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"Super farms" good for the environment? We say no!

News Section Icon Published 07/06/2012


The Guardian asked us to respond to an article on "super", or large-scale, intensive farms and their impact on planet and people. Here's what we said.

NFU President, Peter Kendall, says that the UK will need "...more and bigger 'super farms' (akin to US Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs) to keep food prices from rising too high and to maintain high animal welfare standards". Demand for food will inevitably increase, but choosing meat quantity over meat quality is an ill-judged strategy to match this demand.

We are deeply uncomfortable about these "super" farms for a range of reasons:

Our starting place is the farm animals themselves – the sheer scale of modern mega-farms means that it is very hard to account for their welfare. Animals are treated as commodities and are often raised in intense confinement, with little thought paid to their needs as sentient beings.

But this isn’t just an animal-welfare issue. At the heart of the problem lies the relocation of animals from farms to indoor environments. In doing so, we increase a reliance on grain-based feeds rather than pasture. In fact, over 90% of soya meal and 60% of maize (corn) and barley are grown for animal feed. Humans could eat this food, but we are giving it to our farm animals instead. And unfortunately, we waste much of the feed in the process, as meat production is inherently inefficient – it takes around 6kg of plant protein to produce just 1kg of animal protein1and for every 100 food calories of edible crops fed to livestock, we get back just 30 calories in the form of meat and milk; that's a 70% loss (according to the Stockholm International Water Institute2).

This requirement for grain-based feeds may well mean that factory farming is driving up food prices, not reducing them. In 2011, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO) stated3 that food prices were driven upwards in recent years, in part, by "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 prices is making it increasingly hard for those who need it most to access vital food.

In order to produce this feed, we need to create huge swathes of cropland, often in fragile biodiverse areas, such as the Cerrado in Brazil4. This can have severe repercussions for the animals and people who inhabit these regions and often find their homes replaced with endless rows of monoculture crops. In other words, factory farms are not the efficient users of land that some might suggest – we also have to factor in the land required to produce the animal feed.

By concentrating so many animals in relatively small spaces, the concentration of waste generated is increased, with even more potential for local environmental damage. Experiences in France5 and the United States6 highlight the inherent environmental risks of concentrating livestock operations. The US Environmental Protection Agency itself states that the growing scale and concentration of [CAFOs] "...has contributed to negative environmental and human health impacts"7.

Interestingly, Dutch agricultural minister, Dr Henk Bleker, sent a letter8 to parliament this week suggesting a maximum size restriction for farms in the Netherlands. Dr Bleker cited animal welfare, and environmental and social considerations for his decision.

By eating a smaller amount of higher-quality meat (supplementing the shortfall with other, more efficient, foods), we can both feed the world and help to solve some of the most pressing environmental, social and economic issues of our time.

Our sources

  1. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (2003), Sustainability of meat-based and plant-based diets and the environment
  2. Stockholm International Water Institute (2008), Saving Water: From Field to Fork
  3. UNFAO (2011), The State of Food Insecurity
  4. WWF (2012), Save the Cerrado
  5. The Guardian (2009), Angelique Chrisafis reports on why farmers are being blamed for a toxic seaweed in Brittany 
  6. Environmental Working Group (2010), Farm Pollution Knocks Chesapeake Bay Out of Balance
  7. USEPA (2012), Animal Waste: What's the Problem?
  8. A Letter to Parliament from Dutch agricultural minister Dr. Henk Bleker (2012)

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