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How a ruinous system is kept afloat

News Icon 17/02/2015

Have you ever wondered why on earth factory farming still exists? Despite mountains of scientific research and reports showing factory farming (industrial livestock production) as bad for animal welfare, ruinous of diets and undermining precious resources – land, water, soil, oil and biodiversity – on which the ability of future generations to feed themselves depends, the system still prevails.

And it doesn’t just survive but thrives, with long tentacles reaching out around the world. Even as I write we are seeing the industrialisation of dairy farming with cows being driven off the fields and into ‘zero-grazing’ systems, kept indoors and never getting out to graze.

How did this happen? Here in the first of a five-part series, my guest Peter Stevenson explores the interweaving threads that justify and entrench factory farming, locking it into our food system.

Sacrificing one’s knights

There are two knights in chess. Factory farming has three: veal crates, battery cages and sow stalls (known as ‘gestation crates’ in the US). From the late 1980’s a long battle took place in the EU to get these systems banned. Eventually this campaign was successful with bans coming into force in 2007, 2012 and 2013 respectively.

However, this achievement was to a degree tainted by some important omissions. The ban on battery cages applies only to barren cages. Farmers are free to use ‘enriched’ cages; indeed 58% of EU laying hens are kept in these cages which offer only marginal improvements in welfare as compared with barren cages.

The EU ban on sow stalls allows farmers to continue using them for the first four weeks of pregnancy. In addition the ban does not extend to farrowing crates which are even more restrictive than sow stalls. Sows are placed in farrowing crates 3-7 days before giving birth and are kept there until the piglets are weaned at 21-28 days of age. Despite the sow stall ban, many EU sows continue to be confined in stalls/crates for around 19 weeks each year.

Nonetheless the EU bans on veal crates, sow stalls and barren battery cages represent crucially important advances in animal welfare. However, despite these bans, huge swathes of factory farming remain intact. Chickens reared for meat (broilers) continue to be crammed – up to 50,000 at a time – into massively overcrowded sheds. Dairy cows are pushed to such high milk yields that many are utterly worn out after just three-four milk cycles and are prematurely culled.

Most fattening pigs in the EU are ruthlessly factory farmed in barren, overcrowded pens and are routinely tailed docked and teeth clipped without anaesthetic. Each year in the EU egg sector 360 million male chicks are killed when they are just one day old because they are the wrong gender to lay eggs and grow too slowly for the meat sector. But because they are forced to grow too quickly, around 1.5 billion EU broilers a year suffer from painful lameness. Over 300 million rabbits are farmed each year in the EU in cages that are little different from the battery cages that have been banned for hens. And so it goes on.

Clearly the industry did not willingly sacrifice its three knights; indeed, it strongly opposed all three bans. However, with barren battery cages, veal crates and sow stalls largely gone, it was able to give the impression that factory farming was a thing of the past. But in reality, as we have seen, it continues unchecked with most of its major elements still in play and much of the panoply of abuse intact.

Legislation: genuine protection or window dressing?

Some legislation is extremely helpful, for example the bans referred to above and the requirement for egg packs to be labelled as to farming method. Much legislation, however, is couched in extremely broad terms and is largely unenforceable. This point has indeed been made by the European Commission itself; it notes that some legislation contains “provisions that are too general to have practical effects”.

The advantage of such legislation for policy-makers and the intensive farming sector is that it gives the appearance of there being a substantial body of legislation that protects farm animals. It allows officials to give assurances to the public that their concerns about the well-being of intensively farmed animals are groundless as these animals are protected by abundant regulations. However, when closely examined, much of this legislation, because of its broad general language, proves to be a facade, the thinnest of veneers, which provides no real safeguards for animals. It acts as a legislative fig leaf to cover the depredations of factory farming. It protects the politicians and the industry, not the animals.

The role of science: giving a narrow ambit to what constitutes good welfare?

When I first joined Compassion in World Farming the organisation was in the midst of a campaign to win a UK ban on sow stalls (these are so narrow that the sow cannot even turn round). I was surprised to find that we had to supply scientific proof that a sow may need or wish to have enough space to be able to turn round. Interestingly the burden of proof was on us to demonstrate this; the pig sector was not required to prove that confining sows in so small a space was acceptable from a welfare viewpoint.

It is of course essential that policy and legislation on animal welfare should be based on sound scientific research. However, the overwhelming pre-eminence accorded to scientific evidence has led to certain drawbacks. Ethical considerations are in danger of being crowded out. Moreover, science is only really interested in those factors that can be measured. Elements that do not lend themselves to measurement are in danger of being given insufficient weight or even of being ignored altogether.

This neglect of aspects that cannot readily be measured has resulted in an arguably restricted view of what constitutes good welfare. The areas that tend to be overlooked are brought to light in a prayer written by St Basil of Caesaria in the Fourth Century:

“May we realize that they live not for us alone, but for themselves and for Thee and that they love the sweetness of life even as we, and serve Thee better in their place than we in ours”.

And in our own time Lyall Watson has written in The Whole Hog:

“I know of no other animals that are more consistently curious, more willing to explore new experiences, more ready to meet the world with open-mouthed enthusiasm.  Pigs are incurable optimists and get a big kick out of just being”.

Sweetness of life, enthusiasm: these do not readily lend themselves to measurement. But that does not diminish their importance.

Recently I watched a hen on the island of South Uist in Scotland. She was beautiful. Feathers full and healthy, gleaming in the sun. Her tiny chicks tentatively exploring their world but staying close to their mother. All of them were sheltered in a spacious run covered with wire to protect them from predators.

A sight which is completely absent in today’s industrial farming. Here the eggs are removed from the hen and incubated and hatched artificially. The hen never sees her chicks and they never see their mother nor can they benefit from being raised and nurtured by her.

Industrially farmed pigs and poultry never experience fresh air, daylight or the warmth of the sun. They can never enjoy a cooling breeze or the movement of the wind. They can never feel the earth beneath their feet or search for tasty morsels. Much of life is denied to them.

I am not for one moment suggesting that we should ignore the science. Scientific evidence is a crucial element of animal welfare policy-making but it cannot tell us all that we need to know, all that we need to take into account when we consider our relationship with animals. We must be careful to pay heed to the areas which the scientific method is not so well equipped to address.


Peter Stevenson is Compassion in World Farming’s Chief Policy Advisor. His parents were Czech refugees who arrived in Britain in 1939. Peter studied economics and law at Trinity College Cambridge in the mid 1960s.   In 2004 Peter was the joint recipient with Joyce D’Silva of the RSPCA Lord Erskine Award in recognition of a “very important contribution in the field of animal welfare”.

He has written comprehensive legal analyses of EU legislation on farm animals and of the impact of the WTO rules on animal welfare. Peter is lead author of the recent study by the FAO reviewing animal welfare legislation in the beef, pork and poultry industries.  

Before joining Compassion in World Farming in 1991, Peter worked as a solicitor and, for fifteen years, as a freelance theatre director working in experimental fringe theatre and for the Royal Shakespeare Company. He lives in Scotland with Annie his wife who is a painter and two wonderful rescue dogs, Jamie and Jodie, who bully him with incessant demands for walks, play, food and fun.


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