Mega farms: does our society really want animal production on this industrial scale?

intensive chicken farm

The latest campaign by Compassion in World Farming (CIWF), highlights the rise of so-called “mega-farms”. There is no formal definition of a mega farm, but in the USA, “Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations” (CAFOs) are defined as those housing 125,000 broiler chickens, 82,000 laying hens, 2,500 pigs or 700 dairy or 1,000 beef cattle. In the UK, special permits are needed if they house more than 40,000 chickens, 2,000 pigs or 750 breeding sows. The term “mega farm” seems like appropriate terminology. There are now 789 mega farms in the UK, and the CIWF online map allows you to see if there’s one near you.

The wording on the website is eye-catching:

Around 70% of farm animals in the UK are kept in factory farms, where they spend their lives in overcrowded barns or cages. Factory farming has spread across the country to satisfy our appetite for cheap meat, dairy, and eggs, at great cost to animal welfare, human health, and the environment. Follow this link to see how much chicken, pig, and dairy factory farming there is where you live.”

 

The pros and cons of gigantic farms

Mega farms are controversial. Animal welfare groups like CIWF are quick to condemn them for turning animals into commodities devoid of any value other than their market price, while farming organisations argue that mega farms offer the best hope of maintaining good animal welfare while also producing the cheapest possible meat, milk and eggs. So what’s the truth?

 

It’s easy to be critical of mega farms. They are so different from our traditional idea of farming, with thousands of animals squeezed into a small indoor space. How can animals express natural behaviours in such an unnatural environment? How can they have “a life worth living” if their existence consists of no more than eating, breathing, and shuffling around a confined area? There are also concerns about animal health, with the risk of disease spreading rapidly between so many animals in close proximity. And there are sustainability issues: intensively reared animals are inefficient converters of vegetable protein into animal protein. In a food-sparse world, this seems like an unnecessary waste.

Supporters of mega-farms maintain that the controlled environment of a large, modern farm makes it easier to achieve high environmental, hygiene and welfare standards. Benchmarks can be set, and monitors put in place. Efficiencies of scale make it easier to use veterinary support to ensure optimal health.

So who is right? As always, the truth probably falls between the extremes.

Good – and bad – farms come in many sizes

A well run, efficient, ethical mega farm may well offer a better quality of life to cattle, pigs and poultry than a small scale farmer who is on the economic breadline, unable to afford the vet, finding it difficult to pay labour and struggling to keep going. But will a mega farm with an eye set firmly on profits-at-any-cost always be focussed on promoting animal welfare, taking steps to encourage natural behaviours even if it takes a percentage off the bottom line?

The truth is that just as there are good and bad small scale farmers, so there will be good and bad mega farms. The difference is that when mega farms are bad, tens of thousands of animals suffer, rather than just hundreds.

The bigger the group of animals, the harder it is to treat them as individuals

The strongest argument against mega farms is the principle: they endorse the reduction of animals to commodities on a conveyor belt on a scale that has never been seen before. Intuitively, it seems certain to be more difficult to treat these creatures as individual sentient beings, worthy of respect and dignity.

Yuval Noah Harari, author of “Sapiens” , has eloquently summed up the feeling of many of those who abhor the concept of mega farms.

“Industrial farming is one of the worst crimes in history. The fate of industrially farmed animals is one of the most pressing ethical questions of our time. Tens of billions of sentient beings, each with complex sensations and emotions, live and die on a production line”.

Yes, it may be true that the consumer drive for cheap food means that mega farms are the most effective and most humane way of satisfying the market. But that does not mean that we should accept them as a part of our cultural landscape. Is this really the way we want our world to look?

How about an alternative view? What about if we all agreed to eat less meat, eggs and milk, placing a higher value on – and paying a little more for – products that are produced with more respect for the non-human life which is sacrificed to satisfy our appetite?

It’s too easy to say “the consumer wants so the consumer must get”. The “consumer” might want to drink and drive, but our society says “no” to that. “Consumers” might want to bring back the death penalty and flogging, but our society says “no” to that too. Our society has decided that racism, sexism and homophobia have no place in our culture, despite the traditional negative attitudes of many citizens. Consumers are not always right: sometimes society as a whole has to step back and say “what is our ideal vision of our future, and how are we going to attain that”.

Are mega farms in your vision of the world that you want your children to live in?

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