What is Factory Farming?

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 geese, too.

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.

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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 too many babies - increasingly triplets - it is a struggle to survive, often on over-grazed, marginal land. Instead of giving birth 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 year.

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 heat stroke.

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!

Viva! Vegetarians International Voice for Animals
8 York Court, Wilder Street, Bristol, BS2 8QH, UK
T: 0117 944 1000 F: 0117 924 4646 E: info@viva.org.uk