Factory farming is a process that rears livestock with methods that are generally intensive. Most facilities will raise cattle, pigs and swine, or poultry indoors using this method under conditions which receive strict controls. The goal of this operational method is to maximize the levels of food productivity while minimizing the costs of production. Many of the eggs, milk, and meat products that humans consume today come from this practice.
Factory farming is a recent development in the history of agriculture thanks to several technological advances and scientific discoveries. The first innovations began to appear in the late 19th century as the principles of the Industrial Revolution were applied to agriculture by entrepreneurs and investors. When the discovery of vitamins, antibiotics, and vaccines occurred in the 20th century, it made the mass-production of animal products possible.
Production levels across the world doubled four times between 1820-1975. During the same time period, the number of individuals involved with farming practices decline from 24% to 1.5% of the population. An American farm worker in 1940 supported 11 consumers, but the same employee in 2012 supplied 90 consumers with food products.
The advantages and disadvantages of factory farming often include the ethics of this production method, but there are also some practice reasons why we should continue using this process and why we should avoid it.
List of the Advantages of Factory Farming
1. Our food remains affordable because of the intensive methods used in factory farming.
American households are spending less of their discretionary income on food than any other country in the world today. Even when the costs of eating out are factored into this data, the typical family of four spends about 10% of their earnings on something to eat. That’s four times lower than the costs of sustenance at the turn of the 20th century, and it is comparable to what households in other nations spend when restaurant costs are excluded from the figures.
You can feed the average family of four in the United States for about $6,000 per year because of this unique advantage of factory farming.
2. Factory farms are significant employers in their communities.
Although the processes of automation allow fewer workers to product more agricultural products for consumers, there are still plenty of jobs available with intensive farming that support local economies. About $0.70 of every $1 that consumers spend on locally-grown products goes to a direct economic benefit that supports everyone. These corporations purchase crops and feed supplies from mom-and-pop operations, pay property taxes that fund the schools, and other financial benefits as well.
One factory farm can provide seven-figure economic supports to a local economy in its first year of operations. At the same time, it reduces food security issues for the entire region.
3. We can reduce problems with food waste thanks to factory farms.
Factory farming products more food than we actually need right now. Oxfam estimates that the world has 20% more in calories from current crop production than what humans need for a comfortable way of life. We are wasting over 1.3 billion pounds of food each year, often at the distribution or retail level. These items can go back into the food chain because of the intensive farming methods that factory farms use.
The leftover organic products can be come fertilizers, nutritional supplements for animals, and several other items that continue to support the overall economic food chain. These create processing improvements that can extend the life of agricultural products by up to a week longer than a traditional item because of the intensive approach.
4. Organizations can place a factory farm almost anywhere.
If the company behind a factory farm can import food products for their livestock or poultry, then the indoor nature of the intensive process allows workers to create usable resources almost anywhere on the planet. We can improve arid soil with the use of additives and fertilizers to produce local cross as well. Even if the outdoor conditions are a struggle, our construction abilities can create acres of usable space indoors with irrigation and sunlight.
An extreme example of this benefit is the Eden-ISS farm in Antarctica. It is a greenhouse that relies on vertical farming and LED lighting, but this process also makes it possible to grow food when it is -100°F outside. It debuted in 2017, and up to 50 different species are possible with each harvest thanks to this approach. The first full crop included eight pounds of salad greens, 70 radishes, and 18 cucumbers in sub-zero outdoor conditions.
5. It creates jobs that pay well above the minimum wage in Western countries.
The average wage for agricultural workers in the world might be less than $2 per day, but it is much higher in the United States because of the intensive efforts available through factory farming. General laborers who work in this industry make about $12 per hour, which is about $5 more per hour than the federal minimum wage. It also exceeds the salary of higher minimums in most other states. If you can earn a management role on a farm, then your wages climb to about $18 per hour, according to information released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
When farmers can transition their traditional processes toward intensive methods, then the automation can turn thousands of dollars of investments into millions in revenues within five years. That’s why so many families are trying to incorporate instead of using the small-scale approach.
6. Intensive farming can create multiple food products from one location.
We have more foods available to us from all over the world thanks to improvements in the factory farming process over the years. That means each food item is potentially in-season throughout the year. Even if it is winter in the Northern Hemisphere, the south experiences a summer growing season that can benefit everyone with improved shipping techniques. The equatorial region can produce some crops all year long.
When you add in the extra affordability that comes with food purchases today, pantries can get stocked with a variety of nutritional items. This advantage makes it easier to create a well-balanced diet for the average family.
7. Foods make it to the marketplace faster because of factory farming.
Thanks to the influences of factory farming on the agricultural industries around the world, it takes a lot less time for livestock and poultry to become ready for the consumer. It takes a chicken about 50% less time to be ready for processing without changing the weight profile of the animal in question. Cattle is about 300 pounds heavier in its final weight today because of the intensive methods found in this industry. That means farmers can make more, customers pay less, and the amount of food improves all at the same time.
8. Factory farms create new efficiencies for the agricultural industry.
Because the intensive farming methods in this practice encourage organizations to look for better efficiencies, our methods of agricultural production are far better today than they were in the past. We now require less space to produce more food because of advancements in this category. This advantage leads to even more savings at the grocery store while farmers create a stronger profit margin for themselves. It also means there is more availability to the region, export markets, and more thanks to the innovative processes created over time.
9. Workers can also be more efficient with their labor because of factory farming.
Instead of spending several minutes hand-milking a cow, the intensive practices allow workers to use equipment that automates the manual processes. When an investment is large enough, it only takes a couple of workers to manage an entire herd instead of what farmers required in the past. This advantage allows us to pay people more for their work, create scalability options with the farm, and improve access to food products simultaneously.
Even if the family farm decides against an upgrade, a few investments into automation can reduce the number of early mornings spent milking throughout the year.
List of the Disadvantages of Factory Farming
1. Intensive farming doesn’t take animal welfare into its profit equation.
Animals become commodities in the factory farming process. This disadvantage creates an issue when livestock becomes sick. Instead of investing resources that can help in the recovery process, it is usually more profitable to slaughter and start over. About 4 out of every 5 hogs and swine in this industry have severe health conditions that may never receive treatment because of the costs involved. Pneumonia is common across all species. Issues with the avian flu in China have even caused humans to catch the disease, creating concerns for another epidemic.
2. Greenhouse gas emissions are significant from factory farms.
About 13% of the greenhouse gas emissions that occur each year around the world come from farming operations. Most farms don’t measure their production levels with this disadvantage, so the costs could be significantly higher. We do know that the entire industry products over 6 billion tons of problematic gases.
Methane and nitrous oxide, not carbon dioxide, are the primary contributors to this potential trigger of climate change. 65% of agriculture-related emissions come from cattle belching, natural fertilizers, and synthetic fertilizers. The intensive farming methods create higher levels of emissions that can contribute to the development of pneumonia in the animals.
3. Animals on factory farms have their movements restricted.
Intensive farming methods attempt to produce more food in less space than the traditional family-based operation. Even though this disadvantage is not as frequent in this industry as it used to be, there are still ethical considerations to look at when animals are 100% restricted to an indoor environment. Chickens are sometimes kept in spaces that are smaller than an iPad. Even if free movements are permitted, the tips of wings or components of hooves are trimmed to restrict what they can do. This issue can also impact the quality of food that eventually goes to the processor.
4. The mesh floors on factory farms can hurt the feet of the animals.
Intensive farming methods must manage a lot of animal waste during their daily work. One of the most efficient ways to do this is to place the poultry and livestock on a mesh floor that allows the feces and urine to go through it. Although this reduces the amount of effort that is necessary to clean up in a factory farm, the metals used can damage their feet.
This disadvantage is one of the reasons why there is a higher fat content in today’s animal proteins in the past. The pain that comes with movement on this grate causes a natural restriction of movement in response.
5. Chickens and livestock become an unnatural size.
Intensive farming methods focus on the results of production instead of the processes used to achieve results. That means it is not unusual for these facilities to crossbreed different species as a way to generate more efficient growth behaviors. Some locations still use artificial stimulants to encourage additional weight for the animal too. That’s why the production time from birth to processing is down by 50% or more with some traditional farming products. It even takes less food per day to reach the higher weight results, decreasing from three pounds to about 1.5 pounds in less than 50 years of factory farming.
6. There is more aggression with dairy production in factory farming.
The federal government in the United States has set the price of milk since the 1930s, tying it to the value of a 40-pound block of Cheddar cheese that sells on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. Because the dairy industry is now dominated by factory farming, it is much easier to manipulate the retail price for consumers. The Dairy Farmers of America paid a $12 million fine in 2008 because of their actions at manipulating fluid milk prices.
Dean Foods controls about 40% of the national milk supply, 60% of organic milk products, and 90% of soymilk. When the prices paid to dairy farmers fell by 41% in 2009, the company’s profits rose by 147% because of this disadvantage. By being aggressive in production, there are more revenues to find at the expense of the cattle.
7. Intensive farming changes the activities of the animals under its care.
Hens typically lay a single egg each day after they go through the molting process. If you force the chicken into darkness for up to eight hours without food or water, then a second egg is possible. Even though 1 in 10 will pass away because of this change to their routine, the outcome still boosts production levels for the organization running the factory farm. That means extra profits are possible from this “best practice.”
Cattle might be artificially inseminated to produce milk earlier than they would if nature were allowed to take its course. Then the cows are kept in a constant state of pregnancy to ensure production levels stay the same. If the dairy production dries up, then the factory farm sends her to slaughter and starts over with a different heifer.
8. Genetic manipulation is a possibility at factory farms.
Factory farms embrace genetic engineering because it allows them to produce more products for the food chain without impacting their cost profile. That means the goal of this disadvantage is to make the animals become more useful for us. Selective breeding has already led to problems with milk production, weight in the breasts of chicken, and other welfare issues. Large-litter breeding for sows produces a high piglet death rate. Even hens laying 300+ eggs per year suffer bone fractures because of calcium deficiencies.
“Gene editing animals to get them to produce even more milk or grow even faster is likely to heap still more suffering and ill-health onto our overworked farm animals,” observed Peter Stevenson, Chief Policy Advisor of Compassion in World Farming for The Huffington Post.
9. Family separations occur frequently with intensive farming methods.
Piglets are weaned at the two-week mark because this encourages sows to be ready for another pregnancy faster than they would be otherwise. We slaughter lambs and calves for food. Facilities that focus on dairy production take calves away from their mothers just days after birth to encourage more fluid milk production. Mothers frantically call for their offspring when this occurs, sometimes searching for days to locate their little ones that were taken away.
There are incidents where herds purposely hid their calves from farmers because they feared that their little ones would disappear. Some have chased after transport trucks or broken through fences to reunite with them. It is a highly stressful situation where the average lifespan of a dairy cow is just five years when it should be 20 because their bodies break down from the forced labor.
Goats encounter this issue as well. Elodie Briefer, a post-doctoral research at the University of London found that mothers react to the calls of their kid from the previous year more than they do to familiar ones born to other females, indicating long-term memory of their offspring.
10. Animals are prevented from expressing their natural behaviors.
Most animals that live in a factory farm receive restrictions from their natural behaviors because of the intensive methods used. Hogs and swine prefer to sit in the sun during the day, but they are kept indoors without access to mud that prevents them from rooting. Instead of grazing all day in a pasture, cows might receive hay while they stay indoors on ground that could be laden with waste that could impact hoof health. The space could be so packed to maximize results that there may not be an option to move at all beyond sitting down or standing up.
11. Veterinary care is not always a priority with intensive farming.
If an animal gets sick, then they go to the slaughterhouse to become part of the food supply. It is not unusual for factory farms to proactively use antibiotics as a way to reduce loss, but this issue can also create human health problems in the form of resistance. By keeping the vet away whenever possible, intensive operations can improve their profit margin. This disadvantage isn’t always because of money either. Some vets refuse to serve factory farmers in their area because of the way that they treat their animals.
12. Factory farms can encourage soil erosion.
When there is a lack of agricultural activity beyond livestock and poultry, then the quality of soil on that land begins to degrade. Its ability to absorb CO2 diminishes, which means the impact of greenhouse gases can increase. It may even reduce the amount of sunlight it absorbs, reflecting the heat back onto the animals to create additional health issues that require management.
Verdict on the Advantages and Disadvantages of Factory Farming
Factory farming is a necessity in some ways because of our need for food. As the global population level grows to near 10 billion in the coming years, we must have access to a variety of items that can help us to manage our health. There is a right way and a wrong way to achieve this goal, and unfortunately, intensive methods tend to fall short on the spectrum of ethics.
Can we produce more food by taking borderline abusive techniques that put the welfare of the animal secondary to our hunger? Yes.
Should we be doing that? Maybe not.
We are discovering with the advantages and disadvantages of factory farming that quality is often more important than quantity with the foods we eat. Intensive methods are creating higher fat content in our animal proteins, lower dairy quality, and other areas of concern. That doesn’t mean we should all become vegetarians or vegans, but it is our responsibility to ensure that the foods we eat are produced in ways that are conscionable.
Keith Miller has over 25 years experience as a CEO and serial entrepreneur. As an entreprenuer, he has founded several multi-million dollar companies. As a writer, Keith's work has been mentioned in CIO Magazine, Workable, BizTech, and The Charlotte Observer. If you have any questions about the content of this blog post, then please send our content editing team a message here.