When many people are asked to think of a farm, they think of the wide open space, lined for crops, maybe a barn and a silo somewhere nearby. In America we think of hay bales and corn. I happen to live in an area with plenty of those kinds of farms, the classic variety of open-range, wide area grazing fields where cows - and for one very large farm in particular, Horses - roam under daylight all year round.
That’s not the reality for many farms. The warehouse model of rows and rows of tightly packed together cells and cages is the reality for many farms in the world. No grass, only the synthesized food produced as cheaply and rapidly as possible for the animals. No exercise outside of the nervous shuffling of discomfort. No socialization but the animal screams echoing and blending together.
It’s not a pleasant sight at all. It’s not pleasant to hear or smell or walk around in. It’s all around bad, but it’s still done with little to stop it. Companies that own and control the operations of many farms prefer the method overall due to how fast it can produce meat. In factory farms, they push the limits of restrictions and standards just to get one more quarter of profits to bump up their revenue.
In the end, no matter what method is used, all animals turn into food at a farm. If you eat meat you probably don’t care about where or how you get it as long as it turns into the ideal shape and form. The same cow raised two different places still makes the same cut of steak in the end. But, it’s not just the conditions that differ. Those two cows in those two lives have different health, and all that they eat trickles down to your stomach, too.
Firstly, there are the general conditions. Animals are so closed in and forced to be close together it impacts their ability to move properly. Chickens are loosed by the hundreds, even thousands, onto massive indoor fields, then scooped up by conveyer tubes into their enclosures where often ten or more chickens will share the same cage. Chickens need specific conditions to lay eggs comfortably, and if they lack the comfort, they won’t lay the egg. This complicates their health massively, and results in more broken eggs than in a regular nest outdoors.
In addition, the proximity all the animals share makes it much easier for diseases to spread and be contracted. Swine Flu had similar origins, defunct and under-performing facilities kept sick pigs mixed in with healthy pigs and from one sneeze to the next the infection spread and contaminated the whole supply.
To combat this awful occurrence, factory farms use antibiotics to immunize and enrich their animals with specialized feed and injections. Not only is it invasive and damaging to the bigger animals, it also affects their meat. The antibiotics in their systems are absorbed by the blood and spread through their body, including through their fat and muscle tissues, to fight off and prevent any infections from occurring. Of course, those are good for animal illnesses, but for us it’s just a bunch of strange new foreign bodies that enter our own and provoke an immune system response.
Factory farms also use growth hormones, which affect the meat and can cause side effects in humans as well. They ultimately use many of the same animal-varient hormones that we have in our bodies. Testosterone to promote more muscles and faster aging, and estrogen to get more milk flowing from dairy cows. Those are part of the whole animal once they are digested into them. Those become part of the meat.
Another horrible reality of factory farms can be smelled whenever they are nearby. The waste produced by animals has to go somewhere, and they can’t leave their tiny pens, so does it pile up and pool around them? No. Most animals have grated floors under them where their waste leaks through and collects together.
It’s combined and treated with water and stored in tanks or -worse- open air pools as liquid manure, the stuff that later gets sprayed as a semi-natural fertilizer that can seep into ground soil, combine with groundwater, runoff into rivers and lake beds and sew a whole new cycle of contamination across the world. Those pools and stores of concentrated cow crap are a major source of methane, a greenhouse gas, which will leak freely into the air and water as long as the factory functions.
Despite all the regulations and health standards that are meant to be kept, none of them have done enough to restrict factory farms from harming the environment and unethically endangering livestock for the purpose of meat production.
There’s no easy answer as to why such places are allowed to exist. It could be better than it looks, as hard as it could be to believe. It could be a result of high costs of land ownership requiring new methods of concentrated farming to make up for the lack of natural resources with increased efficiency of space. It could be money, slid under table to turn blind eyes and improve health grades just a few points above the threshold.
Conspiracies notwithstanding, it’s a practice that’s here to stay. Developed countries are more than happy to clean up their front yards while shipping the actual factories somewhere else, to do the same thing in places where the government has far fewer restrictions on industrial agriculture. The cost in fossil fuels in transportation back to the home country just adds another layer of literal smoke to the problem.
So factory farming is just not good. Even for people who enjoy meat unapologetically, the kind of people who mock the idea of sympathy for their steak dinner, once you factor in their health and the cost they have to pay for it in the long term, they can get the idea of why it’s so bad. But, in the long run, it’s also sustainable.
Not using farmland for grazing means there’s more land to grow crops for feed, and not using only pure feed, but synthetics and additives that fill without regard for health or function, is cheaper and yields a higher turnout. Using growth hormones makes livestock reach maturity faster and become harvestable sooner to meet the growing demands and then rapidly be replaced by new generations to repeat the cycle.
All the awful things are in place for reasons that were not concluded thoughtlessly. Even a smaller-sized factory farms can host some 500 cattle, upwards of 2,000 hogs and can even reach capacity with 125,000 chickens. And there are ones much, much bigger than that. That’s the scale of operations for the meat industry.
Try imagining 500 cows in a fence along the side of the road. There may be a few dozen out there at most, on good days. And imagine how much 500 cows can eat. Cows eat up to two percent of their body weight per day, which comes to an average of 24 pounds. One cow can eat a whole suburban front lawn and still be hungry. 500 would devour the town down to the roots and still need breakfast the next morning.
The demand for meat is what drives these practices which forces animals to live in unfortunate conditions. For people like me, with local sourced and ethically raised meat, we have some luck on our side when it comes to choosing what to eat and not worrying about the implications. I know the animals at least had a chance at life, to live and see the sun for a while, before they became my food. The majority has to realize their dilemma every day.