Why "factory farms" are more complicated than you think
Factory farms used to be a good thing. In some ways they still are.
I used to avoid using the words “factory farm.” Much like the initialism GMO, I felt it was more emotional than technically accurate. I also assumed it was created by critics of Big Ag to connote something that’s mechanized and impersonal, the opposite of a family farm. But it turns out the term’s early uses weren’t by factory farm critics at all, but by its boosters. According to food politics and cultural researcher Chad Lavin:
While today the term is used almost exclusively in critiques of agribusiness, earlier usage was clearly more optimistic, heralding the potential benefits of applying the scientific knowledge of management and organization to farms. From within the perspective of industrial progress, the factory farm promised greater efficiency, higher crop yields, and more predictable commodities markets.
Large-scale or industrial farming or factory farms — whatever you want to call them, are farms designed to maximize efficiency, just like a factory. The scale and the efficiency mean these farms require fewer resources, which also translates to lower greenhouse gas emissions. That’s a good thing. Proponents of Big Ag, industrial agriculture, whatever you want to call it — are happy to tout the efficiency of the system.
But everything is a tradeoff. When the factory product is meat, the widgets are animals. And everything gets a lot more complicated because each type of meat comes with its own set of costs, to the environment, the animal’s welfare and the surrounding communities.
Chicken and pork can be produced using less land than beef but the manure (particularly with pork) is a leading source of water pollution. Cattle require more land for grazing (even if they’re finished on a feedlot) as well as the land dedicated to raising soy and corn for their feed, but beef cattle also live longer than chicken or pork, anywhere from a year to eighteen months for beef, most of which is spent grazing.
There’s also a human cost. Someone has to do the dangerous work of breaking down meat from the carcass, which requires shoulder-to-shoulder work in dark, dirty and dangerous conditions. Almost 90,000 meatpacking plant workers contracted Covid over the course of the pandemic; hundreds died. Government agencies eliminated rules requiring slower slaughter line speeds to avoid a meat shortage, and more worker injuries followed.
There are alternatives to factory farms for producing meat. Raising smaller amounts of livestock can produce manageable amounts of manure to fertilize soil. Farmers can also raise meat with very high levels of animal welfare, like building a structure that allows a relatively small number of chickens to peck around but also hide out from predators, for example. There are models that pay human workers fairly. But for most of those systems to work, we also have to give up cheap and abundant meat. So when we talk about climate-food systems solutions, it’s not that we have to pursue the solutions that still rely on the factory farming model (albeit with policies that push for more sustainable models of intensification). It’s just that there really isn’t a set of solutions where consumers can just avoid thinking about the food system and not make any changes at all. Everything is a tradeoff, and we need to be thinking through these tradeoffs now. There’s no more time for delay.
Rather obvious comment: the perils of underregulated meat packing plants are the same whether the animals are factory-farmed or free-ranging. Despite which, I long since decided to avoid meat produced under conditions of such cruelty, pay more, and eat less