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What is Industrial Agriculture or Factory Farming?
Industrial Crop Production
Industrial Animal Production
The Characteristics of Industrial Agriculture
Corporate Involvement in Agriculture
The True Costs
Did You Know?
What You Can Do
For More Information
Reports and Articles
In the last few decades, consolidation of food production has concentrated power in the hands of fewer and fewer corporations. Many of today’s farms are actually large industrial facilities, not 40 acres of pastures, red barns, and rows of mixed vegetable crops that most Americans imagine. These consolidated operations are able to produce food in high volume but have little to no regard for the environment, animal welfare, soil and water quality, or food safety. In order to maximize profits, industrial agriculture often trades the health of consumers and rural communities, as well as the nutritional quality of the product, for an economy of scale through consolidation and mechanization.
While there is no strict definition, industrial agriculture and factory farming refers to a modern type of agriculture which 1 ) requires high inputs of money, fertilizers, and eliminate jobs (industrial farms use “labor-saving” technologies such as pesticides in the place of weeding and heavy machinery for planting and harvesting), in the case of crop production and 2 ) for animal production is characterized by a dense population of animals raised on limited land and requiring large amounts of food, water and medical inputs. 1 Factory farming and industrial agriculture are used interchangeably, although industrial agriculture tends to be used more to describe this intensive type of crop (plant) production and factory farms is used when referring to industrial animal production.
Drive through Iowa and you can get a clear picture of industrial agriculture: the landscape is dominated by miles and miles of mostly two crops - corn and soybeans. Monocultures, or the production of only one crop over a large area, are a main component of industrial agriculture, and, in addition to growing only one or two crops, this type of agriculture is characterized by a dependence upon external inputs (like fuel and pesticides), extensive mechanization (i.e. the use of machines like harvesters to replace human labor) and consolidation of ownership. The widespread application of only one species goes against the basic principals that operate in the natural world (i.e. diversity) and because of this, many problems occur. While proponents of industrial agriculture claim to have modernized and streamlined the production of food in the United States, such evolution has been at the expense of biodiversity, environmental sustainability, stable rural communities and even individuals' health. 1
Animal production has gotten so far from the traditional methods of farming that the government no longer refers to these operations as farms. They are now called “Animal Feeding Operations” (AFO). According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), AFOs are “agricultural operations where animals are kept and raised in confined situations” and they “congregate animals, feed, manure, dead animals, and production operations on a small land area.” 2 In order to be classified as an AFO, a lot or facility must have animals that “are, or will be stabled or confined and fed or maintained for a total of 45 days or more in any 12-month period” and “crops, vegetation, forage growth, or post-harvest residues are not sustained in the normal growing season over any portion of the lot or facility”. 2
A Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO ) is defined according to the number of animals in an operation. Numbers for both large and medium CAFOs (factory farms) are listed on the EPA’s site. A large CAFO includes 1000 cattle (other than dairy, which is 700), 2500 hogs over 55 pounds, or 125,000 chickens, if a liquid manure system isn’t used, and 30,000 if it does. 4 A liquid manure system is when the animal’s urine and feces are mixed with water and held either under the facility or outside in huge open air lagoons - these manure systems create a lot of pollution (which many times taxpayers end up paying for). The chickens they refer to are chickens other than laying hens – laying hens must number between 30,000 - 82,000, depending on how the manure is handled. A medium factory farm (CAFO) has between 300-999 cattle other than dairy (200-699 if dairy), 750-2,499 hogs if 55 pounds or more, and 37,500 to 124,999 chickens (other than hens that lay eggs) if the facility doesn’t use a liquid manure handling system and 25,000 if it does.
Even though the numbers above are how the EPA defines a factory farm, the general definition is characterized by:
Separating animals and plants in production disrupts the natural cycle of renewal. In a sustainable farming system, the needs of all components are met by the wastes of another: animal manure is incorporated into the soil to replenish the nutrients which are drawn from the soil by crops that are fed to the animals. It is a complete circle of renewal. When you separate these two, the soils become depleted and wastes accumulate to a point of toxicity.
Contract growing is a common practice for companies which process crop items (such as corn) and for animal production (primarily the production of hogs and chickens). In a contract farming arrangement with crops, a corporation will sign a contract before the crop is planted which will specify how much finished product the company will buy and at what price. 12 In animal production a corporation that owns livestock contracts with farmers to raise the animals to maturity.
Generally, a contract growing system works like this: A major food corporation delivers to the farm the seeds and any inputs or the feed and a large number of immature animals. This allows the corporation to control the variety or breed product and all inputs (feed, fertilizers, etc). The farmer raises the animals for a pre-determined amount of time, after which the company collects, processes and distributes the product.
While this system guarantees farmers a market for their product, it also burdens them with tremendous financial risk. Farmers must pay for all inputs (feed, fertilizers, etc) and absorb any financial loss from crop loss, rejection of product because of low quality or animals that die. Farmers often invest considerable capital to purchase harvesting equipment or build structures for housing the animals, usually a considerable debt that is carried for years. The farmer is also responsible for following waste disposal regulations and other environmental protection laws.
Throughout the process, the corporation maintains full control in this arrangement, often causing the farmers to lose power by growing dependent upon the companies for “inputs” (seed, fertilizer, animals, feed, etc..) and know-how. Additionally if something causes the farmer to no longer be able to raise the crop or animal cheaply enough, the farmer becomes "non-competitive'' and can lose the contract and be stuck with investments for machinery and buildings to support only that one crop or animal. Too much time without a replacement contract could drive a farmer into bankruptcy. This loss of knowhow and the need to keep costs low reduces a farmer from a steward to the land to someone who manages an industrial process.
Contract farming is one piece of the grander scale of corporate ownership in agriculture. Vertical integration is a management arrangement where several steps in the production and/or distribution of a product or service are controlled by a single company or entity, in order to increase that company’s or entity’s power in the marketplace. In addition to contracting with farms to raise their crop or livestock, corporations will own a seed or feed company, a farm supply company, and a processing and distribution company. This allows them to profit from every level of food production without investing in permanent assets like land or losing money to unpredictable elements such as crop failure due to unpredictable weather or animal mortality.
While vertical integration in some areas of industry is fine (it is a proven method to maximize profits), it has dire consequences in the case of agriculture, especially when combined with contract farming, since the farmers take all the risk and the companies receive the benefits. Vertical integration and contract farming forces farmers into debt, supports farming practices that harm the environment and abuse animals, and compromises the quality of the food we eat and the soil on which it is grown.
Industrially produced food appears to be inexpensive, but the price tag doesn’t reflect the actual costs that we taxpayers bear. Monocultures and factory farms pollute communities and adversely affect public health, thereby increasing medical costs for those living near such farms—costs that are often shouldered by public budgets. 13 Taxpayers fund government subsidies which go primarily to large industrial farms. Jobs are lost and wages driven down as corporate consolidation bankrupts small businesses and factory farms pay unethically low wages for dangerous, undesirable work.
Because factory farms are considered “agricultural” instead of “industrial,” they are not subject to the regulation that their scale of production (and level of pollution) warrants. 13 Because they employ powerful lobbyists that can sway the government agencies responsible for monitoring agricultural practices, industrial farms are left free to pollute, to hire undocumented workers (and pay them next to nothing), and to locate their industrial facilities without regard to the impact it has on surrounding communities.
We can all help put an end to the factory farming system by buying our food from smaller, sustainable farms. These businesses still aim to profit from their labor, but that’s not their only objective. They have essentially a triple bottom line - of social, environmental and financial gain - which means they won’t sacrifice the health of the land or the quality of food simply to make a few dollars more.