Uncover the cruel truth behind factory farming as we reveal the devastating impact it has on the environment and farmed animals
When people think of animal farming, they often imagine chickens scratching around in golden sunlight, cows roaming lush green fields, and pigs rolling happily in dirt.
But this is not a realistic picture of the modern farming landscape.
In reality, around 73% of food animals reared in Britain are raised in factory farms, according to animal welfare charity Compassion in World Farming (CIWF).
So what exactly is factory farming?
England’s Environment Agency classifies farms by animal capacity. Facilities are considered intensive if they have ‘more than 40,000 places for poultry, 2,000 places for [meat] pigs…or 750 places for [breeding pigs]’.
The scale of some factory farms is truly staggering. A 2017 investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism discovered that the largest of England’s 1,700 licensed factory farms can house 1.7 million chickens.
Farm animal advocacy organisation The Humane League says: “Factory farming is…designed to maximize profits using as few resources as possible.
“Large numbers of animals are confined in small spaces, which often means keeping animals indoors for the duration of their lives.”
Why did factory farming become so popular?
Catherine Jadav is the research manager and media spokesperson for CIWF.
Jadav told Vegan Food and Living that factory farming emerged in the UK after the Second World War.
She explained: “There was a drive to produce more food, more cheaply, and this is when intensive systems for keeping farmed animals were introduced to Britain, mainly from the US.”
The UK’s Agriculture Act of 1947, which incentivised farmers to increase output by granting subsidies, encouraged intensive agriculture.
According to Jadav: “Before this, animals had generally been reared outdoors in more animal- and nature-friendly ways. The result [of factory farming] was an abundance of cheap meat, eggs and dairy.”
Since then, subsequent generations have become used to animal products being relatively cheap and accessible forms of protein.
“A whole chicken can cost less than a cup of coffee. This gives an idea as to how it is produced,” Jadav said.
“It causes immense suffering to animals – despite the British government’s claims it has the highest animal welfare standards in the world.”
"A whole chicken can cost less than a cup of coffee."
What’s the reality of life behind the scenes at a factory farm?
Indeed, while many believe all British produce must be high welfare, grim conditions are often cited by those who have worked within the industry.
Dr Alice Brough is a former pig industry veterinarian turned animal rights campaigner. She is working with advocacy group Humane Being to take legal action against the UK government calling for the end of factory farming.
The campaign – Scrap Factory Farming – says a ban is “urgently needed” to fight environmental damage, animal suffering, and public health issues.
Dr Brough told VF&L she worked within the intensive farming sector for four years. She said: “I have seen the problems with factory farming first-hand. The systems can be extremely stressful, unhygienic and inappropriate for animals’ needs.”
Jadav explained: “Even in the UK, laying hens are crammed into cages with about an A4 sheet of paper’s worth of space per bird.
“Over half of the UK’s mother pigs are confined every pregnancy in a narrow metal crate in which they cannot even turn around, never mind walk, for weeks on end.
“Around 90% of the UK’s meat chickens are bred to grow so fast they can struggle to stand by the age of five weeks old, whilst packed tightly into vast sheds with tens of thousands of other chickens.”
Pregnant pigs are confined to narrow metal crates for weeks on end
Environmental concerns about factory farms
While the impact on farmed animals seems clear, fewer people are aware of how intensive agriculture is fuelling multiple environmental crises.
Some of the issues factory farming causes include biodiversity loss, harmful emissions, and deforestation.
A 2021 Chatham House report – titled Food System Impacts on Biodiversity Loss – looked at intensive food production.
It said: “At the global level, food production contributes significantly to biodiversity loss by driving climate change.
When taking into account the emissions associated with agriculture…animal agriculture contributes disproportionately to this total, accounting for 16.5% of [greenhouse gas emissions].
“It is also the biggest contributor to….methane emissions (accounting for 44%) and nitrous oxide emissions (53%).”
Vegans are to blame for soy-related deforestation, right?
A 2020 investigation by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism discovered that ‘soya used to feed UK livestock [sold in major supermarkets and fast food outlets] is linked to industrial-scale destruction of vital tropical woodland’.
CIWF’s Catherine Jadav confirmed a “diet high in animal foods rely heavily on human-edible foods to feed those animals”.
“The majority (around 90%) of soya consumed in the UK is used indirectly as part of animal feed. The biggest consuming farmed animals are poultry and pigs,” she said.
Aerial images of the Amazon rainforest show the devastating impact of animal agriculture
Future threats of factory farming
Humans are not immune to the dangers of factory farming. In fact, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the risks of zoonotic diseases.
Jadav calls factory farming a “recognised major threat for future pandemics in humans”.
She described conditions on factory farms as “ideal for the rapid spread of bacteria and viruses, and consequently also for the mutation and emergence of new pathogens”.
“A 2016 United Nations Environment Programme report said that intensively farmed livestock were especially likely to act as a “bridge between wildlife and human infections”, she concluded.
Antibiotic resistance – described by the World Health Organisation as “one of the biggest threats to global health, food security, and development today” is another public health concern fueled in part by factory farming.
Jadav says an estimated 66% of all antibiotics used worldwide are used in livestock.
Dr Brough added: “Disease [on factory farms] is rife…and excessive antibiotic use inevitable. This overuse contributes to antibiotic resistance, which is already causing 700,000 human deaths globally each year.
“By 2050, this number is forecast by the World Health Organisation (WHO) to reach 10 million if we continue on our current path.”
New legislation for animal farming
While these issues paint a grim picture, positive changes could be on the horizon thanks to advocates calling for new legislation.
Dr Alice Brough said: “There are farmers within the industry who dislike factory farming and want to stick with more traditional methods.
“However, for this to be the norm, a dramatic drop in animal product consumption is required, which we’re just not seeing; this is the reason we are calling on the government to make policy changes.”
Catherine Jadav said CIWF’s campaign to ban the use of cages for all farmed animals has won “huge support” from the European Commission. Legislation is expected by 2027 to improve the lives of farmed animals.
She concluded: “The Commission recognises this is part of a bigger need to dramatically reduce factory farming and move to more sustainable ways of producing food, for the sake of animals, people and the planet.
“This is a huge step forward.”
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