All around the world, people look at factory farming and see cruelty, wastage and destruction. So why does it still exist? We lift the lid on the entangled web of confusion, collusion and chaos that keeps this archaic system alive.
“If a naughty boy pulls feathers out of a single chicken, he’s punished. But scald hundreds of thousands of chickens alive each year? That’s a business model.” Journalist Nicholas Kristof’s searing words from a recent New York Times piece perfectly highlight the nonsense that is factory farming. So why, if it’s so nonsensical, does it still exist? To answer that, we have to go back to the start.
The rush for food
In post-war Britain, food was scarce and a booming population served only to increase the demand for nourishment. Then something profound happened to our food system: animals started being moved off the land into sheds and cages, crammed into increasingly tight spaces. The vision was simple: do more with less.
Fast forward to 1964 when Stanley Baker, The Guardian’s agricultural correspondent, wrote an article that summed up this gung-ho attitude towards intensification that still – to a large extent – exists today: “Factory farming, whether we like it or not, has come to stay. The tide will not be held back...”, he famously asserted.
Selling snake oil
As we know, of course, the “do more with less” ideal turned out to be nothing more than snake oil. Factory farming is a profoundly inefficient way to feed the planet, and brings a whole host of other problems to boot. But the illusion remains, with factory farming not only surviving, but thriving.
Learning from the past
In order to fix our farming, it’s important to understand why factory farming remains; why Stanley Baker’s chilling prediction has so far been proved right, despite the vast body of evidence stacked against the system. As it turns out, there are several reasons, which work together to keep us locked into this system of food production. Here they are.
- Sugar-coating the truth: The banning of veal crates (2007), battery cages (2012) and sow stalls (2013) in the EU were animal-welfare milestones, but they allowed the industrial-farming lobby to peddle the lie that the crueller aspects of the industry were a thing of the past. The reality is that “enriched” cages – offering only a slight improvement in welfare – and farrowing crates are widely used, while sow stalls are still allowed in the first month of pregnancy.
- Hiding behind meaningless laws: Though laws can be useful in enforcing basic welfare standards (like the bans referred to above), they are often couched in extremely broad terms and can be very hard to enforce. Industry advocates regularly use this legislation to reassure the public that their animal-welfare concerns are groundless, when often the regulations have no practical impact. In short, laws often serve to protect the industry, rather than the animals.
- Ignoring the case for animal welfare: While scientific research and evidence is a crucial part of animal-welfare policy-making, it has its limitations when it comes to ethical considerations, which are notoriously hard to measure and therefore often ignored. This neglect of hard-to-measure aspects – from a lack of fresh air and daylight to stress and anxiety – has resulted in an arguably restricted view of what constitutes good welfare.
- Discounting the damage: Though some costs of producing intensive meat and dairy – for example, feed, housing and veterinary care – are borne by the farmer and the end consumer, there are also huge “hidden” costs, such as ecological destruction and failing human health, that are borne by taxpayers and future generations. We need an economic system that reflects the true costs of factory farming by factoring these “externalities” into shop prices.
- Prioritising value over values: Though a country’s GDP (gross domestic product) is a measure of its economic status, it fails to measure individual wellbeing. Factory farming is stuck in a similar “quantitative” mindset, focusing on productivity, efficiencies, costs and margins. We need a way of thinking about food and farming that recognises the system’s more “qualitative” aspects, such as animal welfare, the nutritional quality of food and environmental impact.
- Keeping consumers in the dark: The food industry works hard to champion “cheap”, convenient food while hiding its dire impact on people, animals and the planet. Look no further than the bucolic images and misleading claims on food labels – “100% natural” and “farm fresh”, for example – to see this mass deception in action. We need more transparent labelling in the EU, with the farming methods clearly stated, allowing consumers to help shape the food system.
- Viewing animals as commodities: Animals are known to be sentient beings, yet the industry continues to treat them as machines. High growth rates in chickens increase the risk of lameness, the high productivity of laying hens causes osteoporosis and the pig industry’s drive to increase litter size results in high mortality rates among piglets. The industry’s recognition of animals as sentient beings is often nothing more than lip service.
- Misunderstanding the maths: Factory farming is not remotely efficient, despite what its advocates claim: its reliance on huge volumes of human-edible crops for animal feed is by far its most wasteful characteristic. To add insult to injury, growing these crops uses up land, water and energy, and has led to the existence of chemical-soaked monocultures. The result is poor soil quality, more pollution, carbon emissions, deforestation and biodiversity loss.
- Believing the hype: Industry advocates tell us that 70% more food must be produced in order to feed a world population of 9.6 billion in 2050, and that intensive farming is our only hope of achieving this. But this fixation with producing “70% more” fails to acknowledge that the planet’s natural resources – upon which our ability to produce food depends – are under threat and that we already have enough food to feed the projected population.
So there you have it: a complex, interlinked web of confusion, collusion and chaos that allows factory farming not only to survive, but also to thrive. Get a more detailed version of this article here.
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