Huge meat companies have steadily driven down the prices farmers receive for the livestock they raise, forcing farms to “get big or get out.” Small farms have been replaced by factory farms that pollute nearby air and water, undermine rural economies, and reduce the quality of life for neighbors.
How Factory Farms Impact You
Over the last two decades, small- and medium-scale livestock farms have given way to factory farms that confine thousands of cows, hogs and chickens in tightly packed facilities. The growth of these factory farms has contributed to a host of environmental, public health, economic, food safety and animal welfare problems. Tens of thousands of animals can generate millions of tons of manure annually, which pollutes water and air and can have health repercussions on neighbors and nearby communities. Consumers in distant markets also feel the impacts, either through foodborne illness outbreaks or other public health risks. Even many factory farm operators are not benefitting from this system of production because they are not getting paid much for the livestock they raise.
The rise of factory farming was no accident. It resulted from public policy choices driven by big agribusinesses, especially meatpackers and processors that dominate the critical steps in the food chain between livestock producers and consumers. The silos and gentle meadows pictured on the labels of the food most Americans buy have little relation to how that food is actually produced. Most of the pork, beef, poultry, dairy and eggs produced in the United States come from large-scale, confined livestock operations.
Too Much Manure
These animals produce tremendous amounts of manure. Large-scale commercial livestock and poultry operations produce an estimated 500 million tons of manure each year, more than three times the sewage produced by the entire U.S. human population.i Unlike the household waste produced in an overwhelming majority of U.S. communities, which have municipal sewer systems, the manure and waste from livestock operations is untreated. Factory farm waste is stored in manure pits or lagoons, and ultimately it is applied to farm fields as fertilizer. As the Wisconsin State Journal noted, “[u]nlike cities, which treat their waste, most of the large farms dispose of manure the same way farmers disposed of it in the Middle Ages – by spreading it on fields as fertilizer.”ii
Small, diversified farms that raise animals as well as other crops have always used manure as fertilizer without polluting water. The difference with factory farms is scale. They produce so much waste in one place that it must be applied to land in quantities that exceed the soil’s ability to incorporate it. The vast quantities of manure can – and do – make their way into the local environment where they pollute the air and water. Manure contains nitrogen, phosphorus and often bacteria that can endanger the environment and human health. Manure lagoons leak, and farmers over-apply manure to their fields, which allows manure and other wastes to seep into local streams and groundwater. Residential drinking wells can be contaminated with dangerous bacteria that can sicken neighbors and the runoff can damage the ecological balance of streams and rivers. In some cases, manure spills that reach waterways can kill aquatic life.
Large quantities of decomposing manure doesn’t just stink, it can be a health hazard as well. Noxious gas emissions from manure holding tanks and lagoons – including hydrogen sulfide, ammonia and methane – can cause skin rashes, breathing problems and headaches, and long-term exposure can lead to neurological problems. For children, senior citizens and adults with other health problems, exposure to these fumes can cause even more problems.
Industrial livestock operations also can create public health hazards in other ways. The facilities are over-crowded and stressful to animals, making it easy for disease to spread. When thousands of beef cattle are packed into feedlots full of manure, bacteria can get on their hides and then into the slaughterhouses. Contamination on even one steer can contaminate thousands of pounds of meat inside a slaughterhouse. In 2010, the crowded, unsanitary conditions at two Iowa egg companies caused a recall of more than half a billion potentially Salmonella-tainted eggs.
Overuse of Antibiotics
Factory farms can create public health concerns beyond foodborne illness. Because over-crowded animals are susceptible to infection and disease, most industrial livestock facilities treat the animals with low-levels of antibiotics to prevent illness and also promote weight gain. By creating a breeding ground for antibiotic-resistant bacteria, the sub-therapeutic dosages used on millions of factory-farmed livestock can reduce the effectiveness of antibiotics for human patients. The feed used for livestock can also introduce public health threats. Broiler chickens often receive arsenic-based feed additives to promote pinker flesh and faster growth, and beef cattle continue to be fed with animal byproducts, which increases the risk of mad cow disease.
These unhealthy conditions and additives not only pose threats to the environment and public health, they are also detrimental to the animals themselves. Most factory-farmed hogs and chickens have no access to the outdoors and never see daylight. Beef cattle and dairy cows spend time outside, but they are crammed onto feedlots with no access to pasture or grass, which is what they are built to eat. The lack of outdoor access, inability to express natural behaviors, health problems and stress caused by production practices, and breeding designed to maximize weight gain or egg and milk production take a toll on animal welfare.
Independent Farmers Suffer
Nor do most farmers benefit from the shift to factory farming. The number of dairy, hog and beef cattle producers in America has declined sharply over the last twenty years as the meatpacking, processing and dairy industries have pressed farmers to increase in scale. Most farmers barely break even. In 2007, more than half of family farmers lost money on their farming operation.iii The tiny handful of companies that dominate each livestock sector exert tremendous control over the prices farmers receive, and they micromanage the day-to-day operations of many farms. The real price that farmers receive for livestock has fallen steadily for the last two decades.
The rapid transformation of livestock production from hundreds of thousands of independent farmers with reasonably sized operations to a few thousand mega-farms did not evolve naturally. Factory farming was facilitated by three policy changes pushed by the largest agribusinesses: A series of farm bills artificially lowered the cost of crops destined for livestock feed; the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ignored factory farm pollution; and the Department of Justice allowed the largest meatpackers to merge into a virtual monopoly.
The stakes are high for the future of livestock production. Because government at all levels has made decisions that contributed to the rise of factory farms, all levels of government must be involved in changing policies and enforcing existing laws to rein in this industry. Food & Water Watch recommends the following courses of action: Congress must restore sensible commodity programs that do not prioritize the production of artificially cheap livestock feed over fair prices to crop farmers. The EPA must implement and enforce appropriate environmental rules to prevent factory farm pollution. The Food and Drug Administration must reverse its approval of controversial hormone, non-therapeutic antibiotic and other livestock treatments that facilitate factory farming at the expense of public health. The USDA must enforce livestock marketing regulations that allow independent livestock producers’ access to markets. State environmental authorities must step up their coordination and enforcement of regulations on factory farms.
For more information, download Factory Farm Nation: the complementary report to the Factory Farm Map
- Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production. “Putting meat on the table: industrial farm animal production in America.” April 2008 at 23. [back]
- Seely, Ron. “Who's watching the farm?” Wisconsin State Journal. February 28, 2010. [back]
- U.S. Department of Agriculture. “2007 Census of Agriculture.” AC-07-A-51. December 2009. Table 5 at 14. [back]