderly, children, and pregnant women are at higher risk of becoming ill. Thorough cooking is usually sufficient to kill off harmful bacteria.
Other notorious animal-related disease outbreaks have received far more media coverage:
When swine flu originated last year in the Mexican state of Veracruz, the country’s media carried stories that the disease was suspected as originating from an industrial pig farming facility operated by a company called Granjas Carroll. This subsidiary of the US pork giant Smithfield Foods runs several large facilities in the area where the flu was first identified.
After swine flu made headlines last year as a deadly pandemic, the strain was soon identified as being relatively mild and many of the people who died after contracting it had pre-existing health conditions that made them more vulnerable. While swine flu has so far cost 10,000 lives, these numbers are at this stage greatly exceeded by the fatalities from other flu strains in circulation.
In 2004, a deadly strain of bird flu spread across poultry facilities in South-East Asia, a region where poultry numbers have skyrocketed over the past three decades: nearly all of this increase has occurred in factory farms.
At the time, the media directed its attention to the role of backyard flocks and migratory wild birds while conveniently ignoring the role of huge farms where thousands of genetically uniform birds sit on layers of excrement and feathers. The factory farm lobby even opportunistically used the crisis to encourage the shutting down of the backyard poultry sector. Large numbers of birds were slaughtered to stop the spread of the disease and the worst impacts were suffered by small farmers and backyard operators.
Mad Cow Disease
Cattle are normally herbivorous, but in the UK during the 1980s they were being fed meat and bone meal (MBM) made from the remains of dead animals. When the first case of the neurogenerative condition BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy, also known as Mad Cow Disease) was identified among cows in 1984, this was traced back to the presence in MBM of brain and spinal tissue from infected cattle.
To prevent further spread of BSE, all of Britain’s suspect herds were culled. In terms of the human impact, just over 200 people, most from the UK, have so far died from a variant of the brain disorder Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease after eating affected beef.
More than any other factor, the BSE debacle led the British public to become mistrustful about food safety in connection with intensive animal rearing practices.
The factory farm—antibiotic link
Antibiotics were first discovered in 1928 and by 1950 US researchers had found that low “subtherapeutic” doses added to feed led to an improvement in animal growth rates. Today, America leads the world in animal feed antibiotics, representing about 80 per cent of global usage. It’s thought that the killing of intestinal bacteria may be responsible for these increases in weight.
Routine doses of antibiotics are also often used by factory farms as a prophylactic measure, minimising the likelihood of disease outbreaks encouraged by crowding and poor hygiene.
In Australia, subtherapeutic antibiotic doses are regularly given to cattle and pigs, while the chicken industry only uses them for therapeutic purposes. According to Choice, these are used for the prevention of disease in factory conditions and will have the added effect of speeding the growth process. In New Zealand, the practice of feeding antibiotics to animals is less common.
Unfortunately, low-dose antibiotics are too weak to kill off bacteria and instead encourage them to morph into antibiotic-resistant forms. Evidence has emerged of antibiotic resistance spreading in humans and the fact that certain antibiotics are failing to work for a percentage of the population is an ongoing concern. As a result, the EU has chosen to ban both the use on animals of antibiotics that are useful for human health, and also the practice of subtherapeutic use.
Meating your dinner
A seminal work for the modern animal rights movement is the 1975 book Animal Liberation by ethicist Peter Singer. Today’s animal advocacy organisations occupy a broad spectrum, ranging from the RSPCA to direct action animal liberationists who support entering intensive farming establishments to film conditions or rescue the animals.
The treatment of animals as commodities rather than sentient beings results in a variety of cruel treatments:
- Overcrowding in a single pen gives each animal only a small space in which to live.
- These cramped conditions usually prevent animals from expressing their normal behaviour, often resulting in severe frustration and stereotypical actions such as head bobbing, self mutilation and bar chewing.
- A lack of exercise among battery hens results in severe physical degeneration.
- Painful surgical procedures are carried out without anaesthetic.
- Sick or injured animals are usually denied veterinary care, as this would greatly increase cost overheads.
- Sheds are often windowless, denying animals the sight of the sun.
- There are questions about the humaneness of various slaughter practices.
- Essentially, production animals are being denied the protections automatically given to companion animals.
Practices in Australia and New Zealand are typical of those in many other countries. Battery hens are confined inside a cage where they are each given a space roughly equivalent to an A4-sized piece of paper, where they cannot turn around or stretch their wings. As a consequence, they tend to peck each other and are debeaked as a harm prevention measure. All the male chicks are of no use to the egg production system and are gassed or ground up alive at the hatchery.
Broiler chickens can suffer from heat stress, which can on occasion be fatal. Kept in sheds that may have poor ventilation, they are exposed to high concentrations of ammonia from their own waste products. Bred and fed to put on weight very quickly, they are ready for slaughter in only 45 days. Unfortunately, their bones are unable to grow fast enough and their legs can collapse under their own weight. Without the ability to access food and water, they are certain to die.
Pigs are highly intelligent and very social animals, which means close confinement is particularly difficult for them. Like broiler chickens, pigs are sensitive to heat. When in group pens, they may sometimes bite off one another’s tails in desperation. Surgery carried out on pigs to prevent them harming one another includes tail docking and teeth clipping.
A pregnant sow is commonly kept in a dry sow stall that’s only slightly larger than her body, preventing her from turning around or lying down properly. No bedding is provided and she must make do with a concrete floor. Before giving birth, she is later moved to a similar farrowing crate. Defenders of these practices claim the crate prevents the sow from crushing her piglets.
A groundswell of change
Public awareness of these practices has risen following television advertising campaigns in Australia and New Zealand. In hopeful developments, Australia’s ACT Government, the City of Sydney and the University of Newcastle all have some form of ban on eggs from caged birds. Last August, Woolworths in Australia announced an increase in the supply of free-range and barn-laid eggs, driven by consumer demand. Food giants McDonald’s and Unilever are both looking at changing over to free-range eggs in their global operations.
Two of the four largest British supermarkets will stop selling battery eggs from next year. Battery cages are banned in Switzerland, Belgium, Austria, Sweden and the Netherlands, with the EU to follow suit in 2012. Unfortunately, Australia and New Zealand are lagging behind the rest of the world: Australia is introducing an increase in the minimum cage size from 450 to 550 square centimetres, while a similar decision was reached in New Zealand six years ago. A ban still looks to be a long way off.
In the area of pig farming, the dry sow stall has been phased out in the UK, Sweden, Finland, Switzerland and the Netherlands. Meanwhile, the farrowing crate is illegal in both Sweden and Switzerland.
New Zealand celebrity Mike King had been involved in promoting pork over a seven-year period. After being sent material about the conditions in pig factory farms, he started asking questions of the New Zealand Pork Board, leading to an abrupt ending of his promotional role. Last year, he accompanied the animal rights group Open Rescue on a visit to a pig shed and was distressed by the conditions inside.
One solution to factory farming is to reduce meat consumption. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, the rearing of animals is linked to 18 per cent of global greenhouse emissions, largely CO2 and methane. These exceed those generated by all transport sectors combined. Al Gore believes vegetarianism has a significant role to play in tackling climate change.
As a rule, it’s best to assume that all meat and eggs (with the exception of beef and mutton) have been factory farmed unless otherwise labelled. The solutions are to buy free range (for eggs), ‘Free Range/Bred Free Range’ (for meat) or, better still, organic; rules require that organic standards automatically entail a high level of animal welfare. If you buy at growers’ markets, you can meet producers and discuss their farming methods.
A small advance on the cage system is the “barn egg”, where birds are allowed to move within the shed, which may have several levels. They are provided with nesting boxes and have somewhere to scratch. The maximum indoor stocking density is 14 birds per square metre in Australia (seven in New Zealand under the SPCA rules) and beak trimming is permitted.
Due to a lack of regulation, there is no single standard governing the term “free range”. Eggs with the RSPCA (SPCA in New Zealand) logo have some higher standards, including a maximum stocking density of seven birds per square metre (10 in New Zealand), having space to nest and being given the freedom to exhibit normal behaviours.
However, the RSPCA has also been on the receiving end of some criticism. In 2004, it was the subject of an ABC Four Corners investigation for its commercial arrangements with intensive poultry and pork producers. The program raised the question of whether this was creating a conflict of interest and claimed this may have led the RSPCA to avoid prosecuting animal cruelty cases at some factory farms.
The power of the consumer
When people become active as consumers, their collective purchasing habits can change the actions of the largest businesses. In both Denmark and the UK, about 50 per cent of consumers have stopped buying battery eggs. Although the figure in Australia is not as high, it has doubled in the past eight years and now stands at 31 per cent. In New Zealand, free range has a lower 14 per cent market share.
If the public declines to change its dietary and purchasing habits for the sake of animal welfare and that of small farmers and the environment, perhaps the threat presented to ourselves by a killer pandemic will move us.
For further information on factory farming and what you can do to make a difference, visit:
- Voiceless www.voiceless.org.au
- Animals Australia www.animalsaustralia.org
- Animal Liberation Qld www.animalliberationqld.org.au
- Save Animals From Exploitation www.safe.org.nz
- SAFE Love Pigs campaign www.lovepigs.org.nz
- The Meatrix animations www.themeatrix.com
Martin Oliver is a writer and researcher based in Lismore (Northern NSW).
Like what you read?
Sign up for a weekly dose of wellness
SHARE WITH A FRIEND
Sustainable home for a sustainable life
Like to green your home but aren’t sure where to start? Meet three couples who’ve taken innovative yet achievable steps...
How to beat fossil fuel addiction
To avoid climate disaster, we need to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. Learn how to let them go.
What is the future of farming?
We investigate how farmers can produce enough food to feed the swelling population in a way that benefits the Earth,...
Legumes for a farming future
Legumes are not only a sustainable crop, they are economically viable.