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In Defence of Factory Farming – Part 4

News Icon 23/02/2015

Factory farming is thriving with long tentacles reaching out around the world! Here is Part 4 of 5 of Peter Stevenson‘s exploration of the interweaving threads that justify and entrench factory farming, locking it into our food system.

The claim to efficiency

The industry regularly asserts that cramming large numbers of animals into factory farms and pushing them to extreme levels of productivity is efficient.

However, industrial livestock production is inherently inefficient. This stems from its dependence on feeding human-edible cereals to animals. Studies, including a UNEP report, show that for every 100 calories that we feed to animals in the form of human-edible crops, we receive on average just 17-30 calories in the form of meat and milk. A 2013 University of Minnesota paper indicates that the efficiency rates may be even lower for some animal products. It reports that for every 100 calories of grain that we feed to animals, we get only about 40 new calories of milk, 22 calories of eggs, 12 of chicken, 10 of pork, or 3 of beef.

A Chatham House study stresses that feeding grain to animals “represents a staggeringly inefficient use of resources”. A 2013 FAO report points out that the feeding of cereals to livestock could threaten food security by reducing the grain available for human consumption. Olivier De Schutter, until recently UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, states that “continuing to feed cereals to growing numbers of livestock will aggravate poverty and environmental degradation”. It will aggravate poverty by pushing up cereal prices placing them out of reach for the world’s poor.

Animals’ inefficiency in converting human-edible crops into meat and milk brings other inefficiencies in its train. It is a wasteful use not just of the crops but of the land, water and energy used to grow them. Mekonnen and Hoekstra concluded that animal products from industrial systems generally consume more blue (surface and groundwater) and grey (pollution) water than animal products from grazing or mixed systems. They said that the anticipated further intensification of animal production systems globally will result in increasing blue and grey water footprints per unit of animal product; the authors state that this is due to the larger dependence on concentrate feed in industrial systems.

More arable land is generally needed to produce a unit of nutrition from industrially produced meat than from meat from animals that are fed little or no human-edible crops. Moreover, the need for huge amounts of crops to feed industrially produced animals has led to the intensification of crop production with the use of monocultures and chemical fertilisers and pesticides. These have eroded soil quality. The European Commission points out that “45% of European soils face problems of soil quality, evidenced by low levels of organic matter”. A new UK study reports that the soils resulting from years of industrial agriculture are of poorer quality than those of urban allotments.

If industrial livestock production continues to grow, its need for feed crops will increase; this will lead to an expansion of global cropland at the expense of forests and grasslands. Deforestation would involve loss of wildlife, substantial greenhouse gas emissions and the erosion of indigenous livelihoods that accompanies deforestation.

Per unit of nutrition produced, industrial livestock production is more harmful to water, soil and wildlife and uses more arable land as well as surface and groundwater than grazing or integrated crop-livestock systems. It would be hard to devise a more inefficient way of feeding people.

Only grazing on land unsuitable for crop production or utilizing crop residues, by-products and unavoidable food waste as animal feed can be considered as efficient. The benefit of raising animals on pastures or other grasslands is that they convert grass and other inedible vegetation into food that we can eat and are able to use land that is generally not suitable for other forms of food production. Moreover, semi-natural grasslands support biodiversity and store carbon.

The World Bank is extremely positive about integrated crop/livestock production. The benefits of rotational mixed farming are that crop residues can be used to feed animals and their manure, rather than being a pollutant, fertilises the land and improves soil quality.

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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