Imagine 600,000 hens confined in seven sheds — with a total of four workers to care for them and cages so dilapidated that birds often became entangled in frayed wires and died horribly.
That was the situation at one massive egg farm in the U.S. state of Pennsylvania in 2005, and while it may represent a worst case scenario of factory farming, critics say the treatment of animals is just one of a wide array of health and environmental problems plaguing the industry.
Industrial-scale farming took off after the Second World War, and especially during the 1950s, due to advances in the use of synthetic hormones and antibiotics, which make animals bigger and infer greater immunity to disease under crowded conditions.
Proponents say these massive farms are more efficient and have lowered the cost of meat, dairy and eggs for a growing number of consumers.
But there is also clear evidence that factory farms have contributed to international crises ranging from the bird flu outbreak to global warming.
In Laos, 42 of the 45 outbreaks of avian flu in the spring of 2004 occurred on factory farms.
The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation reports that livestock operations now generate 18 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions (as measured in carbon dioxide equivalent). The problem is not just methane and manure, but also land-use changes, and the use of energy to produce fertilisers, run the slaughterhouses and meat-processing plants, and pump water.
Industrial farms produce vast amounts of animal waste. One lagoon of pig manure that burst in 1995 released 25 million gallons of nitrous sludge into North Carolina’s New River. The spill reportedly killed eight to ten million fish.
According to the Worldwatch Institute, 74 percent of the world’s poultry, 43 percent of beef, and 68 percent of eggs are now produced on factory farms.
In the United States, just four companies have come to dominate the industry, producing 81 percent of cows, 73 percent of sheep, 57 percent of pigs and 50 percent of chickens.
Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food and Water Watch, a vocal critic of industrial-scale farming, spoke with IPS correspondent Mark Weisenmiller about the organisation’s latest research, including a map depicting the concentration of factory farms across the United States.
IPS: In the state of North Carolina, there are now more hogs than people. How has this affected quality of life?
PL: North Carolina is the classic example of everything that’s wrong with factory farms. Even there, factory farming is concentrated in but a few counties. For people there, they feel that they are trapped. They can’t open their windows for fresh air because of the stench that factory farms create. There are water pollution problems in North Carolina that are a direct result of factory farming. There are numerous health-related problems there due to factory farming.
IPS: Who do you think is to blame for the current situation?
PL: It’s been going on for a while. You could point the finger at the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), the U.S. Congress, state governments and agribusinesses. Both political parties (the Democrats and the Republicans) have controlled the U.S. Congress since factory farming has become a problem, so both parties can be blamed.
The EPA has tried for 20 years to start a system of factory farming using and backing a clean water act, but the agribusiness corporations keep picking these systems apart (through intensive lobbying efforts).
IPS: You recommend that the EPA place a moratorium on new factory farms and the expansion of existing facilities. Could such a move effectively destroy many U.S. farmers’ livelihoods?
PL: What we’re saying is that there should be no new ones (factory farms). We would argue that doing this would force us to address the issues that are the core of factory farming. We don’t think that factory farms are a great model for farmers.
IPS: According to the Food and Water Watch map, Iowa is the top polluter nationwide, at a rate almost three times worse than Minnesota, which ranked number two. What immediate things can Iowans do to lower their pollution?
PL: They should stop building factory farms and the ones now working there should cease operations. At the end of the day, there’s too many animals in one place. It’s too much manure in one place, which is simply unhealthy for both the animals and also people who eat these animals after they are slaughtered.
IPS: You based your report and map on U.S. Department of Agriculture figures. But did you ever actually send canvassers and researchers to these factory farms in all 50 states to see the conditions first-hand?
PL: No, because the USDA is very careful not to give out addresses of these factory farms. We tried other ways to get this information but didn’t get a good response. We didn’t get good results, which led us to the USDA figures and to use them as the basis for our figures.
IPS: Is factory farming a problem primarily in the U.S.?
PL: It’s a method that is now being exported to other countries. The one area of the world we’re most aware of is Eastern Europe. In Asia, there are more fish farms than factory farms. So it’s an international problem that is different in different regions of the world.