Factory Farming Needs To End (And All Sides Agree)

Factory farming is the one complex issue on which we are not divided. It’s us against Big Ag. The mass animal agriculture industry finally needs to end, and everyone from farmers to consumers, animal activists, and climate activists agree.

[This essay is comprised of a complex problem analysis for the course Adaptive Leadership In Development. Presented to The University Of Queensland, in partial fulfillment for a MicroMasters in Leadership In Global Development.]

The issue of factory farming is deeply challenging, complex, and urgent. There are numerous markers of complexity associated with this problem, (Moran, Marc. ‘Markers of Complexity’. 2020.) Essentially, any individual sharing this planet is invested in this matter, on a day-to-day basis. Everyone actively supports or doesn’t support factory farming with their consumer choices. Animal rights, public health, and planetary health are only three of the many crises tied to the fate of this cruel system.

While factory farming has been highly problematic from its inception, the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic of 2020 has further highlighted the dangers of animal agriculture, and its direct link to zoonotic diseases. The urgent need for systemic change has hit home on a global scale. Greater emphasis is being placed on transitioning away from animal agriculture industries. There is a growing level of awareness of how the Anthropocene has exploited animals and nature in deeply unjust, unsustainable ways. There is even a spiritual reckoning happening for many, grappling for the first time with their own mortality and its direct connection with nature.

And what about the farmers? Animal-based farming went from small family and community-run businesses to an extremely large-scale industry. Mass ‘production’ (breeding) of animals within the animal agriculture industry has nearly doubled since 1980. Small family farms were forced into signing binding contracts with a handful of very large companies. Those companies have long dictated how farmers must raise the animals trapped within the system, and used for human consumption.

Small farms were then made to compete with one another –– to emotional and financial ruin –– by increasing speed and efficiency. They began to pack more animals into smaller spaces, pumping those highly stressed animals full of antibiotics in order for them to temporarily survive in terrible, crowded conditions, while polluting local water supplies with feces and resulting poisons. All of this happens before animal product consumers harm themselves, and their families, by adding diseased, tortured remnants of fallen animals from the factory farming system into their diets. Factory farming has been poisoning and endangering everyone involved for years, emotionally, physically, and financially.

There are countless reasons why we’ve been in this predicament with mass factory farms for far too long. At its core, capitalism encourages the growth of all industries. In animal farming, those ‘products’ are actually living individuals who suffer horrifically. As the animal farming industry grew, more and more animals were forced into the system, and treated with even less dignity. The constant increase in animal-based products on the market made the public more and more desensitized about eating the bodies and secretions of tortured animals. And Big AG companies –– ‘Big Ag’ is a moniker used for giant animal agriculture conglomerates –– managed to normalize (soulless) acts such as mass breeding, exploitation, and the killing of billions upon billions of animals.

Of course, in order to sell more and more animal products, the factory farming industry had to sell the idea that consuming massive amounts of animal-based products is a healthy, necessary lifestyle. For decades, the medical profession presented an adapted stance in support of the claim that animal products are healthy, while knowingly profiting from illnesses and diseases directly caused by the consumption of those animal products. Consequently, people were misled for decades about nutrition by the dangerous, profit-focused partnership of the medical industry (Big Pharma) and factory farming industry, and the consumption of animal products was widely encouraged for far too long.

Today, as plant-based companies consistently gain massive support and traction, Big Ag scrambles to push its agenda with hopes of staying relevant and maintaining power. Those who profit from factory farming lobby for it, and bribe government officials to keep supporting them through their losses. Our governments have thus far consistently supported, bailed out, (and deregulated), the factory farming industry. Which is why governments and elected officials have been directly connected to factory farming’s current existence. But that is also changing. While some continue to lobby for Big Ag, others have begun lobbying against it.

In the United States, Senator Cory Booker’s ‘Farm System Reform Act’ has gained plenty of traction, and it aims to phase out Big Ag by 2040. While Booker’s push for this is highly encouraging, we need the factory farming problem phased out far sooner than that. Since Big Ag has been losing money to its competitors, it tries to threaten and sue plant-based companies, while accepting government bailouts for the massive amounts of animal-based products it was unable to sell to consumers.

Bailouts hold various global governments more responsible for this complex issue, especially during a transitional period in the food industry, with Big Ag companies having to adjust their sales projections. Furthermore, when governments bail out animal agriculture industries to help them avoid profit losses, they create a disconnect in terms of numbers and outward impressions. This in turn affects the environment of ‘accountability’ in factory farming, (Curth-Bibb, Jodie. ‘The Big Push Forward and the Politics of Evidence’. 2020.) Since the viability of an animal-based food system warrants very close inspection, critical numbers and variables must not be skewed by Big Ag’s aim to maintain dominance. The factory farming issue might even be resolving itself, since much of the public is choosing to transition to plant-based options, but the animal agriculture industry behaves as if nothing is changing. This is not sustainable for Big Ag’s profit-focused culprits, nor for the governments bailing them out.

In its hopes of maintaining the status quo, the animal agriculture industry consistently attempts to silence those who challenge it. Increased exposure to the many cruelties inherent in animal agriculture encourages the general public to stop supporting animal-based products as consumers. Whenever the general public finds out more about the factory farming system, there is an increased outcry against it. There’s a reason why the dangers and horrors of factory farming have always been intentionally withheld from the public. Big AG is an industry that has always known it is unethical. And the public agrees. It has often tried to implement ‘AG-Gag laws’ to stop animal rights activists from exposing what happens at factory farms.

Another marker of complexity is how human societies currently struggle with internal disputes and conflicts in terms of factory farming. Vegans hope more non-vegans will adopt a plant-based lifestyle, for the good of the planet and everyone living in it, while non-vegans are disgruntled and uncomfortable with the notion of being asked to change their traditions, routines, and habits, even when they understand the reasoning behind it. Along with public health, public safety has become an additional societal marker of complexity, since COVID-19 and other zoonotic pandemics are directly tied to highly problematic animal agriculture systems.

The lessons that COVID-19 has put on display must not be lost. Chief among those important takeaways is that factory farming of animals is a system that harms, tortures, kills sensitive animals, destroys our environment (leading us into our current climate emergency), causes diseases in its consumers, traumatizes and destroys the mental health of the workers within that system (many of whom become more dangerous or suicidal as a result), squeezes the financial livelihoods of family farmers trying to remain viable and active in the system, and initiates global pandemics. Factory farming affects and endangers society, as a whole.

The increase in animal-based farming has led to Big Ag’s aim to obtain more and more land, and therefore the clearing of forests. Our planet has a very simple formula for maintaining its health: more plants and trees equals more oxygen, and a cooler planet; fewer and fewer plants and trees lead to a rapidly warming planet. Trees and vegetation naturally cool the planet down, while excessive clearing of land for the use of mass factory farming have the opposite effect. It’s very straightforward. The planet has been rapidly warming in the last few decades because of reckless human activities such as mass animal agriculture.

As we’ve all noted by now, there has been a dramatic increase in fire devastation in numerous locations around the globe, (i.e., in Australia, Brazil, and the West Coast of the United States.) These lengthened, unmanageable fire seasons have caused losses of homes, evacuations, displacement, habitat destruction, death, and hazardous air quality. The climate crisis will lead to more and more climate migration and climate refugees, therefore even parts of the world less affected by fires must still partake in their aftermaths.

Indeed, factory farming is not a sustainable system for the planet or any of its inhabitants. This challenge is understood by individuals on all sides. There is so much on the line that the problem is front-and-center of mind for everyone. Since animal agriculture is largely responsible for accelerating the affects of climate change, immediate systemic change is critical for there to be chance of planetary recovery. Decades of factory farming has flattened and destroyed so much land and the planet is warming at such a rapid pace, it may already be impossible to reverse this without taking action. While reversal is not entirely feasible at this point, it is especially unlikely when the factory farming system continues to destroy land and resources around the world.

A linear conceptualization of the complex problem of factory farming may not be possible since there are so many individuals, groups, and factors at play simultaneously. Complexity concepts could be helpful in addressing this matter, but factory farming is truly a multi-pronged challenge that requires many groups to align, in order to support the greater good in a timelier manner.

People who weren’t offered the truth about optimal plant-based foods for nutrition, or the health dangers inherent in animal-based foods, didn’t knowingly develop diseases, or support a system that spreads global pandemics while causing an increase in wildfire devastation.

From its cruelty to innocent animals, which the system attempts to hide from the public, to its being a leading contributor to global warming and our ongoing climate emergency, to its the being the cause of the unleashing of global pandemics, the astoundingly negative contributions of factory farming have reached a breaking point.

On every side of this issue, everyone agrees: Factory farming needs to end. This level of commonality is quite the rarity these days. We must collectively deal with the fact that our planet’s survival is on the line because of factory farming right now, and push back hard to put an end to a cruel and outdated industry, one that ultimately serves no one but itself.

PostGrad: Leadership in Global Development; Animal Rights, Veganism Advocacy, Climate, Sustainability