Sustainable America Blog

What is a factory farm?

"Eggs" by Matt MacGillivray via Flickr

A burger is a burger is a burger right? Well, not always so. Where and how your food was raised can make a distinct difference in the taste and nutritional quality of the food. But it’s also important to realize that the food system you choose to support every time you eat can make a difference. Large-scale industrial agriculture contributes to higher oil and fuel usage, more pesticide usage, loss of crop diversity, soil degradation and increased greenhouse gas emissions.

Take factory farming for example. Factory farming has a lot to do with scale. On a typical factory farm, the raising of livestock has taken on the characteristics of a typical industrial factory. Animals are raised in large numbers in small spaces to maximize yield. They are led through a “processing” system from birth through their end of life when they become food products.

The factory farm model is based on a paradigm that arose in America alongside the industrial revolution. As automation of everything became popular, more people moved out of rural environments and into urban environments and farming became less common as a career path.

The government calls these facilities Concentrated or Confined Animal Feeding Operations – CAFO’s for short. This is no longer the typical storybook farm with green pastures and a red barn that lives on in the American mythos. In fact, according to the EPA definition of CAFO’s – “there’s no grass or other vegetation in the confinement area during the normal growing season.” (source)

According to the EPA’s definitions, a large factory farm/CAFO will house at least 1000 cattle, 2500 hogs or 125,000 chickens. A medium factory farm/CAFO will house between 300-999 cattle other than dairy (200-699 if dairy), 750-2,499 hogs if 55 pounds or more, and 37,500 to 124,999 chickens (other than hens that lay eggs) if the facility doesn’t use a liquid manure handling system.

A liquid manure handling system is one in which all the animal’s urine and feces are mixed with water and held either in a tank under the facility itself or outside in open air lagoons. These systems are the source of methane gas and other pollutants. (source)

Why should you care if your food comes from a factory farm? There are a few points of interest that may affect the choices you make at the market.

Animal welfare –

Many animal activists say factory farms promote cruelty because animals are kept in large numbers and small quarters, often without any access to fresh air or pasture. In some cases, the pens or cages are so small that animals can’t turn around.

The World Society for the Protection of Animals has created a Model Farm Project which “is demonstrating how humane farming can be cost-effective and create a sustainable and secure food supply.”

Pharmaceuticals/Antibiotics –

Animals in factory farms are often fed antibiotics to ward off disease and to promote faster growth. The effect of these antibiotics on humans is not totally known, but some recent research is pointing to antibiotic use in animals as a cause of “superbugs”, new antibiotic resistant diseases that are plaguing humans.

The New York Times featured a recent report from Johns Hopkins University’s Center for a Livable Future, “suggesting that poultry on factory farms are routinely fed caffeine, active ingredients of Tylenol and Benadryl, banned antibiotics and even arsenic.”

Waste and Pollution –

The manure and liquid waste from factory farms can pollute air and waterways. Some even leaches into nearby groundwater.

In 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency undertook a study to examine the pollution produced by large factory farms. The study, which was released with oversight from the Environmental Integrity Project (a non-profit non partisan organization dedicated to the enforcement of the nation’s anti-pollution laws) showed that the air around the CAFO’s studied, “may be unsafe, with levels of particulate matter, ammonia, or hydrogen sulfide at many sites [being] well above federal health-based standards.”

The full report is available here.

An interesting fact to consider: Factory farms are considered agricultural rather than industrial. This designation exempts the operations from the typical regulation that a commercial operation of their scale and waste production would normally warrant.1

According to a Mother Jones article, released last week, the Environmental Protection Agency just withdrew proposed rules it had previously written which would have monitored factory farms on a basic level. Information like the number of animals kept and methods of manure disposal are currently not being tracked by the agency.

Sustainable America is concerned with taking the oil out of our food and making our country healthier by localizing food sources and encouraging the consumption of fresh, whole foods. Locally produced and consumed food takes less imported oil to produce and transport and is typically healthier for you all around.

What you can do – Some simple ways to shift the tide towards more local, sustainable farming practices can be found in our blogs:

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By the Numbers

Currently 50 million households suffer from food insecurity, meaning that family members cannot always meet their basic food needs.

10 million people a year could be fed through the recovery of just one-fifth of food waste.

Only 2% of food waste is composted or otherwise recycled—62% of paper is recycled.

Consumers throw out about 40% of the fresh and frozen fish they buy.

The U.S. produced 208 pounds of meat per person in 2009—60% more than Europe.

Low income commuters spend a much higher proportion of their wages on gas—8.6% versus 2.1% at $4 per gallon.

Food prices rose 35-40 percentage points between 2002–2008.

Americans consume 25% of the world’s produced oil, but our nation holds less than 3% of the world’s proven oil reserves.

The International Energy Agency says greenhouse gas emissions rose 3.2% last year, with a 9.3% increase in China offsetting declines in the US and EU.

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