What is a factory farm?
These aren’t the pastoral farms in your childhood picture books. Nearly all modern farms raising animals for food are massive operations that house thousands of animals in confined, crowded spaces. The photos you may have seen of stacks of caged chickens, or layers of dead pigs? Those horrifying images reflect the modern factory farm as it exists today.
Why are factory farms so bad?
The scale of modern factory farms concentrates their impacts in harmful ways. Pollution from agriculture in the U.S. threatens over 13,000 miles of rivers and streams, and over 60,000 acres of lakes and ponds. Cows on factory farms in Tulare County, California produce five times more waste than the New York City metropolitan area. Manure from factory farms emits a host of toxic air pollutants, and those living near factory farms often report health impacts such as breathing problems, nausea, and vomiting.
Like many other sources of pollution, factory farms tend to be located near impoverished areas and communities of color; an environmental justice catastrophe. Their overuse of antibiotics is contributing to the rise of resistant “superbugs”, and the practices used on factory farms create harmful conditions for workers and animals alike. The industrialization of farming has been a disaster for rural communities, destroying the economic diversity of rural communities.
Finally, addressing the greenhouse gas emissions of the agriculture sector is critical to stopping climate change, and factory farms are taking us in the wrong direction. An emerging body of evidence shows that smaller farms are more suited to adapting a host of low-emissions practices that will be essential to reducing the impact of livestock production, which currently makes up 14.5 percent of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions.
How did we get here?
Since 1997, there has been a sharp decline in the number of farms in the U.S., while livestock production has soared.
It wasn’t always like this. Over the past few decades, industrial-scale farms have pushed smaller, family-owned farms out of the market. This was no accident; federal policies have encouraged and allowed large companies to unfairly dominate the market, and the Environmental Protection Agency and state regulators have consistently failed to uphold laws that would hold companies responsible for pollution from the animals they own.
The few remaining small- and medium-sized farms face numerous obstacles, from federal programs that give preference to factory farms, to slaughterhouses that refuse to do business with smaller operators. Meanwhile, more and more rural communities are becoming sacrifice zones for the factory farm industry, where toxic air and polluted water have become a fact of life.
How do we ban factory farms?
Big agribusiness built the modern factory farm system by twisting public policy and using their economic power to distort the market in their favor. We can’t rely on market forces to correct this problem. We need a fundamental change to the way that we produce food in the U.S., which can only come from equitable and sustainable public policy. Here’s what we need to do:
- Pass legislation. Federal and state regulators should ban all new factory farms, and refuse to allow existing factory farms to expand.
- Enforce environmental laws. The federal, state, and local governments should work together to restore control over siting and practices to local governments, require permits for all factory farms, and hold vertically-integrated companies accountable for the pollution of the animals they own.
- Diversify existing farms. The federal and state government should help transition existing farms to better serve regional markets by diversifying their operations. This includes prioritizing smaller-scale livestock production and regenerative practices in public policy and government spending programs.
- Address agricultural emissions. It is far past time for the federal government to enact an aggressive policy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including in the agricultural sector.