Our food supply is undergoing fundamental change with serious consequences for animals, our water, our health and our nation's family farms. Today, a small group of giant agribusiness corporations control most of our nation's poultry, beef and pork production. To maximize profits, these corporations have imposed factory production processes on animals, family farmers, consumers, and the environment.
The Animal Factory System
Standardization. Animal factories seek to produce a uniform product with predictable costs. To this end, animals are bred to be genetically similar and to produce as much meat, as fast as possible at as low a cost as possible. For instance, most broiler chickens come from only seven different genetic lines. This lack of genetic diversity makes virtually the entire nation's poultry supply vulnerable to an epidemic. Overbreeding also produces chickens with breasts so large that sometimes they can't stand up, causing painful blisters and ultimately death through starvation.
Concentration and confinement. Animal factories concentrate thousands, sometimes tens of thousands, of animals into multiple industrial barns. Large animals, like hogs, are kept in tight metal cages throughout their entire lives. Industrial hog barns are often windowless and contain as many as 4,000 hogs, confined in metal pens built over slatted concrete floors. Factory-farmed poultry are crowded into long industrial houses containing as many as 25,000 birds. Hundreds of thousands of egg-laying hens spend their lives in tiny battery cages, which give each hen space no bigger than the piece of paper this article is printed on, stacked high in giant barns.
Contract system. Under the factory system, most farmers do not own the animals they raise. Instead, local family farmers raise animals under a contract which requires them to provide their labor, pay the energy and water costs and borrow the funds to build the industrial barns and other facilities. The giant agribusiness corporations supply the animals, the feed and additives. A handful of very large corporations control the animal market. These "Big-Ag" corporations squeeze every last bit of profit from contract growers and the animals, forcing farmers to raise more animals for less pay under increasingly dangerous working conditions.
Poisoning Our Water
One hog produces as much feces as four humans. North Carolina's 7,000,000 factory raised hogs create four times as much waste – stored in reeking, open cesspools – as the state's 6.5 million people. The Delmarva peninsula's 600 million chickens produce 400,000 tons of manure a year; manure that contains as much phosphorus as the waste from a city the size of Los Angeles, and as much nitrogen as the waste from a city the size of New York. When this manure is inappropriately applied to land as fertilizer, as it often is, nutrients run off into waterways, poisoning whole watersheds with excess amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus. Run-off from poultry and swine manure has been implicated in the outbreak of Pfiesteria piscicida, a tiny but deadly organism which has sickened humans and killed billions of fish along Atlantic coastal bays.
Animal factory manure may also contain environmental estrogens. These estrogens bio-accumulate and drain into waterways, interfering with aquatic reproductive cycles. In Israel, this run-off has been implicated in the mass stetilization of fish in the Sea of Galilee.
Risking Our Health
The animal factory system adds antibiotics and heavy metals, like arsenic and copper, to animal feed to promote rapid growth and prevent epidemic levels of disease among confined animals. Routine use of antibiotics call breed drug-resistant bacteria which enter our water and our food chain, threatening human health.
Young children and the elderly are particularly at risk from these resistant bacteria. Currently, poultry and hog corporations feed their animals sub-therapeutic levels of the latest generation of antibiotics, leaving human populations potentially vulnerable as a result. The US Food and Drug Administration is trying, against strong industry resistance, to ban much of animal factory antibiotic use. Such use is already restricted in the European Union.
Animal factory production is inherently inhumane. It represents a fundamental violation of nature, with broad consequences for our physical and spiritual health. How our food is raised, matters. When living creatures are brutally transformed into factory units of production it desensitizes the human consciousness to the environment and all of its inhabitants – further alienating us from the natural processes upon which our lives depend.
We simply must abolish animal factories and pursue more sustainable, humane ways to raise our food.
Chris Bedford is the Chair of the Maryland Chapter of the Sierra Club.
A St. Louis Circuit Court jury recently awarded $5.2 million in damages to 52 rural citizens subjected to odors, flies and waste spills from Continental Grain Company's sprawling northern Missouri hog operations. The lawsuit, in which the jury deemed Continental's facilities a "continuing public nuisance," is one of the first in the nation where farmers and rural residents have legally and successfully held a corporate hog factory giant accountable for its degradation of property values and rural quality of life.
On July 29, declining to join forces with the Departmentof Justice/Environmental Protection Agency and a Missouri citizen's group, Missouri's Attorney General filed a consent judgement settling all of the state's claims against Continental Grain-Premium Standard Farms, including a July 28 spill which dumped over 12,000 gallons of shog manure into a local stream.
The sweetheart deal allows Continental Grain-Premium Standard Farm to pollute without penalty for the next three to five years while it spends $12.5 to S25 million to research, develop and adopt unspecified "technology" to "reduce or eliminate" its pollution problems. The settlement does not set water or air quality standards to be met by the company.
A federal judge is expected to rule shortly on the July 22 Department of Justice motion to intervene on behalf of Environmental Protection Agency in the pending suit by Citizens Legal Environmental Action Network against Premium Standard Farms.