Over the last two decades, small- and medium-scale farms raising livestock have given way to factory farms that confine thousands of cows, hogs and chickens in tightly packed facilities. Farmers have adopted factory farming practices largely at the behest of the largest meatpackers, pork processors, poultry companies and dairy processors. The largest of these agribusinesses are practically monopolies, controlling what consumers get to eat, what they pay for groceries and what prices farmers receive for their livestock.
This unchecked agribusiness power, along with misguided farm policies, have pressed livestock producers to become significantly larger and to adopt more-intensive practices. Despite ballooning in size, many livestock producers are just squeezing by financially, because the real price of beef, cattle, hogs and milk has been falling for decades.
These intensive methods come with a host of environmental and public health impacts that are borne by consumers and communities. Factory farms produce millions of gallons of manure that can spill into waterways from leaking storage lagoons or fields where manure is over-applied to soil. Manure generates hazardous air pollutants and contains contaminants that can endanger human health. Neighbors of these animal factories, as well as the workers in them, often suffer intensely from overwhelming odors and related headaches, nausea and other long-term health effects.
Even people thousands of miles away from these facilities are not immune to their impacts. Thousands of animals crowded into facilities are vulnerable to disease. Consumers eating the dairy, egg and meat products from factory farms can be exposed inadvertently to foodborne bacteria such as E. coli and Salmonella, as well as to the public health consequences of unchecked antibiotics use. And yet, despite all of the well-documented problems and health risks related to this type of industrialized production, the number and concentration of factory farms in the United States continues to increase.
Between 1997 and 2002, there was an economic and geographic shift in how and where food animals are raised in the United States. Even just a few decades ago, small- and medium-sized dairy, cattle and hog farms were dispersed across the country. Today, these operations are primarily large-scale factory farms that are concentrated in specific regions, states and even counties, where thousands of animals on each farm can produce more sewage than most large cities, overwhelming the capacity of rural communities to cope with the environmental and public health burdens.
Food & Water Watch analyzed U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Census of Agriculture data from 1997, 2002, 2007 and 2012 for beef cattle, hogs, dairy cattle, broiler meat chickens and egg-laying operations. In this report, and in our accompanying online map, we define factory farms as operations with more than 500 beef cattle (feedlots only), 1,000 hogs, 500 dairy cows, 100,000 egg-laying chickens and 500,000 broiler chickens (sold annually), the largest size categories that the USDA recognizes in its survey.
Key findings from Food & Water Watch’s analysis include:
- The total number of livestock on the largest factory farms rose by 20 percent between 2002 and 2012. The number of livestock units on factory farms increased from 23.7 million in 2002 to 28.5 million in 2012. “Livestock units” is a way to measure different kinds of animals on the same scale based on their weight — one beef cattle is the equivalent of approximately two-thirds of a dairy cow, eight hogs or four hundred chickens.
- These factory-farmed livestock produced 369 million tons of manure in 2012, about 13 times as much as the sewage produced by the entire U.S. population. This 13.8 billion cubic feet of manure is enough to fill the Dallas Cowboys stadium 133 times. Unlike sewage produced in cities, manure on factory farms does not undergo any wastewater treatment.
- The number of dairy cows on factory farms doubled, and the average-sized dairy factory farm increased by half, between 1997 and 2012. The number of dairy cows on factory farms rose 120.9 percent in 2012, the equivalent of adding 550 factory-farmed dairy cows every day for 15 years. The average size of dairy factory farms grew by half (49.1 percent) from 1,114 cows in 1997 to 1,661 in 2012. In nine states — Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, Idaho, Texas, Indiana, Missouri and Nevada — the average size was more than 2,000 cows in 2012.
- The number of beef cattle on feedlots rose 5 percent from 2002 to 2012. Feedlot size grew even as the 2012 drought reduced total cattle numbers. The number of beef cattle on operations with at least 500 head grew from 11.6 million in 2002 to 12.1 million in 2012 — adding about 157 beef cattle every day for 10 years. Texas, Nebraska and Kansas all had more than 2 million beef cattle on feedlots in 2012. The 2012 drought reduced the total number of beef cattle on feedlots nationwide, but the average feedlot size increased by 12.7 percent over five years, from 3,800 in 2007 to more than 4,300 in 2012.
- The number of hogs on factory farms increased by more than one-third, and the average farm size swelled nearly 70 percent from 1997 to 2012. The number of hogs on factory farms grew by 37.1 percent — from 46.1 million in 1997 to 63.2 million 2012 — the equivalent of adding 3,100 hogs to factory farms every day for the past 15 years. The average size of a hog factory farm increased 68.4 percent, from 3,600 hogs in 1997 to nearly 6,100 in 2012.
- The number of broiler chickens on factory farms rose nearly 80 percent from 1997 to 2012, to more than 1 billion. The number of broiler chickens raised on factory farms rose 79.9 percent from 583.3 million in 1997 to 1.05 billion in 2012 — about three birds for every person in the United States. The growth in industrial broiler production added 85,000 chickens to factory farms every day over the past 15 years. The average size of U.S. broiler chicken operations rose by 5.9 percent, from 157,000 in 1997 to 166,000 birds in 2012. The average size in California and Nebraska exceeded 500,000 birds in 2012.
- The number of egg-laying hens on factory farms increased by nearly one quarter from 1997 to 2012, to 269 million. The number of egg-producing layer hens increased 24.8 percent from 215.7 million in 1997 to 269.3 million in 2012. Nearly half (49.3 percent) of the egg-laying hens in 2012 were in the top-five-egg producing states: Iowa, Ohio, Indiana, California and Texas. The average size of egg operations has grown by 74.2 percent over 15 years, rising from 399,000 in 1997 to more than 695,000 in 2012.
The incredible growth of factory farming is due to three key factors. First, unchecked mergers and acquisitions between the largest meatpacking, poultry processing and dairy companies created an intensely consolidated landscape where a few giant agribusinesses exert tremendous pressure on livestock producers to become larger and more intensive. Second, lax environmental rules and lackluster enforcement allowed factory farms to grow to extraordinary sizes without having to properly manage the overwhelming amount of manure they create. And finally, for much of the past 15 years, misguided farm policy encouraged over-production of commodity crops such as corn and soybeans, which artificially depressed the price of livestock feed and created an indirect subsidy to factory farm operations. Although crop prices rose in recent years, in 2014 the USDA projected that prices would decline for several years, and the pace of factory farm construction has increased to take advantage of expected cheaper feed prices in coming years.
The combination of these trends has eroded rural economies, driven independent producers out of business and allowed the largest livestock operations to dominate animal agriculture in the United States. The manure from these factory farm operations pollutes the environment and endangers public health. Crowded conditions leave animals susceptible to disease, drive the overuse of antibiotics and can mean that food safety problems on even a few factory farms can end up in everyone’s refrigerator.
The stakes are high for the future of livestock production. Because government at all levels has made decisions that contributed to factory farms, all levels of government must be involved in changing policies and enforcing existing laws to rein in this industry.
Food & Water Watch recommends:
- The EPA and states should establish a moratorium on the construction of new factory farms and on the expansion of existing facilities;
- The EPA must implement and enforce appropriate environmental rules to prevent factory farm pollution;
- The Department of Justice must prevent the continued consolidation of the meatpacking and poultry, egg and dairy processing industries and revisit the mergers that it already has approved to ensure that farmers get fair prices for their livestock;
- Congress must restore sensible commodity programs that do not prioritize the production of artificially cheap livestock feed over fair prices to crop farmers;
- The FDA must prohibit non-therapeutic use of antibiotics and other livestock treatments that facilitate factory farming at the expense of public health;
- The USDA must enforce and strengthen livestock marketing and contract regulations to allow independent livestock producers access to fair markets;
- State environmental authorities must step up their permitting and enforcement of water and air pollution regulations on factory farms.