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In Defence of Factory Farming – Part 2

News Icon 19/02/2015

The factory farming system still prevails despite scientific evidence showing the wide and negative impacts.  I am delighted to introduce the second of this five-part series by Peter Stevenson, exploring the interweaving threads that prop up factory farming – perhaps the most inefficient, inhumane and unnecessary system so far invented.  Read part 1 here.

A distorting economics

Just as science has brought an overly mechanistic approach to our understanding of animal well-being, we have an economic system that takes certain costs into account while ignoring others. In both cases we see a partial truth but not the whole truth. Some costs of producing meat and dairy products – the provision of feed, housing and veterinary care – are borne by the farmer and hence by the end consumer. Other costs are ‘on the house’ being borne by taxpayers or future generations.

Industrial livestock production is totally dependent on feeding human-edible cereals to animals who convert them very inefficiently into meat, milk and eggs. This inefficiency results in more arable land as well as surface and groundwater being generally needed to produce a unit of nutrition from industrially produced meat than from meat derived from animals that are fed little or no human-edible crops. The feed crops needed for intensively farmed animals are themselves grown intensively leading to soil degradation and water pollution from the chemical fertilisers used to boost crop yields. Industrial farming’s huge appetite for soy for animal feed leads to deforestation in South America which results in massive greenhouse gas emissions and loss of wildlife.

This environmental damage is paid for not by farmers and end consumers but by taxpayers and future generations who will be hampered in their attempts to produce food by water shortages, degraded soil and the biodiversity losses that accompany intensive crop production.

The high levels of meat consumption that have been made possible by industrial farming are having an adverse impact on human health. Overconsumption of animal protein can lead to obesity, diabetes, heart diseases and certain cancers. The cost of treating this disease burden is borne by the (in Europe) taxpayer funded health service not by agri-business which, through years of spending billions on advertising, has foisted a perverse food culture and unhealthy diets on the developed world and is now turning its attention to developing countries. None of the cost of treating this ill-health and the concomitant loss of production through absence from work is included in the price of industrially produced meat.

An economics that ignores environmental and health costs is misleading. Like a fairground mirror it distorts reality. It gives the false impression that industrially produced meat is cheap while in fact it is only cheap for end consumers; for society as a whole it is very expensive. A pricing system that disregards certain costs promotes unhealthy diets and inefficient, environmentally damaging ways of producing food.

If we are to develop an efficient economic system that properly reflects all the costs of producing industrial animal protein, its negative externalities (damage to health and the environment, poor animal welfare) must be internalised in the costs of meat and dairy production and thus in the price paid by consumers.

The UK Foresight report has stressed that “There needs to be much greater realisation that market failures exist in the food system that, if not corrected, will lead to irreversible environmental damage and long term threats to the viability of the food system”.  It also said that “the food system today is not sustainable because of its negative externalities. These are not included in the cost of food and hence there are relatively few market incentives to reduce them”.

Economic orthodoxy’s impact on how we raise animals: knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing

Traditionally a country’s GDP (gross domestic product) has been regarded as the principal way of measuring and thinking about its economic progress. This has come to be seen as unsatisfactory as it gives equal value to, for example, a £million of arms and a £million of health services even though most would value the latter more highly.

In addition, GDP fails to capture social welfare and people’s sense of well-being or lack of it. Its focus is on costs (though it ignores external costs) not on the benefits of economic activity. A recent study carried out for the European Commission points out that GDP and the “associated rise in material consumption is an imperfect compensation for a lack of satisfaction of basic needs, like community, serenity, clean air and direct access to nature. The problem is that the latter types of issues are not captured by GDP”.  Accordingly, alternative ways of measuring progress and hence informing public policy are being examined.

Our food system, however, is still stuck in the old quantitative paradigm which fosters industrialisation of food production and very narrow ways of thinking about what constitutes success in our food system. This is exemplified by the limited range of factors generally taken into account by government and food industry reports. These focus on economic and performance data such as quantity of production, efficiency, costs and margins.

For example, pig sector annual reports include data on factors such as number of pigs reared per sow/per year, average weaning age, amount of feed consumed in producing each kg of meat and daily weight gain. Little or no attempt is made to cover the welfare of the animals, the nutritional quality of the food produced or its impact on natural resources. No attention, for example,   is given to the detrimental impact of early weaning on piglet health, the associated need for regular antibiotic use, the resulting increase in antibiotic resistance and its cost implications as these are borne by the health service and future generations in the form of less effective antibiotics.

We need to develop ways of thinking about food and farming that no longer give precedence to quantitative factors but allows qualitative aspects (e.g. animal welfare, nutritional quality, avoidance of deforestation) to be given breathing space, to be properly valued (though not necessarily in monetised terms).

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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