Introduction to Factory Farming
Factory farming is a modern system of farming animals which uses highly intensive methods, and prioritises profit. Animals are kept in cramped, overcrowded conditions with a lack of environmental enrichment, poor hygiene standards and low animal welfare.
Although exact conditions vary between countries and species, there is one unifying factor in all factory farming and that is that it is wholly unnatural. Over the past century animal farming has mutated from family run small holdings, to a ruthless profit-driven machine – an industrialised, fast-moving production line that prioritises profit over the welfare of animals, humans and our planet.
Instead of grazing on fields, animals are now often confined in their thousands, and sometimes millions, in giant metal sheds condemned to a life where they will never feel the grass under their feet or the sun on their face.
Selective breeding for maximum production causes animals immense suffering as they struggle to move under the weight of their oversized bodies or udders. Disease and injury run rife meaning that animals need to be propped up on a cocktail of antibiotics and drugs just to keep them alive long enough to slaughter, or take their milk.
The main animals we think of as being factory farmed globally are chickens, pigs and cows. However, other species including fish, shellfish, rabbits, ducks, turkeys and other poultry are also factory farmed in staggering numbers.
Fish are an animal that we tend to forget is factory farmed. Almost half (47 per cent) of fish eaten worldwide are kept in fish farms which echo the dismal and unnatural conditions that factory farmed livestock are kept in. 1Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), 2018. The State of the World Fisheries and Aquaculture. Available at http://www.fao.org/3/i9540en/I9540EN.pdf
By far the most factory farmed land animal in the world is the chicken. There are at least 20 billion chickens alive in the world at any one time – that’s almost three times the number of humans 2 Statista.com. 2018. Number of chickens worldwide in 2018, by country. Available at: https://www.statista.com/statistics/263961/top-countries-worldwide-by-chicken-stock-2007/ . Fifty billion are killed annually across the world. The vast majority of these are kept packed in vast sheds.
At least half of the world’s pigs are factory farmed – most born inside metal crates and incarcerated for the whole of their short lives. 3 FAWC. 2015. Opinion on Free Farrowing Systems. Farm Animal Welfare Council [online] Available from: www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/478588…
Cows too are factory farmed – for both their milk and meat. In the US over 40 per cent of beef cows are factory farmed in eye-wateringly gigantic feedlots with 32,000 other cattle or more. They are confined in barren enclosures devoid of grass – standing in mud and excreta, each typically housing 100 to 125 animals 4 Big Picture Beef, 2017. https://www.bigpicturebeef.com/feedlot-beef . Increasingly in the UK dairy farmers are turning to zero grazing to cut costs and increase productivity.
Whilst it is often claimed that the UK has some of the highest welfare standards in the world, the tragic reality is that around 85 per cent of the UK’s farmed land animals live in factory farms.
That means that at any one time, more than 800 million animals (excluding fish), live in intensive, unnatural conditions that we wouldn’t wish on our worst enemy.
From smallholdings to megafarms
The traditional image of British farming is one of cows grazing lazily on rolling hills, chickens clucking happily in meadows. This image of so-called rural perfection, portrayed on milk cartons and free-range egg adverts bears very little resemblance to modern farming in the UK today.
The reality is, to produce the billions of sausages, burgers, litres of milk and eggs to feed the British public’s appetite for animal products, animal farming is becoming ever more industrialised. The more animals that can be ‘processed’ in the shortest time on the least amount of land, the cheaper their products become.
The Environment Agency licenses almost 2,000 intensive poultry and pig farms. There are now at least 800 ‘megafarms’, gigantic scale intensive farms operating in the UK. The biggest house more than a million chickens, 20,000 pigs or 2,000 dairy cows, in expansive factory units. The number of megafarms in the UK rose by more than 25 per cent in the six years leading up to 2017 and continues to climb.1Wasley, A & Davies, M. 2017. The rise of the “megafarm”: How British meat is made. Available at: https://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/stories/2017-07-17/megafarms-uk-intensive-farming-meat
Over 95 per cent of chickens reared for meat in the UK are intensively reared, living in crowded, giant sheds where they will never get to see the light of day. Their short life is cruel and painful – from birth to death in only six to seven weeks. They are selectively bred to grow so quickly that their bones can’t support their weight.
For 42 per cent of egg-laying hens their lives will be spent caged,1Egginfo.co.uk. 2020. UK Egg Industry Data|Official Egg Info. Available at: https://www.egginfo.co.uk/egg-facts-and-figures/industry-information/data [Accessed 1 May 2020]. many of the rest live in industrial-scale ‘free range’ farms where they never venture outdoors.
Poultry farms are the biggest intensive farms in the UK housing huge numbers of birds in cramped conditions. Seven out of the 10 largest poultry farms in the UK house more than one million birds.2Wasley, A Harvey, F, Davies, M and Child, D. 2017. UK has nearly 800 livestock mega farms, investigation reveals. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jul/17/uk-has-nearly-800-livestock-mega-farms-investigation-reveals
It’s not just chickens either – the vast majority of other poultry such as ducks and turkeys are also factory farmed. Ducks have no access to water for swimming or preening and like broiler chickens and turkeys, are kept in giant-sized sheds in their tens of thousands.
Factory farmed chickens, turkeys and ducks are some of the most abused animals on earth, and that’s no different in the UK. Viva!’s investigations have uncovered broiler chickens, egg laying hens, turkeys and ducks in appalling states – injured, diseased, disfigured. Many are left to die in dark overcrowded sheds, all of which supplied major UK supermarkets.
Most pigs are factory farmed in the UK. Only two per cent of pigs will get to spend the entirety of their lives outside.3CPRE.org.uk. 2019. The future of pig and poultry farming. Available at: https://www.cpre.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/The_future_of_pig_and_poultry_farming.pdf Almost all pigs, even if they are born in outdoor systems, will be moved to indoor finishing sheds when they are only 10 weeks old. Almost two thirds of mother pigs are still forced to give birth in crates in the UK.
Pigs are one of the most intelligent species on the planet and yet we condemn most of them to conditions that would not look out of place in a horror film.
Viva! have carried out dozens of high profile investigations into pig farms in the UK, exposing horrendous conditions and suffering including cannibalism, diseased, injured, and dying pigs and dead pigs left to rot on factory farm floors.
Aside from the obvious animal welfare issues of factory farming pigs, there are also severe risks when it comes to pandemics. The Swine flu pandemic of 2009 killed hundreds of thousands worldwide, and scientists warn that a pandemic beginning in a pig farm is a very real threat.4Cohen, J. 2020.Swine flu strain with human pandemic potential increasingly found in pigs in China. Available at: https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/06/swine-flu-strain-human-pandemic-potential-increasingly-found-pigs-china [Accessed 23 September 2020]
In terms of numbers of animals, fish are the second largest to be slaughtered for food in the UK, after chickens.5Mood, A., 2017. ‘Estimated numbers of individuals in aquaculture production of fish species’. Fishcount. Available at http://fishcount.org.uk/studydatascreens2/2017/numbers-of-farmed-fish-B0-2017.php?countrysort=United%2BKingdom%2Fsort2 [Accessed 28 April 2020]. The most commonly farmed species in the UK is the Atlantic salmon with around one million salmon meals eaten every day in Britain.6Adams, L., 2019. ‘Is there a problem with salmon farming?’. BBC News 20 May. Available at https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-48266480 [Accessed 28 April 2020]. One hundred per cent of Scottish Atlantic salmon are reared on intensive fish farms. Their innate desire to migrate and swim free, completely thwarted.
Much like land-based factory farms, fish farms restrict fish from being able to carry out their natural behaviours. They are often dirty and overcrowded and fish suffer from a range of serious welfare issues, particularly infestations of flesh eating lice.
Fish farms also come with a heavy environmental cost – they pollute and contaminate coastal waters, and as every pound of farmed salmon consumes around three pounds of wild-caught fish as food, there are far more lives lost.7Gross, L., 2008. ‘Can Farmed and Wild Salmon Coexist?’. PLoS Biology 6 (2) e46. Available at https://journals.plos.org/plosbiology/article?id=10.1371/journal.pbio.0060046 [Accessed 28 April 2020].
Despite the myth of contentment, a dairy cow is the hardest worked of all farmed animals. She nurtures a growing baby inside her while simultaneously producing milk – an average 26 litres (46 pints) per day. To keep the flow going, she is forcibly impregnated every year and her babies are taken away a day or two after birth – year, after year, after year. All calves are taken away from their mothers between 12 and 48 hours after birth.
A dairy cow spends seven months of every year both pregnant and producing large quantities of milk at the same time. This enormous physical demand means that diseases such as mastitis (inflammation of the udders) affect 38 to 50 per cent of dairy cows and is a major reason they are killed young.8Cattle Health and Welfare Group, 2016. Third Report of the GB Cattle Health & Welfare Group [online]. Available from: http://beefandlamb.ahdb.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/CHAWG-Third-Report-2016-051216.pdf [Accessed 6 January 2019].
Cows, however, are generally not considered to be factory farmed in the UK as they are allowed to graze outdoors for at least six months of the year. However, this is changing – around 16 per cent, over 2,000 farms in the UK, now use zero or severely restricted grazing systems in an attempt to increase profit.9Arnott, G., Ferris, CP., O’Connell, NE., 2017. ‘Review: Welfare Of Dairy Cows In Continuously Housed And Pasture-based Production Systems’. Animal 11, (2), pp. 261-273.
Globally, 75 billion animals (excluding fish) are killed for meat every year. If you add fish and shellfish to this, the number becomes unfathomable and is in the trillions. Of these land animals it is estimated that about three quarters are factory farmed1Anthis, JR. 2019. US Factory Farming Estimates. Available at: https://www.sentienceinstitute.org/us-factory-farming-estimates [Accessed 15 November 2020]. – imprisoned and robbed of the ability to fulfill their natural behaviours. Almost half of all fish eaten globally are from intensively farmed fish.2Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), 2018. The State of the World Fisheries and Aquaculture. Available at http://www.fao.org/3/i9540en/I9540EN.pdf [Accessed 15 November 2020]. This number has been growing rapidly over recent decades to meet the demand from a soaring world population.
In some countries, such as the US, up to 99 percent of animals are factory farmed, kept in conditions much worse than any prison for the entirety of their short lives – their only crime to be born into their species.1Anthis, JR. 2019. US Factory Farming Estimates. Available at: https://www.sentienceinstitute.org/us-factory-farming-estimates [Accessed 15 November 2020].
Factory farming is bad news for animals, the planet and for our health. It is widely acknowledged that farming animals is unsustainable and risks disastrous consequences in the coming decades.
Intensive farming robs animals of the ability to carry out any of their natural behaviours. Pigs will never root in the ground or bathe in the mud, dairy cow mothers will never nurse their calves, ducks are denied their most fundamental needs – to be able to swim, feed and play on water.
All mother animals have their young ripped from them. Most factory farmed animals are killed as babies. No farmed animal wants to die.
Factory farming create stressed, injured, and diseased animals that are then packaged up and sold in supermarkets – often marketed as ‘high welfare’ or Red Tractor approved.
The environmental impact of factory farming is colossal. Factory farms are a major contributor of greenhouse gas emissions – accounting for around 15 per cent of the world’s total 1 FAO.org. 2006. Livestock’s Long Shadow. Available at: http://www.fao.org/3/a-a0701e.pdf . It is also incredibly water intensive – not only to rear the animals themselves but to irrigate the crops that they are fed.
Intensive farms pollute rivers and lakes causing algal blooms which suffocate waterways and destroy entire ecosystems.
Factory farming is also a major cause of deforestation – a third of the world’s cereal harvest is fed to industrially-reared animals – much of which is grown on deforested land.
Factory farming is one of the biggest threats to global health. From chronic disease, to future pandemics and the constant underlying threat of antibiotic resistance, we need to end factory farming before it ends us.
About three quarters of the world’s antibiotics are fed to farmed animals, largely to ward off diseases inevitable under intensive conditions. Antibiotic resistance is an ever-looming threat and it is predicted that if we carry on the way we’re going, it could kill more people worldwide than cancer by 2050. 2 Walsh, F. 2014. Superbugs to kill ‘more than cancer’ by 2050. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-30416844
Meanwhile pandemics, even more deadly the Covid-19, are ready to spring up from the ideal environments that factory farms create for them to thrive.