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Food inequality

There is a huge gap between the 'haves' and the 'have nots' when it comes to the distribution of food around the world.

Feeding in Indoor Cattle Farm 1701x1129.jpg
Farm animals are often given food that we could eat, raising food prices and fuelling the hunger crisis.

Around 1 billion people do not have enough to eat. This crisis currently kills more people than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined1. In stark contrast, around 1.5 billion people in the Western world are classified as overweight, around a third of whom are obese2. The situation is challenging efforts to achieve the United Nations (UN) Millennium Development Goal of eradicating extreme poverty and hunger3. Small-scale livestock farming plays a vital role in developing countries, contributing to the wellbeing of more than 800 million poor smallholders4. Large-scale factory farming is actually compounding the food crisis.

Raising the demand for feed

Around two thirds of farm animals worldwide are currently factory farmed. They are reared in systems that are dependent on cereal and soya feeds for fast growth and high yields. Although dairy cows are naturally adapted to grazing and eating grasses, they are now being bred to be more dependent on cereal and soya feeds too. This demand for feed essentially means that we are putting humans in competition with farm animals. We're literally taking high-quality, nutrient-rich foods that people can eat and feeding them to our farm animals.

The resources needed to produce this feed

Competition for food isn't the only problem. In order to grow the feed crops, large swathes of land are cleared, both in developed and developing countries. Take soya, for example, which is mainly grown in developing countries. The demand for this crop has been cited as being particularly damaging5, resulting in land being taken from people. It has even caused violent clashes between, multinational companies, indigenous peoples, and their governments6.

It's not just land use that's the problem though. According to the World Economic Forum7, livestock farming is a "key player" in water use, accounting for 8% of all the water that we use worldwide. Most of this is for the irrigation of feed crops. A letter published in Nature8 stated that in China, "changing food-consumption patterns are the main cause of the worsening water scarcity. If other developing countries follow China's trend towards protein-rich Western diets, the global water shortage will become still more severe."

Priced out of the market

It doesn't end there. In 2011, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO) stated9 that food prices had been driven upwards in recent years. This was, in part, due to 'longer-term economic growth in several large developing countries that (a) put upward pressure on prices for petroleum and fertiliser because of the resource-intensive nature of their economic growth and (b) led to increased demand for meat, and hence animal feed, as diets diversified.' This upward trend in food prices may make it increasingly hard for those who need it most to access vital food stuffs.

But don't just take our word for it

With… a fundamental  shift  in  the  functions  of livestock,  there  is  a  significant danger  that  the  poor  are  being  crowded  out...and  global  food  security  and  safety  compromised.

World Bank (2001)10

Imagine a canal 10 meters deep, 100 meters wide, and 7.1 million kilometers long - long enough to encircle the globe 180 times. That is the amount of water it takes each year to produce food…

UNFAO (2007)11

So what?

Factory farming breaks our food systems. By taking action against factory farming, we are not just creating a food and farming revolution; we are also helping everyone to have the food they need.

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Damaged livelihoods

Factory farming damages livelihoods, threatening local residents, economies and farm workers.

A for sale sign in front of an old farm house
The consolidation of smaller farms has gone hand in hand with the breakdown of rural communities.

Factory farming is clearly a global problem, but it also has more localized impacts. Farm workers and those people living in the vicinity of factory farming operations can also be affected.

A lungful of pollution

Dust and toxic gases, such as sulphur compounds and ammonia, arise both from the animals as well as their feed and waste. This can reduce air quality and create breathing problems12. The pollution is particularly problematic for farm workers, children and the elderly. In the case of pork production, it has been claimed13 that '…at least 25% of [industrial-style farm] workers suffer from respiratory diseases including bronchitis, mucus membrane irritation, asthma-like syndrome, and acute respiratory distress syndrome'. The materials used to grow feed for factory-farming operations can be hazardous too, particularly in developing countries where laws can be weaker5. The chemicals that are sometimes used to grow soy, for example - pesticides, herbicides, fungicides - reportedly cause regular acute and chronic health problems in several South American countries14.

Bad news for farmers

With its significant focus on mechanization, factory farming is putting the European farming sector under enormous pressure: there has been a long-term decline in both the numbers of EU farmers and agricultural workers. In 2010, it was announced15 that employment in the EU agriculture sector fell by 25% between 2000 and 2009.

And local economies can suffer

The vitality of local communities can also suffer at the hands of factory farming. There is evidence that the consolidation of smaller farms leads to the deterioration of rural communities. According to the Pew Commission12, the 'social fabric' of communities changes significantly when factory farms replace family farms. This is partly because factory farming relies more on technology than on labour. This has led to an increasing preference for temporary or migrant workers who are prepared to accept lower wages12. In 2007, scientists wrote that the '[e]conomic concentration of agricultural operations tends to remove a higher percentage of money from rural communities than when the industry is dominated by smaller farm operations, which tend to circulate money within the community'13. In some developing countries, the impacts can be even more devastating, with land grabbed from its owners to grow animal feed crops such as soy. In Paraguay, mile upon mile of soy plantations can be found, the majority of which are owned by large landowners and multinational companies. The planting and harvesting of this land is carried out using machines, which means that fewer people are employed, and many have to leave rural areas to look for work in cities. In the worst cases, people are actually forced from their own land to make way for the crops (The Ecologist6).

But don't just take our word for it

Fifty years ago, a…farmer who raised pigs or chickens might be exposed to several dozen animals for less than an hour a day. Today's confinement facility worker is often exposed to thousands of pigs or tens of thousands of chickens for eight or more hours each day.

Pew Commission (2008)12

…the air at some factory farm test sites in the US is dirtier than in America's most polluted cities and exposes workers to concentrations of pollutants far above occupational safety guidelines.

Environmental Integrity Project (2011)16

So what?

Factory farming breaks communities. By taking action against factory farming, we are not just creating a food and farming revolution; we are also creating a more prosperous, just world for ourselves.

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Resource waste

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

Other precious resources, such as water and oil, are also wasted by factory farming.

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 producing 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 required17.

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 fruit18. 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 WWF19, 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 crops20. 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 phosphorus21, 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 importers22.

But don't just take our word for it

It is clear that feed production consumes large amounts of critically important water resources and competes with other usages and users.

United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO) (2006)23

The production of meat from animals fed on irrigated crops has a direct impact on water resources, much more so than if the meat is derived from grazing animals and animals fed on [crop] residues.

Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) (2008)24

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.

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Want to fight resource waste?

Getting involved in the fight against factory farming couldn’t be easier. Simply sign up to receive email updates from Compassion in World Farming to hear about urgent campaign actions and other ways you can help end cruelty to farm animals.

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Our sources

  1. WFP (2011), Hunger Stats
  2. WHO (2011), Obesity and Overweight
  3. UN (2011), Millennium Development Goal 1
  4. World Bank (2009), Minding the stock: Bringing Public Policy to Bear on Livestock Sector Development
  5. Friends of the Earth (2008), What's Feeding our Food? The Environmental and Social Impacts of the Livestock Sector
  6. The Ecologist (2009), Killing Fields. The True Cost of Europe's Cheap Meat
  7. WEF (2009), The Bubble Is Close to Bursting: A Forecast of the Main Economic and Geopolitical Water Issues Likely to Arise in the World during the Next Two Decades
  8. Nature (2008), Correspondence: China's Move to Higher Meat Diet Hits Water Security
  9. UNFAO (2011), The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2011
  10. World Bank (2001), Livestock Development: Implications for Rural Poverty, the Environment and Global Food Security
  11. UNFAO (2007), Water for Food, Water for Life
  12. Pew Commission (2008), Putting Meat on the Table
  13. EHP (2007), Community Health and Socioeconomic Issues Surrounding Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations
  14. The Dutch Soy Coalition (2008), Soy - Big Business, Big Responsibility. Addressing the social and environmental impact of the soy value chain
  15. Eurostat (2010), News Release: Employment in the Agriculture Sector Down by 25% Between 2000 and 2009
  16. EIP (2011), Hazardous Pollution From Factory farms: An Analysis of EPA's National Air Emissions Monitoring Study Data
  17. Smil (2000), Feeding the World: A Challenge for the Twenty-first Century, MIT Press
  18. AJCN (2003), Sustainability of Meat-based and Plant-based Diets and the Environment
  19. WWF (2018), Living Planet Report 2018
  20. Pimentel (2006), Impacts of Organic Farming on the Efficiency of Energy Use in Agriculture
  21. Nature (2009), The Disappearing Nutrient
  22. SEI (2004), The Precarious Geopolitics of Phosphorous
  23. UNFAO (2006), Livestock's Long Shadow
  24. SIWI (2008), Saving Water: From Field to Fork

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