By: Maia Zasler
From: Sciences Po Menton
There is little scholarly dispute as to whether or not factory farming is detrimental in cases concerning the environment, animal rights, and public nutrition and health. The highly industrialized manner of meat processing prioritizes mass production over all else. With origins in the rise of industrial agriculture in the United States (1850-1950s), the factory farming industry has since proved practically impervious to lawsuits and social movements aimed at combating its destructive and inherently unsustainable nature.
The United States continues to consume meat unlike any other nation: Americans eat the most meat in the world per capita (projections illustrate that by the end of 2023, the average American will have eaten a record 225 lbs of meat over the course of the year, 99% of which is likely to have come from factory farms) (Thomson 2023) (Animal Equity 2023). This culture of excess consumption has seemingly metastasized; factory farming has recently seen an upward trend in several countries classified as “developing” e.g. the Philippines, Brazil, China, and Ethiopia. Why does this system not only persist, but propagate? What are viable alternatives? Perhaps, most importantly, what are the elements that hinder the pursuit of such alternatives?
Origins of “Modern” Meat Consumerism & Sources of Demand
Production of meat has increased threefold in the last 50 years. 19th and 20th century technological advancements in agriculture steadily turned a historically low-scale, natural tradition of raising livestock into an extremely mechanized and highly unsanitary process (Ritchie, et al. 2023). The ability to mass produce and place cheap meat products on the market generated great public demand. This was accompanied by a shift in cultural interpretation; meat consumption was equated with the affluence of "developed" nations. This same time period also marked a shift in nutrition discourse, centering meat as a necessary protein in one’s diet. Rendering meat products accessible allowed for diversity of nutrition, a valued range of choice that has also helped keep demand inflated. With the United States as a quintessential model, government subsidies have aided in incentivizing rapid production, further driving demand through the subsequent lowering of packaged meat prices.
Although in the United States these subsidies still largely exist,—in 2022, U.S. Department of Agriculture livestock subsidies neared 50 billion USD—stricter environmental laws have been drafted (Environmental Working Group 2023). As environmental regulations become stronger, larger agribusiness relocate their animal production operations to nations with few or overall “less stringent enforcement of environmental laws” (Nierenberg and Coe 2003). These companies and their methods bring with them a host of environmental, animal welfare, and (food) safety issues. They also destroy local businesses in the process.
The Global South accounted for two-thirds of the gains in meat consumption in 2002. This is a conglomeration of countries where “urbanization, rising incomes, and globalized trade are changing diets and fueling appetites for meat and animal products” (Nierenberg and Coe 2003). Therefore, we must not only look to the U.S. as a candidate for internal reform, but as a source and representative model that necessitates restructuring.
Factory Farming in the Global South
i. The Philippines
Following World War II, foreign aid in the growth of industrial agriculture was seen as a means of development for “Third World” countries. The Philippines, a nation with close, dependent economic relations with the United States following almost five decades of colonial rule (1898-1946), has been subject to particular influence.
Firstly, the Filipino diet has changed. The presence of American-style fast food (with food sourced from American-style factory farms) has disrupted the traditional emphasis on rice, vegetables, and little meat. Since the 1970s—which marked the opening of Jollibee, the Filipino version of McDonald’s—the rise in chain restaurants has kept demand for factory farmed meat high; it has also spurred a rise in rates of heart disease, diabetes, and stroke to “numbers similar to those in the United States” (Nierenberg and Coe 2003)
Foreign initiatives are not solely responsible for the expansion of factory farms; Filipino support of industrialized farming as a lucrative business venture has contributed to its popularization. Scaling-up is rewarded, much like in the United States. Small farmers are unable to compete. There is little legislative protection of the environment or animals. To exacerbate matters, foreign actors (including the U.S.) actively promote the use of artificial fertilizers and pesticides, inflicting environmental harm and enabling the continuation of damaging practices.
However, among Filipinos, there is steadily increasing consciousness about where food is sourced. The movement is admittedly behind those in the U.S. / the Global North, but it is definitely present. As it concerns the Philippines, the movement has manifested in criticisms of chains like Jollibee and in growing pressures on firms to adopt more sustainable sourcing policies.
Brazil is a “high-volume animal producer” (Voiceless Animal Cruelty Index 2023). There are around eight farmed animals per person (compared to the global average of 4.1, and the Philippines' average of 2). Brazil is also one of the world’s largest exporters of beef—as well as poultry and pork—with their largest markets in China and Hong Kong. This dependency on meat as both a domestic good and important export has an acute effect on the environment. Not only does the construction of concentrated animal feeding operations and slaughterhouses create devastating (toxic) waste and air pollution problems, the destruction of wildlife and forestry also occurs.
As demonstrated by the graph, deforestation in the last few decades has been disproportionately driven by clearing land for raising beef / cattle. The irreparable loss to biodiversity and enduring effects on the climate crisis cannot be ignored; there is a clear relationship between unsustainable food choices, in Brazil and abroad, and detriments to the planet’s health.
In 2009, cattle traders and beef producers “committed not to buy cattle from illegally forested land,” yet the Amazon rainforest is still slashed and burned, losing thousands of square kilometers every year (Center for Strategic & International Studies 2023). One report from the Center for Strategic & International Studies states that:
Scientists and activists have attributed the continued deforestation to “cattle laundering,” which is the practice of moving cattle from illegal, “dirty” ranches to legal, “clean” ranches, obfuscating the environmental impact and origins of the cattle.
This calls for further government / political involvement. An example of productive action taken this year (September, 2023) is the Brazilian government’s launching of their first Sovereign Sustainable Bond Framework. These green, social, and sustainability bonds can be used to help support programs in line with sustainable development goals including the eradication of deforestation and providing infrastructure for sustainable food systems / agriculture.
China has the highest demand for pork products and is the world’s leading pork producer (totaling around 50 million metric tons of pork per year) (Statista 2023). Thus, the nation's most prevalent and prolific factory farms go to “raising” pigs.
The expansion of the pork industry in China has occurred in tandem with the Chinese government’s effort to modernize agriculture in a manner reflective of American concentrated animal feeding operations / the up-scaling process. It is also closely linked to the United States itself as a trading and business partner.
To expand the pork industry, the Chinese government has set a precedent looking to invest in large American agribusiness. Smithfield, the largest U.S. pork producer to date—slaughtering almost 18 million pigs each year—was taken over by a Chinese holding company in 2013 (Mishler 2023).
High-rise “pig hotels'' have made headlines: sky-scraper mega-farms reaching 26 floors dedicated to producing over a million piglets a year. These isolated facilities are intended to minimize land area and to protect herds from rampant diseases such as African swine fever (which can wipe out millions of these firm’s inventory). They are truly mechanized and remove most room for human error / dangers related to unskilled labor. They also allow China to keep up with elevated demand.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization projects that beef consumption on the African continent will double by 2050 (as the human population on the continent is also expected to double). Ethiopia is Africa’s second most populous country. A nation whose regions, including the Tigray, Amhara, and Afar, face food insecurity due to ongoing political conflict as well as flooding and desert locusts destroying crops. The expansion of factory farming practices is, in this case, an attempt to meet the needs of the population, rather than just to feed an ever-increasing demand.
Since the population has little to no purchasing power, those raising livestock attempt to do so in the cheapest way possible. The biggest concern about these efforts is losing traditional farming practices and allowing the proliferation of animal rights abuses. The factory farming facilities that are centralized and densely packed with livestock tend to be hubs for mishandling and the spread of disease and injury.
There must be a prioritization of simultaneously improving and preserving the small-scale operations already present. Nutrition needs should be ideally met without resorting to importing foreign meat. Sub-saharan countries are at a precipice; the pathway one must choose now will determine a trajectory towards potentially damaging industrialization or pastoral methods that fall short of sufficient yield.
Alternatives to the Factory Farming Model
The alternative to the factory farming model is not necessarily its opposite; in fact, that future would be untenable. We must forge a middle ground in order to build a future in which we can feed a growing world population in a manner that does not destroy natural environments and resources or inflict harm on animal and human populations.
For the United States and in other nations where factory farming is fairly developed, this means descaling and encouraging sustainable and regenerative practices. Governmental policy plays a central role; lobbying and voting power should be directed towards candidates who are willing to redirect subsidies and to institute higher environmental thresholds, controls on antibiotic use in livestock, and animal rights legislation.
Investment in small and midsize farms instead of in large corporations / agribusiness cannot solely be realized through select purchasing power; it too must come from federal involvement. For the United States specifically, legislation that ensures that federal taxpayer-funded assistance does not go towards large-scale or concentrated animal feeding operations remains critical.
In the Global South, solutions vary. Education and awareness can aid in promoting social consciousness and action to prevent the institutionalization of American-style factory farms e.g. the Philippines and calls for sustainable sourcing. This element of transparency is vital in every case, but especially in the United States; journalists and photographers are often barred from entry to concentrated animal feeding operations. Technological advancements can be used to address issues generated by these problematic, industrialized systems. New software (Visipec) developed by the Gibbs Lab at the University of Wisconsin and the National Wildlife Federation shows promise at “helping meatpacking companies in Brazil strengthen their supply chain management systems and gain further insight into nodes further up the supply chain” (Center for Strategic & International Studies 2023). This will ostensibly allow cattle traders and beef producers to avoid purchasing meat from pastures created through illegal deforestation. In China, the consolidation of pig farming to high-rise buildings addresses the issue of land use, but critics say it raises the risk of disease outbreaks. Legal reform is thus also necessary, concerning both animal welfare and environmental standards (e.g. water / waste treatment). In Ethiopia and other Sub-Saharan African nations, the development and implementation of water storing technologies can increase crop yield and farmers’ income, improve conditions for farm animals (in cases of nutrition and overall well-being), and support mixed farming over the expansion of factory farms (Compassion in World Farming).
There are a plethora of factors concerning the perpetuity of factory farms: economic, political, and social. Factory farms are so deeply ingrained into the world trade order and global demand that it is admittedly difficult to untangle the web of problems they create, let alone the issue of the farms themselves. Transparency and education must occur in tandem with federal action (with the United States spearheading the effort) in order to bring about yet another cultural shift of social / economic development and affluence associated with factory farming.
Meat is an important element for many cultures; meals serve to connect families, communities, and they are central to tradition. Therefore, calls for vegetarianism are futile and ineffective. But, perhaps further discourse on the topic will help to combat fully dispassionate attitudes towards the perception of animals and gather more robust criticism and movement away from factory farming.
This is not an issue that can be ignored. As our world trends towards further globalization and industrialization, we must think about what we are eating and where it is coming from. We cannot afford to do otherwise.
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