All Farms are Factory Farms
In the UK today, less than 2% of our population are directly involved in agriculture. To the overwhelming majority of us, food production in the 21st Century is as alien and mysterious as space exploration – little wonder then, that the anachronistic fantasy of Farmer Giles chewing hay and sending Daisy off to market still lingers in our culture. To understand the meat on our plates, we need to dispense with these comforting illusions and examine modern farming as it really is.
As any farmer will tell you, farming is a business. Success in business is underpinned by a simple principle - maximising productivity and minimising cost. Producing animals for food is entirely about getting as much meat 0r other product out of them as possible while spending as little as possible in the process. Whether a farmed animal is confined to a battery cage or roaming a Scottish hillside, the same principle applies. A farmer’s priority is not to have healthy or happy animals but to have productive animals and the two do not amount to the same thing. If feed and labour costs can be reduced far enough by cramming 30,000 chickens into a single shed, then the increased stress on individual animals is worth it. If it is cheaper to let a few lambs die of cold than employ another shepherd, then that’s what a farmer will do. If pigs can be bred to produce litters of twelve in which one or two piglets may starve to death, that makes far more sense than a litter of eight in which all piglets survive. Husbandry techniques subject animals to physical and mental stress but if the outcome is more meat at less cost, that is a price the farmer is happy to pay. The ruthless logic of profit and loss dictates how animals live and when they die.
The greatest cost in raising animals intensively is their food and thus the Holy Grail of farming is to maximise “feed-conversion ratios” – in other words, to get the biggest output of meat, milk or eggs from the smallest input of feed. The more quickly animals gain weight, the sooner they will carry enough meat to be ready for slaughter and the sooner the farmer can stop spending money and start making it. By selectively breeding animals with the best feed-conversion, modern farming has created new strains of animals whose bodies could never survive or even arise in nature. Animals are “designed” to gain weight above all else, including their health. These distorted priorities have led, for instance, to the situation in which turkeys are so large they can no longer mate naturally.
Farmed animals are slaughtered as soon as they reach the point of maximum profitability. Once they carry sufficient meat, feeding them is a waste of money. That means that most are killed at the point of physical maturity – a point which now comes for many of them before they have even reached reproductive maturity: people don’t eat chickens, pigs and ducks – they eat chicks, piglets and ducklings. Years of selective breeding have thus produced animals which are never intended to survive into adulthood and the consequence is that they are prone to ill health and disease as described above. However, not all animals die young: animals sent for slaughter must be replaced so more must constantly be bred. The animals used as breeding stock, however, need to have all of the productive “qualities” of meat animals (because their offspring are killed for meat) but are kept alive far longer. The consequences include grossly-overweight sows – a fifth of whom go so lame they have to be killed – and chickens whose food has to be rationed to prevent them from growing so big they would die.
Today, all farms are factory farms. Some look more like factories than others but the same principles of efficiency and cost-cutting apply across the board and the impact on animal health is the same. Nevertheless, different kinds of farms carry different problems and risks and a brief look at farming techniques will help to explain the litany of disease, infection and welfare problems uncovered in the following section.