Factory Farming & Animal Rights
So many animals are caught up in factory farming that this is one of the biggest issues in animal rights. Factory farming is global, entrenched, especially in the United States and Europe, and growing in many developing countries.
Farming evokes pastoral scenes of contented cattle and sheep grazing sun-blessed meadows. These scenes once had reality but abruptly ended in the 20th century with the development of factory farming. Animals from factory farms supply most of the meat, dairy produce and eggs in our supermarkets today, yet few people know what factory farms are like or about the animals who live on them.
Epithets for Factory Farming
Ruth Harrison (1920 - 2000) used the term factory farm
in her 1964 book Animal Machines: the new factory farming industry
. Factory farms are so unlike traditional farms that the term gained usage as a pejorative label.
Only in the public mind are factory farms called farms. Official jargon for factory farms in the United States is operations
, not farms
, and the people who manage them are not farmers but operators
. Specifically, factory farms in the US are called AFO's (animal feeding operations) and the biggest ones are called CAFO's (confined animal feeding operations). Other formal Americanisms for factory farm are industrial farm
and corporate farm
, acknowledging the role of industry and business in making factory farms. The formal and long-winded name for factory farming in Britain is intensive livestock husbandry
Characteristics of Factory Farming
Before the rise of factory farms, traditional farms were each owned or managed by a family. Traditional farms were numerous and diversified, growing and raising a mixture of crops and animals. Traditional farms have never been cruelty-free, but their livestock grazed pasture in moderate numbers, breathed fresh air in sunlight and in inclement weather might shelter on straw in barns.
From 1950 all this changed with the invasion of the countryside by factory farms. Factory farms are often owned or highly influenced by corporations and the guiding principle of these businesses is efficiency
Efficiency means producing most product for the least expense.
producing the most produce and hence financial profit for the least expense. Factory farms are most often big, but you can call any size of farm a factory farm depending on how efficiently it raises its animals.
For the purpose of efficiency factory farms participate in many or all of the following characteristics, summarised in this table:
Notes for the Table
Some Characteristics of Factory Farms
||Animals are crammed together in vast numbers: dairy farms 2,000+ cows, pig farms 10,000+ pigs, broiler farms 100,000+ hens. Typical in the US and not unusual in western Europe and other industrialised countries.
||Makes efficient use of space, animal feed, labour and other resources.
||Animals are confined solo to tiny crates (calves, pigs and fowl), or crowded into sheds (broiler chickens and egg-laying hens), or packed into small plots of worn-out land (beef cattle). Such housing prevents normal behaviour as animals cannot exercise or interact properly with peers and may injure or kill one another.
||Needs less land and makes animals easier to handle and maintain.
||Animals are suffused with drugs and other agents. Indiscriminate use of antibiotics increases likelihood that drug-resistant bacteria survive and spread. These bacteria might pass on to humans (eg by people consuming meat or water contaminated with the bacteria), then the antibiotics may be ineffective. Treating animals with growth hormones creates more problems.
||Drugs in the crowded factory farm conditions are meant to avert ill health and prevent disease. The growth hormones make animals grow faster so that more animals go through the system and on to market.
||Animals are commonly mutilated. A mutilation removes or destroys part of an animal for non-healing purposes.
See the entry Mutilation of Farm Animals for a list of mutilations and their purposes.
|Conditions on factory farms are so severe that animals can injure and cannibalise one another. Farmers try to suppress this behaviour by adapting the animals through mutilation to fit in and maintain the efficiency of the factory farming system.
||Factory farmed animals eat all sorts of waste - including shredded plastic for fibre. Food animals tend to be herbivorous yet are fed millions of tonnes of by-products, parts of animals unsuitable for human consumption obtained from slaughterhouses. Feeding slaughterhouse waste to herbivores is now banned in some places because it might make the herbivores more likely to acquire contagious diseases carried by animals from the slaughterhouse. (1)
||Animals are fed unnatural food because it is cheap. Factory farmed animals are a profitable means of disposing of refuse generated by human populations.
||Animals inherit severe problems when made to grow bigger and faster. One problem is that bodies grow too big for legs to support. The legs of chickens and pigs in particular give way, the animals cannot walk, cannot get to food or water and slowly die.
||A way of increasing profits is by making each animal bigger faster.
||A problem besetting all types of factory farm is what to do with animal excrement. Feedlots are US factory farms specialising in fattening cattle for slaughter. Each feedlot can hold hundreds of thousands of cattle on a piece of land. Feedlots are called 'cattle cities' because each one produces as much excrement as a small city of people (2). Disease could spread to people and other animals in contaminated water.
||To keep costs down the waste from all types of factory farm goes untreated or is treated minimally.
(1) Scientists speculate that feeding cattle the remains of cows and sheep spreads Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) or 'mad cow disease'. First detected in 1994, BSE causes the brain to waste away and is lethal. People can catch BSE from infected cattle and several people have died from it (BSE in humans is called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease or vCJD).
(2) Cattle void about nine tonnes of excrement per animal per year. Multiply that by 100,000 animals on one piece of land year after year and you have a lot of sewerage to dispose of.
How Factory Farming Started
You could say factory farming began with chickens in the United States about the 1930's. The big and growing American cities demanded an influx of eggs and meat. Some farmers realised that instead of raising a few hens outdoors they could raise large flocks of hens all year by keeping them indoors. Raising tens of thousands of hens in each of several sheds kept production costs per bird down and problems were gradually overcome by inventing new farming methods.
The farmers specially bred two kinds of chicken: 'broilers' for meat production and egg-layers for egg production. Broilers thrived on cheap feed and the new egg-layers could lay more eggs. Artificial incubators hatched eggs en masse taken from relatively few breeding hens to replenish the system. Male chicks were unwanted (cannot lay eggs) so were killed and went into cheap food or fertilizer.
Large numbers of birds generate massive amounts of excrement but the farmers developed methods of removing waste without interrupting production. Farm hands, instead of clearing away waste periodically, mucked out waste from broiler sheds only after all the birds were sent to the slaughterhouse and before the next batch of broilers arrived. Instead of egg-layers running about freely, farmers confined them to cages with wire-mesh floors so that droppings fell through and farm workers could clear away the waste without moving the cages or stopping egg production.
To counter the pernicious effects of crowding chickens into sheds with no sunlight or fresh air, farmers gave the chickens sulphur drugs to hold back contagious diseases and fed them vitamin D to compensate for loss of sunshine. They threw out ailing and dying chickens with the dead ones because trashing chickens was cheaper than providing them with medical treatment. Hens started injuring and cannibalising one another in their crowded sheds and to reduce this problem they were 'debeaked' - had the distal third of their beaks amputated. Finally, to keep labour costs down, farmers automated lighting, watering and feeding.
Thus the mass chicken and egg production of the 1930's set the pattern for the mass farming of pigs and cattle in the 1960's, bringing to bear the same tools of production: specialised breeding, indoor housing, excrement control, disease control, mutilation, environmental automation, and so on.
Brief Glossary of Factory Farming
- Parts of animals not consumed by people, like brains, guts and hair.
- Cutting off part of the beak of a bird, often a third of the upper and lower beaks. Done to chickens, turkeys and ducks. Also called beak trimming.
- Removing the snood of a turkey. The snood is the skin from the forehead lying over the upper beak. It is pinched off between finger and thumb.
- Destroying the buds on top of the heads of dairy and beef calves and young goats to prevent the growth of their horns. May be done with a hot iron.
- A farm animal who cannot walk any more.
- Clipping, tagging or punching the ears of livestock, usually for identification.
- Making the biggest profits for smallest costs.
- A farm that produces animals with maximum efficiency. The maximum efficiency comes at the price of cruelly treating the animals.
- Cutting bits off animals, such as beaks, claws and tails, for non-healing purposes.
- Inserting a ring through the nasal septum of pigs and cattle. A ring is used to lead or tie up cattle and pigs and a nose ring prevents pigs rooting up soil where rooting is not wanted.
- Unnatural repetitive behaviour, such as shaking the head back and forth or biting the bars of restraining cages, brought on by a lack of a stimulating environment.
- Amputating a tail, often of sheep, pigs and sometimes dairy cows.
- Cutting or grinding away all or most of the teeth of pigs and sheep.
For more on mutilations, see the entry Mutilations of Farm Animals for a list of mutilations and their purposes.
Benefits of Factory Farming
Supporters of factory farming give three chief benefits for the system.
Thanks to factory farming there is more food around today than ever before, at least where factory farming is practised.
Factory farmed food costs less to produce per unit than traditionally farmed food and people demand low cost food to buy in the shops.
Industrialised agriculture makes so much food that it can make a profit by exporting surplus food to other countries. The United States, arch exponent of factory farming, exports much of its agricultural produce.
Morality of Factory Farming
Despite the apparent benefits of factory farming it clashes with animal rights because of different moral outlooks.
The animal rights activist Henry Spira believed factory farming accounts for 95 percent of all animal suffering. Certainly, the factory farming industry and its supporters are creating the greatest suffering and death of domesticated animals in human history, an animal holocaust where literally billions of domesticated animals are factory farmed and transported to mass slaughterhouses every year (see entries listed under Statistics, like Beef Cattle Statistics and Chickens Statistics). How far has humanity the moral right so thoroughly to dominate animal life, and so cruelly?
Toleration for Cruelty
Factory farms create grim lives for their inmates and generate questions about how far society is willing to exploit animals. Factory farming prompts the question of how people can tolerate the production of animals under such conditions: the inhumanity to the animals through drugs, mutilation, confinement, as well as the pollution of nature and the hazard to human health. Unfortunately, factory farming is acceptable to most people because factory farms are hidden from view, people are ignorant about what really happens to farm animals and most people do not ask what is going on. People who know about what happens in factory farms wrongly accept the situation as inevitable and unchangeable.
Rights & The Five Freedoms
Factory farmed animals are sentient creatures, individuals with unique personalities and the urge to survive. Yet factory farmed animals are treated only as units of output. Surely even the most heartless people might agree that animals who give their lives for human benefit deserve some rights or minimum protection from suffering. The Five Freedoms provide a minimum setting of basic welfare: freedom from hunger or thirst, from pain, injury or disease, from fear or distress, from discomfort, and the freedom to express normal behaviour. Most factory farmers show their degree of respect for animals by ignoring the Five Freedoms. (See the entry The Five Freedoms.)
Mutilating factory farmed animals is routine, widespread and epitomises the factory farming system. Mutilations benefit only the operators and are the manifest mark of a bad farming system.
Animals respond to living in factory farms by developing abnormal behaviours, such as pigs biting each other's tails off and hens pecking each other to death. The factory farm 'solution' is to try to fit the animals to the system by cutting off the bits that cause offence. But beaks, tails, horns and teeth are indispensable parts of animals for the animals. For instance, a cow's horns are important for maintaining her social position in the herd hierarchy and her tail communicates her mood to others.
For a list of mutilations see the entry Mutilations of Farm Animals.
Society's practical rebuttal of deep ecology is clearly shown by society's support for factory farming. Factory farming has a materialistic, anthropocentric, consumer-oriented attitude to animals. Factory farming is part of the fibre of shallow ecology: using nature's resources for unregulated human growth, relying on technological solutions to fix socio-economic problems. Factory farming would have no part to play in a truly caring, moral society that expands the circle of compassion to animals. The very presence of factory farming in human society demonstrates how far we are from such a moral state.
See the entries Deep Ecology and Expanding the Circle.
We are each responsible for our own actions not to be cruel and as far as possible not to cause suffering to others. Factory farms are a human invention and we have a choice whether to patronise or spurn their dead products. But the whole system itself needs abandoning; this is what factory farmed animals in their suffering are telling us.
For & Against: argue your case
1. Public Demand for Food
Claim: Only by the production of food on an industrial scale can we meet the growing demand for food in today's world.
Claim: Factory farming is a short-sighted response to burgeoning human populations. We must think in the long-term by reducing the huge human population (birth control such as by better jobs and education for women) and supporting ecologically sustainable agriculture.
2. Variety & Taste
Claim: Factory farming provides an immense variety of tasty food.
Claim: Factory farms churn out huge quantities of the same bland foodstuff that cannot compare in flavour with traditional, more humanely, farmed food.
3. Eating Humanely
Claim: We must all eat to live. Meat is an important source of protein in our diets. So we cannot stop raising food animals.
Claim: We must all eat, but do not have to eat food animals raised inhumanely. Furthermore, some people prefer a healthier vegetarian option.
Claim: Crating or tethering veal calves is a necessary process that allows them to receive individual feeding, care and attention, and helps prevent the spread of disease by limiting inter-calf contact.
Claim: This housing regime is purely for raising calves conveniently and profitably. It has no consideration for calves, who are housed and handled much as automatons.
Claim: Farm hands on factory farms can attend the animals more closely than animals wandering about on traditional farms, so that sick animals are treated faster.
Claim: Workers on factory farms are swamped by massive numbers of animals. They cannot and do not try to attend to them. Sick animals are ignored, killed onsite or sent for slaughter.
Claim: Factory farm operators and vets can best decide about surgical issues, such as tail docking, debeaking and claw removal.
Claim: Factory farm operators are biased and vets serve the system that pays them. The issue of mutilations must be open to influence from impartial opinion across the public spectrum.
7. Factory Farmed Animals Thrive
Claim: Animals kept in intensive systems, like veal calves and fowl for foie gras, cannot be suffering because they thrive and gain weight.
Claim: The animals 'thrive' because the system is geared to force animals to feed and grow. Animals who fall sick are quickly thrown out and die.
8. Humane Standards
Claim: Well-run factory farms exceed the standards set down by governments for humane animal treatment and safe food production.
Claim: The nature of factory farms makes them environmentally dangerous and inhumane. Official safety standards are not always strictly enforced and do not tackle the inhumanity of factory farming.
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