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In Defence of Factory Farming – Part 5

News Icon 26/02/2015

It is my pleasure to introduce the fifth and final part in the series of my guest, Peter Stevenson’s, exploration of the interweaving threads that justify and entrench factory farming.  Thank you Peter for sharing with us in detail the varying strands that support and allow factory farming to thrive and for highlighting that a fresh approach is needed to developing a fair and kind food system.  Please read the first in the series here.

The claim of necessity: we need to produce 70% more food by 2050

Finally factory farming wraps itself in the cloak of virtue. We’re the good guys come to feed the world. Its advocates tell us that 70% more food must be produced to feed the growing world population which is expected to reach 9.6 billion by 2050. And as we need to produce so much extra food, further industrialisation is inevitable.

This ‘70% more’ message has become the prime driver of global food and farming policy. It is widely cited to justify industrial and technology-based solutions that respond to a challenge presented as a primarily quantitative one. The fixation with 70% more is such that policy makers tend to give insufficient attention to the danger that mounting industrialisation will undermine the natural resources – land, soil, water, biodiversity – on which our ability to produce food depends.

But what if it’s not true? What if we don’t need to produce 70% more? Then current policies, with their focus on a massive increase in production, would be based on a false premise.

De Schutter has said that “We live in a world which, if we managed our resources adequately, could feed almost twice the planet’s population. We produce the equivalent of 4500 calories per person per day.  That’s twice as much as the daily need of 7 billion inhabitants”.

It is clear that more than enough food is already produced to feed the anticipated world population in 2050 of 9.6 billion. The real challenge lies not so much in producing more but in wasting less, and ensuring a more equitable distribution of food and agricultural resources. As will be explained below, over 50% of global crop calories are lost or wasted or otherwise used in ways that do not contribute to the human food supply.

A 2014 report by the High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition states that worldwide 25% of food calories are lost or wasted post-harvest or at the distribution/retail and consumer levels. In addition, 9% of global crop calories are used for biofuels and other uses.

The University of Minnesota paper referred to earlier calculates that 36% of the world’s crop calories are fed to animals but, as explained above, only 17-30% of these calories are returned for human consumption as meat or milk. The effect of this is that 70-83% of the 36% of the world’s crop calories that are used as animal feed are wasted; they produce no food for humans. This means that 25-30% (70-83% of 36%) of the world’s crop calories are being wasted by being fed to animals.

In total, therefore at least 59% of the world’s crop calories are wasted:

  • 25% post-harvest or at the distribution/retail and consumer levels
  • 9% in use for biofuels and other non-food uses
  • 25-30% by being fed to animals.

UNEP has also looked at the waste entailed in feeding human-edible crops to animals. It calculates that the cereals which, on a business-as-usual basis, are expected to be fed to livestock by 2050, could, if they were instead used to feed people directly, provide the necessary food energy for over 3.5 billion people. If a target were adopted of halving the amount of cereals that, on a business-as-usual basis, would be used for feed by 2050, an extra 1.75 billion people could be fed.

Increased production may be needed in certain regions or specific cases but, in light of the various forms of loss and waste referred to above, the claim that a 70% increase in global food production is needed by 2050 substantially overestimates the quantity of extra production needed.

And so necessity, the last refuge of factory farming, crumbles. We do not need to produce huge amounts of extra food; we simply need to use what we produce more wisely.


An interlinked web supports factory farming and allows it to thrive. This web comprises many strands: legislation that appears strong on paper but in practice often proves illusory, a deceptive economics that by sleight of hand can make the costly appear cheap and a scientific orthodoxy that tends to restrict our view of what constitutes good animal well-being. Further support comes from claims to efficiency that bear little scrutiny, a questionable assertion that we need to produce 70% more food and avowed respect for animals as sentient beings while treating them as machines which if fine-tuned will be ever more productive. As a result industrial livestock production appears to be locked in to our food system.

We urgently need fresh thinking that allows us to develop a food system that provides healthy food, restores and enhances the natural resources on which agriculture depends and respects the animals that provide our meat, milk and eggs.

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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