Environmental damage

Factory farming is a dirty business, contaminating the natural world and damaging diverse ecosystems.

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Climate change

Factory farming intensifies climate change, releasing vast volumes of greenhouse gases.

We now know that man-made climate change is real and that it poses a great threat to the planet and its inhabitants. Current data suggest that we need to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions in developed countries by at least 80% by 2050 in order to have a chance of staying below an average temperature rise of over 2ºC1. Factory farming is a major contributor to the climate change challenge, releasing vast volumes of greenhouse gases.

A wide variety of sources of carbon dioxide

Factory farming produces greenhouse gases throughout the 'supply chain'; for example, forest clearance to grow the crops and rear the animals reduces vital carbon 'sinks' and releases gases previously stored in the soil and vegetation.

An energy-hungry industry

Factory farming also requires large amounts of energy in order to function. This isn't just to rear the animals, but also to grow the vast amounts of feed they need. According to a study published by The Royal Society2, feed is the dominant energy user, taking around 75% of the total energy required. The rest is needed for factors such as heating, lighting and ventilation.

But carbon dioxide isn't the only issue

It's not just carbon dioxide that's the problem - gases including methane and nitrous oxide are also produced in significant quantities, released through various sources including animal waste and fertiliser use. Livestock farming produces 37% and 65% of our global methane and nitrous oxide emissions respectively3. Both gases are much more potent than carbon dioxide.

Climate change will make farming harder

Climate change is already harming food production4 and these impacts are projected to increase over time, with potentially devastating effects. Higher temperatures, for example, could place further stress on water-scarce regions and make it harder to rear animals and grow food crops. According to the Convention on Biological Diversity5 climate change may affect plant growth and production by promoting the spread of pests and diseases, increasing exposure to heat stress and encouraging soil erosion due to stronger winds.

But don't just take our word for it

Factory-farmed beef requires twice as much fossil fuel energy input as pasture-reared beef.

Pimentel (2004)6

Livestock farming accounts for around 14.5% of our global greenhouse gas emissions - more than the global transport sector.

United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO) (2006)7

Added heat stress, shifting monsoons, and drier soils may reduce yields by as much as a third in the tropics and subtropics, where crops are already near their maximum heat tolerance.

United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) (2001)8

So what?

Factory farming intensifies climate change. By taking action against factory farming, we are not just creating a food and farming revolution; we are also tackling one of the world's greatest sustainability challenges.

Want to fight climate change?

Pledge to help end factory farming! Submit your email address to allow Compassion in World Farming to send you urgent campaign actions and news (you can unsubscribe at any time).

Biodiversity loss

Factory farming endangers the natural world, threatening the survival of many animals and plants.

We rely on the health of ecosystems for our general wellbeing - they provide our food, our water, even our air9. In 1997, a group of scientists stated that the services provided by our ecosystems, if properly valued, would be worth around US$33 trillion every year10. Despite this, the survival of countless plant and animal species around the world is currently threatened11. While there is a range of factors driving this extinction crisis, a critical component is factory farming.

Toxic outputs

Factory farming can create a range of pollution problems, fragmenting and even destroying natural habitats. This can drive out or even kill the animals and plants that inhabit them. The range of wastes from factory farms can be particularly problematic, leaking into water courses and, in the worst cases, leaving vast "dead zones", where few species can survive. Some of the nitrogen will also become gaseous, turning into ammonia, for instance, which creates problems such as water acidification and ozone layer depletion.

The rush for land

The deliberate destruction of natural habitats is also a significant driver of biodiversity loss. Because the farm animals need to eat so much, we need a lot of land to grow the feed. In fact, around one third of the world's crop lands are already given over to growing animal feed3. Unfortunately, because space for crops is already at a premium, we are seeing a push for land in parts of Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa, including environmentally valuable grasslands and forests. Between 1980 and 2000, an area over 25 times the size of the UK was created in the developing world for new farmland - over 10% of this was at the expense of existing tropical forests. The scientists who discovered this concluded that intensive agriculture, rather than family farms, was the dominant driver12. The problem isn't just limited to tropical regions though; increasing pressure on crop lands around Europe, for example, is leading to the disappearance of a wide variety of plants and animals13.

A changing climate

As covered in our climate change section, factory farming produces substantial greenhouse gas emissions - 14.5% of our total emissions in fact, which is more than the global transport sector3. These emissions are intensifying climate change and making certain habitats increasingly hostile to live in. According to the Convention on Biological Diversity5, climate change may affect plant growth and production by promoting the spread of pests and diseases, increasing exposure to heat stress and changing rainfall patterns, and encouraging soil erosion due to stronger winds.

But don't just take our word for it

169 marine areas have been identified as "dead zones" as of 2008 - up from 44 in 1995. One of the largest, found in the Gulf of Mexico, was estimated in 2002 to be the size of Massachusetts - 22000 square kilometers.

World Resources Institute (WRI) (2008)14

Current trends suggest that agricultural expansion in the Amazon for grazing and crops will see 40% of this fragile, pristine rainforest destroyed by 2050.

Nature (2006)15

Factory farming endangers the survival of other animals and plants, with impacts including pollution, deforestation and climate change.

UNFAO (2006)3

So what?

Factory farming endangers the natural world. By taking action against factory farming, we are also helping to preserve valuable ecosystems and the animals and plants that inhabit them.

Want to protect biodiversity?

Pledge to help end factory farming! Submit your email address to allow Compassion in World Farming to send you urgent campaign actions and news (you can unsubscribe at any time).

Pollution

Factory farming pollutes environments, contaminating the natural world with a range of potentially lethal toxins.

With hundreds or often thousands of farm animals crammed together, factory farms can create a range of pollution problems. This can affect both natural environments and the animals and plants that inhabit them16. In 2006, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO) described livestock farming as '…one of the most significant contributors to today's most serious environmental problems'3.

Lots of animals equals lots of feed

More traditional farming methods can be relatively efficient, converting grass and other waste products into useful food. But the "fast-growth, high-yield" factory-farming model is far less efficient, using substantial amounts of grain and protein-rich soya. These crops often receive large quantities of pesticides and nitrogen-and-phosphorus-rich fertiliser to boost plant growth17. This has obvious uses, helping us to achieve higher plant yields, but a large amount of the fertiliser can be wasted and lost to the environment18.

Lots of animals equals lots of waste

Farm animals produce large amounts of nitrogen- and phosphorus-rich waste on a daily basis. This can be a good thing - animal waste can be a useful form of manure, replenishing the soil with certain nutrients19. But in factory farms, the concentration of animals indoors generally means that the waste is concentrated in relatively small areas. This waste should be properly managed and disposed of, but this isn't always the case, and it can find its way into the natural environment20.

A potential pollution disaster

Nitrogen and phosphorus can create significant problems: for example, they can leak into water courses. This can kill plants and animals, and even leave vast 'dead zones', where few species are able to survive. Some of the nitrogen will also become gaseous, turning into ammonia, for instance21, which can acidify waters and deplete the ozone layer. And we can be directly affected too, as the quality of water supplies can be threatened22.

And there are a host of other impacts

It's not just dangerous levels of nitrogen and phosphorus that arise from factory farms - they can produce a cocktail of contaminants including pathogens such as E. coli23, heavy metals and pesticides18, which can endanger both our health and that of other animals and plants.

But don't just take our word for it

Some large farms can produce more raw waste than the human population of a large US city.

US Government Accountability Office (GOA) (2008)24

Livestock farming accounts for over 60% of our global ammonia emissions.

UNFAO (2006)3

The livestock business is among the most damaging sectors to the earth's increasingly scarce water resources, contributing among other things to water pollution from animal wastes, antibiotics and hormones, chemicals from tanneries, fertilizers and the pesticides used to spray feed crops.

United Nations (UN) (2010)25

So what?

Factory farming pollutes environments. By taking action against factory farming, we are not just creating a food and farming revolution; we are also tackling some of the world's most pressing environmental problems.

Want to fight pollution?

Pledge to help end factory farming! Submit your email address to allow Compassion in World Farming to send you urgent campaign actions and news (you can unsubscribe at any time).

Resource waste

Factory farming wastes resources, requiring vast inputs but giving relatively little food energy in return.

Animal farming converts plant products into meat, milk and eggs. More traditional farming methods can be relatively efficient, converting grass and other waste products into useful food. But the 'fast-growth, high-yield' factory-farming model is far less efficient, using huge amounts of resources, such as water, grain and oil, but providing relatively little energy in return.

Protein factories in reverse

Although factory-farmed animals are given a lot of feed, much is wasted - animals cannot convert everything they eat into meat because the energy is used for other activities, such as moving around and keeping warm. In 2000, it was calculated that for every kilo of meat produced, many more kilos of animal feed are required26.

High resource use

Because so much feed is used for factory farming, a large amount of other resources are needed to grow it. One of these is land, much more of which is needed to produce meat or dairy products than to produce vegetables, cereals or fruit27. And then there's water, which is often used to irrigate the crops, particularly when they are grown in countries which have lower levels of rainfall. According to the WWF28, livestock production accounts for around 23% of all water used in agriculture - equivalent to more than 1,150 litres per person per day. A lot of energy is needed too, in particular for the manufacture of synthetic fertiliser and pesticide to grow feed crops2. Furthermore, these pesticides and fertilisers require large volumes of valuable resources such as nitrogen and phosphorus. Many of these resources could be put to better use, helping us to grow enough crops for the current world population, for example.

'Peak everything'

The word 'peak' is used in relation to a range of non-renewable resources such as oil and phosphorus29, both of which are used heavily in factory farming. Essentially it means the time when the availability of a resource reaches a peak, and supplies start to dwindle. While views vary on when these materials will run out, the simple reality is that there will come a time in the future when we do not have access to some of the materials that we have come to depend on for factory-farmed food. And because these materials are now found in limited countries, there are obvious geopolitical risks for countries that are net importers30.

But don't just take our word for it

On average, it takes around 6kg of plant protein to produce just 1kg of animal protein.

The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (AJCN) (2003)27

It takes over 15,000 litres of water to produce an average kilo of beef. This compares with around 1,200 litres for a kg of maize and 1800 for a kilo of wheat.

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) (2010)31

In the US, chemical-intensive farming uses the equivalent of 1 barrel of oil in energy to produce 1 ton of maize - a major component of animal feed.

World Bank (2008)32

So what?

Factory farming wastes resources. By taking action against factory farming, we are not just creating a food and farming revolution; we are also saving vital resources, which can be put to better use elsewhere.

Want to fight resource waste?

Pledge to help end factory farming! Submit your email address to allow Compassion in World Farming to send you urgent campaign actions and news (you can unsubscribe at any time).

Our sources

  1. The Royal Society (2010), Energy and the Food System
  2. Pimentel (2004), from The Organic Centre (2006), Impacts of Organic Farming on the Efficiency of Energy Use in Agriculture
  3. UNFAO (2006), Livestock's Long Shadow
  4. Nature (2011), Climate Change Curbs Crops
  5. CBD (2007), Biodiversity and Climate Change
  6. European Commission (2011), Roadmap for Moving to a Low-Carbon Economy in 2050
  7. UNFAO (2013), Tackling Climate Change Through Livestock
  8. UNEP (2001), Climate Change Information Sheet
  9. Defra (2011), Ecosystems Services
  10. Nature (1997), The Value of the World's Ecosystem Services and Natural Capital
  11. IUCN (2008), Wildlife in a Changing World, An analysis of the 2008 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™
  12. PNAS (2010), Tropical Forests Were the Primary Sources of New Agricultural Land in the 1980s and 1990s
  13. Birdlife International (2011), Agriculture in Biodiversity in the EU
  14. WRI (2008), Eutrophication and Hypoxia in Coastal Areas: A Global Assessment of the State of Knowledge
  15. Nature (2006), Modelling Conservation in the Amazon Basin
  16. CDC (2011), Animal Feeding Operations
  17. Greenpeace (2011), The Future of Agriculture
  18. Pew Commission (2008), Putting Meat on the Table
  19. ESF (2011), European Nitrogen Assessment
  20. USEPA (2011), What's the Problem
  21. EIP (2011), Hazardous Pollution from Factory Farms
  22. USEPA (2011), Human Health
  23. NRDC (2001), Cesspools of Shame
  24. GOA (2008), Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations
  25. UN (2010), Rearing Cattle Produces More Greenhouse Gases than Driving Cars
  26. Smil (2000), Feeding the World: A Challenge for the Twenty-first Century, MIT Press
  27. AJCN (2003), Sustainability of Meat-based and Plant-based Diets and the Environment
  28. WWF (2008), Living Planet Report 2008
  29. Nature (2009), The Disappearing Nutrient
  30. SEI (2004), The Precarious Geopolitics of Phosphorous
  31. UNESCO (2010), The Green, Blue and Grey Water Footprint of Farm Animals and Animal Products
  32. World Bank (2008), Agriculture for Development

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