In the last half century, the consolidation of food production has concentrated power into the hands of a few mega corporations. These conglomerates produce our food ostensibly for low cost with little regard for the environment, especially in terms of soil and water quality, food safety, and animal welfare. Industrial agriculture operations frequently trade the quality and safety of products, as well as the health of consumers and rural communities, for maximized profits achieved through consolidation and mechanization.
Livestock production used to be an important part of small- and medium-sized independent farms; animal manure fertilized crops, animals ate farm waste products, and the sale of animal products in local markets provided important additional income to farmers. Some farms still operate this way, but they are no longer the norm, as livestock production has become big business.
Industrial livestock production generally refers to a modern type of agriculture wherein densely populated groups of animals are confined to cages, barns or feedlots. Rather than the animals grazing or foraging, feed, water and medical inputs are provided to them, while their excrement is collected in ponds (called lagoons) or pits which is then sprayed onto nearby fields. Sustainable food advocates often call these operations factory farms, while people in rural areas where they are common call them confinements.
Intensive crop (plant) production (frequently termed industrial agriculture) artificially divorces two countering aspects of a naturally closed-loop and renewable cycle – nature’s reciprocal and balanced system whereby crops feed animals and animal wastes fertilize crops. What we have instead are depleted soils on one hand and toxically excessive animal wastes on the other – both problems generated by commercial agriculture. 1
Industrial livestock production has become so far removed from the natural cycle of farming that laws and regulations no longer refer to these operations as farms, but animal feeding operations, or AFOs. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates AFOs, defined as “agricultural operations where animals are kept and raised in confined situations.” 3
A concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) is a very large AFO, housing “more than 1000 animal units (an animal unit is defined as an animal equivalent of 1000 pounds live weight and equates to 1000 head of beef cattle, 700 dairy cows, 2500 swine weighing more than 55 pounds, 125 thousand broiler chickens or 82 thousand laying hens or pullets).” 5
Cattle, hogs, chickens and turkeys are the most common livestock raised in confinement operations; but other types of poultry, as well as sheep, goats and rabbits, are also being raised more and more this way.
Proponents of industrial agriculture point to the high volume of the low-cost food it produces. Meat has become cheaper than would have been thought possible a century ago, such that every American consumes, on average, nearly 215 pounds of red meat and poultry per year. 10 The farmer must take out large loans — usually to the tune of $1 million to start — and build animal houses to company specifications. Once the farmer is committed to the agreement, by way of significant debt, he or she often finds that the contracts are not as fair or profitable as the company salesmen promised. 19 This overuse of nontherapeutic antibiotics is leading to rapid evolution of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least two million Americans annually experience infections that are resistant to antibiotics, and this leads to at least 23,000 deaths every year; internationally, more than 700,000 people are estimated to die from antibiotic-resistant infections each year. 20