Intensive, industrialised, factory - they’re all terms
that describe modern farming methods. Intensive because as
many animals as possible are crammed together in the smallest
possible space. Industrialised because feeding, watering and
dung clearing are often performed automatically. Factory because
the philosophy of mass production is what lies behind it all.
Can you conceive the mentality that looked at restlessly strutting
creatures such as chickens - descendants of jungle fowl - and
decided to cram them five to a wire cage no bigger than a microwave
oven? Then they piled thousands of cages one on top of another.
And forced the hens - through selection, lighting and feed
- to produce an egg almost every day of their short lives,
when their ancestors lay just 20 a year. So many that their
bones break involuntarily from osteoporosis, the calcium leached
to provide egg shells. That’s what happened and that’s
how 80 per cent of all eggs are still obtained. The sad little
by-products are day-old male chicks, too scrawny for meat and
incapable of laying eggs - so they’re cruelly gassed
with CO2 or crushed to death. Forty million of them every year.
The fate of those chickens selected to provide meat is little
better. As many as 50,000 or more are crammed into a single
shed to stand in their own excreta for the six weeks of their
obscenely short lives. Huge, waddling babies, forced to grow
unnaturally fast - so fast that their hearts can’t cope
and many die. Legs give way and break under their ballooning
weight. Despite the ordeal, these perversions of nature account
for almost all chicken meat eaten. Ducks, turkeys and Guinea
fowl all endure similar conditions - and shortly it will be
What sane person would look at highly-intelligent animals
such as pigs and force them into crowded, concrete cells? No
bedding, no enrichment, filth and squalor and absolutely nothing
to do - unable to fulfil even their most basic natural instincts.
And as a bonus, cut off their tails and crush their teeth without
anaesthetic in an attempt to control the resulting aggression.
A special barbarity is reserved for sows - female breeding
pigs. Until recently they spent their entire lives encased
in metal - narrow crates little wider then their bodies, ensuring
they could never turn around or lie down properly. In Britain,
continual campaigning has led to the abolition of these stalls
while the sows are pregnant. They have been substituted with
the same barren, concrete filth that meat pigs endure. But
for 70 days a year, they are still confined in metal farrowing
crates while they deliver and suckle their annual 2.5 litters.
No wonder they go mad, gnawing at their bars in the bleak and
desolate despair of mental collapse.
These are the obvious forms of factory farming but there are
other, less obvious examples. Despite their seemingly free-range
existence, dairy cows are probably the hardest worked of all
farmed animals. They are one of the few to endure pregnancy
and milking both at the same time. And what milking - up to
10 times the amount they need to produce to suckle a calf.
Look at dairy cows in the field and you will see hip bones
that protrude from their skin like coat hangers through a flimsy
shirt. Watch them as they walk and you will see distended udders.
They will limp and lurch along with difficulty. Hardly surprising
as one third at any one time suffer foot and leg problems and
excruciating laminitis. Another third experience the equally
painful mastitis. Animals that can live into their mid twenties
are exhausted after two or three pregnancies and are slaughtered
- equivalent in age to a teenage girl.
And what of their offspring? All are removed from their mother
at two or three days old, despite her bellows of despair and
their own confusion and fear. Female calves will mostly be
kept to replenish the herd while the teetering little male
calves are often shot in the head - another by-product of
another cruel industry. Those that aren't shot and are too
scrawny for beef will often be sent to continental veal farms.
After a long, cramped journey they will spend the first eight
weeks of their lives in tiny pens without bedding or
stimulation. They will be killed while still babies, having
never seen the outdoors.
Sheep, too, are touted as free range animals - and so they
are. But that doesn’t tell the full story. Tricked
into ovulating at the wrong time and tricked into producing
many babies - increasingly triplets - it is a struggle to
survive, often on over-grazed, marginal land. Instead of
in Spring, ewes often deliver their young as early as December.
The result is cold, starvation, disease and death, which
claims 20 per cent of all new born lambs - four million every
And when they’re marketed, each little creature which
has known only the quiet of the countryside will be transported
from market place to holding pen, from livestock dealer to
exporter - an average of eight times each. Many will be subjected
to days of road transport - often as far as Greece - crammed
with others in unventilated, unheated transporters. Many will
die - whole consignments have died - of stress, thirst and
And so it goes on. Beef cattle are no exception and it was
unnaturally being fed the remains of their own kind that has
gave the world the terrifying and incurable outbreak of vCJD
- the human form of BSE.
This whole cycle of exploitation took wing after the end of
the World War II - or, to be more precise, after 1948 when
antibiotics were first introduced. And it is these which are
the key to this unnatural, cruel and ultimately dangerous abuse
of animals. What began with greed is likely to end in catastrophe.
There has been enough writing on the wall in the form of warnings
to graffiti the Great Wall of China. But still the dosing goes
on - often indiscriminately, on a daily basis, frequently incorporated
in food and water.
A whole string of antibiotics and other drugs are administered
for different purposes. Some are used to prevent disease, some
are used to try and cure diseases and some, believe it or not,
are used simply to make animals put on weight more quickly.
The onslaught is relentless and the outcome is not even in
doubt any more.
In evolutionary terms, the time from 1948 to today is no more
than a twinkling of light. And yet the results are stark. One
by one we have lost the ability to use specific antibiotics
because the bacteria they are targeted at have developed resistance
- the drugs no longer work. Worse than this, the mutated microbes
have the ability to pass on their resistance to unrelated organisms
in an example of microbial co-operation that no one understands.
In severe food poisoning cases, where a human’s blood
becomes infected, there is now only one antibiotic of last
resort - and even a derivative of this is still being fed to
animals. As for the rest - they simply no longer work.
We are staring into the abyss - not my words but those of
an official enquiry into drug-resistant bacteria. As enquiry
tumbles on the heels of enquiry, the farming industry refuses
to respond, pleading poverty, and the government wrings its
hands as only governments know how. Another enquiry will doubtless
be launched to add to the many already held. Then a working
party will be formed. Then trials will be held and then the
government will change and we will go back to square one.
Already we have virulent new forms of Salmonella, E.coli and
Campylobacter which have turned food poisoning into an epidemic.
And we have superbugs, which are wreaking havoc in our hospitals.
We don’t know the figures for the UK but in the US, between
20,000 and 60,000 people are dying every year from uncontrollable,
deadly infections they contract while in hospital.
Despite the empty promises of genetic engineering, we are
looking at a bleak future. If things continue as they are,
we may return to the deadly infectious epidemics of the middle
ages and where invasive surgery will be impossible. Even having
a tooth out could become life threatening.
New animal diseases are developing apace and we have no idea
if any of these will devastate humans in a similar way to BSE.
We are on the brink and we have to force farmers and legislators
into action. Factory farming has to end, we have stop this
unhealthy and obsessive promotion of animal protein, we have
to begin treating animals with respect and consideration -
or pay the price.
Animal health and human health are both in the balance but
so is the health of the planet. Livestock production is at
the heart of most of the world’s environmental catastrophes
- rainforest destruction, global warming, water depletion,
spreading desserts, loss of soil fertility, soil erosion, ozone
depletion and the collapse of the world’s oceans. Almost
everything that humans currently do is unsustainable. And while
we send in our pennies and pounds to Ethiopian and other famine
appeals, no one makes the case that the west’s obsession
with meat plays a direct role in starving the world’s
poorest people. Meat is a killer in every sense of the word.
The most conclusive and effective decision anyone can take
to stop this descent into insanity is to give up meat and become
vegetarian or vegan. In the meantime, a huge step forward can
be made by outlawing factory farming. It isn’t just rhetoric
- we really do have to end factory farming before it ends us!
Associate Director, Viva!