What is bad about factory farming? Is it cruel?
Public concern about animal agriculture has grown over the past several decades, as consumers have become increasingly aware of the environmental and humane costs of animal farming. Factory farming has come under particular scrutiny as a production system that is harmful to animals, humans, and the environment.
What is factory farming?
Factory farming or industrial farming is an intensive form of animal farming, and factory farms are also known as concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). On factory farms, billions of animals are kept in crowded, unnatural conditions and bred to maximize growth and muscle development.
Factory farming is based on an industrial model of production that seeks to maximize output using minimal inputs to increase profit for farmers. The factory farming model emphasizes efficiency and mechanization, like automatic milking parlors for cows. Animals are considered units of production, and profitability is prioritized over their care.
History of factory farming
Factory farming first began with chickens in the US. In the 1920s, farmers began looking for ways to market chicken as an answer to growing demand for meat, though it was not the preferred choice for US consumers at the time. Previous innovations in selective animal breeding had paved the way for the development of a chicken purpose-bred for meat production — called a “broiler.”
Rather than allowing chickens to roam the farm, as had been done traditionally, farmers began crowding them into large sheds and breeding them for faster and larger muscle development. New techniques and discoveries in artificial insemination and antibiotics allowed farmers to not only selectively breed birds, but also fend off disease in the stressful conditions of the factory farm. Animals could thus be kept in unhealthy conditions without impacting productivity.
Growing agribusinesses also introduced vertical integration, branching out into different parts of the supply chain that had previously been run independently, including breeding, hatching, growing, slaughter, processing, and marketing. Since the 1950s, vertical integration has led to an increasing trend of corporate consolidation and larger farms, with smaller farms forced into the role of contractors for big companies.
By the 1950s, factory-farmed chicken had become fully cemented in the US diet and economy, and other production systems for pigs, then egg-producing chickens and dairy cows, began implementing the industrial farming model.
How many factory farms are there in the US?
In the US, over 1.6 billion animals live on around 25,000 factory farms, and these numbers are growing. Since 2012, 190 million more animals are confined on factory farms – representing a 14% increase over the past decade.
The profitability of the factory farming model in the US has led to its adoption in other parts of the world, to the detriment of local farmers, animal welfare, and ecosystems. Over 90% of farmed animals worldwide are raised on factory farms.
Factory farming companies
Vion (the Netherlands)
In the US, Tyson, Cargill, JBS, and National Meat Packing control up to 85% of the market for cows, chickens, and pigs. Because these companies wield so much power, they are able to manipulate markets with little to no accountability. They are also responsible for much of the environmental pollution that factory farming causes, as well as appalling welfare conditions for animals.
Is factory farming cruel?
Animals commonly reared on factory farms include pigs, cows, chickens, ducks, turkeys, fish, and shrimp. All animals, no matter their species or purpose, are subjected to cruelty and inhumane treatment on factory farms.
Factory farms ensure profitability by using a minimal amount of space per animal to maximize the number of animals that can be raised in a given area. As a result, animals on factory farms cannot express any of the natural behaviors important for their health and wellbeing, like running, resting, stretching, escaping unwanted social interactions, and seeking preferred social relationships. While all factory farms practice extreme, unnatural confinement for animals, some examples of common confinement strategies include:
Crates that prevent mother pigs from turning around, lying comfortably, or engaging in natural maternal care
Battery cages that severely restrict egg-laying hens, preventing them from stretching their wings, perching, and all other natural movements
Tie stalls where dairy cows are tied by the neck and prevented from moving, grazing, and resting
Calves intended for veal production held in tiny, dark stalls unable to run, play, or interact with other cows
Cruelty to chickens in the egg industry
In the egg industry, laying hens are commonly subjected to debeaking and forced molting at significant cost to their welfare.
Debeaking is when the sensitive nerve-laden tips of chickens’ beaks are amputated. Chickens are fully conscious during this procedure and receive no pain medication.
In debeaking, half of the upper beak and one-third of the lower beak is removed, most commonly using either a hot blade or infrared heat that damages the beak tissue and causes it to soften and fall off. After debeaking, chickens experience acute pain, open wounds, and impaired ability to eat and drink. Neuromas may form at the site of amputation and cause long-term pain.
This is an unnatural process that farmers use to extend the egg-laying period. During a forced molt, hens are denied food, sometimes for up to two weeks. Their water may also be severely restricted. Artificial lighting may also be manipulated to affect their hormone levels.
Chickens who undergo forced molting experience significant bodyweight and feather loss, which has been shown to induce stress and pain. Forced molting also increases aggression and pecking among hens, who are vulnerable to trauma and injury due to feather loss.
Cruelty to cows and pigs
Cows and pigs on factory farms experience painful and distressing procedures as an everyday part of their existence. Two physically invasive procedures, tail docking and castration, cause both immediate pain as well as potential chronic suffering.
Amputation of most or all of the tail is performed in both cows and pigs without anesthesia or pain medication. These procedures cause immediate intense pain, as tails are composed of many nerves, muscle, connective tissue, and bone. Tail amputation can lead to debilitating infections and chronic pain from neuromas.
Animals with amputated tails are unable to keep flies off their bodies, increasing the chance of injury and infection due to flystrike, and have shown increased sensitivity to cold and heat. Animals may also develop gangrene and tetanus as a result of tail amputation.
Castration is a painful surgical procedure performed in young male cows and pigs without any form of pain relief. In addition to the immediate pain and trauma, there is evidence of effects on long-term health, with higher mortality rates in castrated versus uncastrated pigs.
Breeding for profit
Animals used on factory farms have been genetically manipulated through breeding to develop traits, like larger musculature, that increase profit for farmers. However, these traits negatively impact animals’ welfare and lead to a range of physical and physiological problems.
Chickens and turkeys
Birds intended for the meat industry have been bred to grow abnormally fast, which leads to immense stress on their body. Factory-farmed birds suffer from heart failure and painful blisters on their chests. Their legs are unable to support their fast-growing bodies, resulting in fractures and lameness. Birds may not be able to access food or water and die slowly of dehydration or starvation.
Cows used in dairy production have been bred to produce more milk, and milk production per cow has doubled over the past several decades. Unnaturally high levels of milk production have led to numerous health issues in dairy cows, including lameness, physiological derangements like ketosis and milk fever, painful udder infections, and discomfort from heavy udders.
Animals on factory farms have everything natural and fulfilling in their lives taken away, from their freedom of movement to the ability to make decisions about who they want to interact with. Mothers and babies are routinely separated on factory farms, often within moments of birth, and cows have been observed undergoing extensive grieving periods after the loss of their calves.
Animals are killed in a number of inhumane ways on factory farms. Piglets are bludgeoned to death using a method called “thumping,” where the farmer slams the piglet on the floor while holding his legs. Male chicks, considered waste products of the egg industry, are gassed, suffocated, or thrown into a macerator to be ground up while still alive.
Because thousands of animals are crowded into limited indoor space on factory farms, waste buildup is common. Animals end up living, eating, and sleeping in their waste. Ammonia is a toxic gas emitted from the manure and urine of pigs, cows, chickens, and other factory-farmed animals. Constant exposure to high levels of ammonia causes gastrointestinal disease, tracheal irritation, respiratory illness, eye inflammation, skin burns and lesions, and increased mortality in animals.
What is bad about factory farming?
The costs of factory farming are significant — to animal welfare, the environment, and human health.
Factory farming is incompatible with animal welfare. On factory farms, animals are treated as commodities rather than living, feeling beings. Throughout their short, painful lives they are subjected to invasive procedures and intensive confinement. In addition to physical pain, animals experience emotional distress resulting from stressful and crowded conditions.
Factory farming’s environmental impact
Factory farming damages the environment and is a main driver of climate change via its production of harmful greenhouse gases.
Factory farms are a leading cause of air pollution that contributes to human deaths. The massive amount of animal waste generated by factory farms increases particulate matter in the atmosphere, which negatively impacts air quality and significantly affects human health.
Of the 15,900 annual deaths in the US caused by agricultural air pollution, 80% of these are due to animal farming.
Factory farming pollutes surrounding water systems and damages aquatic ecosystems with large amounts of waste. Factory farms create hundreds of tons of waste every year. In the US state of North Carolina alone, factory farms produce nearly 10 billion gallons of waste a year. Farms are unable to process all that manure, so they store it in enormous lagoons that frequently overflow and pollute surrounding areas.
Runoff from factory farms has contaminated the drinking water of nearby communities and caused algal blooms and fish die-offs in lakes and streams. Pharmaceutical residues, like antibiotics and other drugs, as well as toxic metals and bacteria, can also enter human drinking water in this way.
Farmed animals consume 36% of crops grown worldwide. It would be a far more efficient use of land if these crops were used to feed people directly. Because of factory farming’s need to feed vast numbers of animals, crop diversity has decreased in favor of soy and corn monocultures (which make up the bulk of the feed).
Human health issues
Factory farming contributes to some of the most pressing contemporary human health issues and poses significant concerns for the way workers are treated.
The rise of antibiotic-resistant diseases is an urgent global public health concern. According to a 2022 report in The Lancet, nearly five million human deaths could be attributed to antimicrobial resistance in 2019.
Antibiotic resistance occurs when antimicrobial drugs are given improperly, like the routine use of subtherapeutic antibiotics on factory farms, known as growth promoters. For decades, factory farms administered antibiotics to animals at low doses that created conditions conducive to the emergence of resistant bacteria. Humans then came into contact with these bacteria through contaminated meat, soil, and water. Once resistant infections are present in the human population, existing drugs may not be able to treat them.
Agricultural workers often face dangerous conditions for low pay with few benefits. Workers are often from economically vulnerable groups, like migrant workers, immigrants, and women.
Workers on factory farms are exposed to toxic gases and pollutants, including ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, methane, and particulates. It is not uncommon for 30% of workers to develop asthma, bronchitis, and organic dust toxic syndrome, and they can experience nausea, headaches, eye irritation, and weakness from air pollutants. Workers experience high injury rates, and some have drowned in manure lagoons.
When factory farms move into rural communities, they cause social and economic disruption by undercutting other farmers and small businesses. Pollution, water contamination, and noxious odors decrease property values for local residents and impact their quality of life.
People who live near factory farms experience anxiety, depression, tension, anger, and impaired balance and memory. They may be exposed to illness-causing bacteria through environmental contamination and be more prone to respiratory diseases. Children living near factory farms are more likely to have asthma.
How are animals killed on factory farms?
Animals on factory farms are usually not slaughtered on site and face long, harrowing journeys to centralized slaughterhouses. They are packed into large trucks and transported no matter the weather conditions. Animals are exposed to dangerous heat and cold, and deprived of food and water for days. Some don’t make it to the slaughterhouse, but die on the manure, vomit, and urine-covered floors of transport trucks.
The animals who make it to the slaughterhouse face intense pain and distress prior to their death. Slaughterhouses prioritize speed and efficiency, not animal welfare, and routine practices in slaughterhouses lead to prolonged animal suffering.
Chickens, for instance, are forcibly hung upside down in leg shackles, resulting in leg fractures. They then pass through an electrified water bath, which immobilizes them but does not render them insensible to pain. Their throats are cut by automated blades, which may miss individual chickens, who then are dumped into scalding water and boiled alive.
Other abuses that occur during slaughter include failing to adequately stun animals, cutting into an animal who is still conscious, excessive force in handling (kicking, punching, and shocking animals), and mistreatment of downed and sick animals.
Alternatives to factory farming
Alternatives to factory farming include plant-based farming systems that meet the nutritional needs of humans without destroying the environment or abusing animals.
Agroecology, permaculture, and organic plant-based farming are all alternatives that can contribute to a viable future without factory farming. These strategies focus on working with ecosystems to improve crop diversity, increase soil health and resilience, and produce culturally and environmentally appropriate foods.
Factory farming facts
It is estimated that worldwide 66% of antibiotics are used in animal agriculture.
More than a million chickens and turkeys are boiled alive every year in US slaughterhouses.
The top 20 global meat and dairy companies emit more greenhouse gases than the UK, France, and Germany.
By 2019 more seafood was being produced globally from farms than wild catch.
US factory farms produce over 296 billion pounds of manure annually.
Families living near factory farms experience higher rates of infant mortality.
Irrigating crops uses nearly 65% of the world’s supply of fresh water, a figure inflated by the inefficient use of grains to feed factory-farmed animals.
Factory farming emphasizes production for profit at the expense of animal welfare, environmental protection, and human health. Because animals are considered commodities with no value as living beings, factory farming is incompatible with animal welfare.
Plant-based farming strategies, like agroecology and permaculture, offer alternatives to factory farming that can safeguard human health and improve and repair the environment, and that do not depend on exploiting animals.