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Highest welfare farming

Projects that promote the existence and growth of farms which raise animals without using factory farming techniques and allow for optimal quality of life for farmed animals.

In a society where more than 99 percent of farmed animals are raised in Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), Farm Forward advocates that people who eat animal products not only eat fewer of them, but also purchase them from the small, but growing number, of highest welfare farms where animals can flourish.

This is a chapter from Farm Forward’s report, The Farmed Animal Protection Movement: Common Strategies for Improving and Protecting the Lives of Farmed Animals. “Highest Welfare Farming” represents Strategy 15 in the report.


Advocates of highest welfare farming accept that for the foreseeable future animals will continue to be raised for food, and given that baseline, believe that models of animal farming that serve as meaningful alternatives to industrial animal farming must be developed and promoted.1 Distinct from incremental farming reforms that merely reduce the suffering of animals, highest welfare farms seek to give animals opportunities to thrive. For ideological reasons, most organizations and funders in the farmed animal protection movement do not directly support highest welfare farming. Efforts to support highest welfare farming take a variety of forms, from supporting research to investing in agricultural infrastructure. Strategies to support highest welfare farming provide an opportunity to ally with farmers, ranchers, and rural communities in ways that may be leveraged to achieve goals that they share with the farmed animal protection movement.

Structure of the strategy

As used in this report, the term, “highest welfare farming” does not refer to incremental improvements on factory farms (the kinds of improvements sought by corporate campaigns). The incremental strategy—“raising the floor” to eliminate the worst practices while maintaining current levels of production—will not lead to highest welfare outcomes for animals in any foreseeable future, even if it improves conditions for a great number of animals.

Highest welfare farming involves the preservation and promotion of models of farming that center animal welfare, and which present a radical alternative to factory farming.

These are farms where animals not only live, but flourish. These farms make up a tiny percentage of animal farms in the US, and are almost entirely absent from commercial retailers. Most certified products come from modified CAFO operations, but products certified by Animal Welfare Approved and the top two tiers of Global Animal Partnership likely come from meaningfully better farms.

Certifications mapped onto a welfare scale diagram

There is no consensus about what practices and standards must exist on highest welfare farms, but some features that might distinguish a highest welfare farm from a factory farm include:

  • Farmed animals are able to express instinctual behaviors specific to their species, such as grazing on pasture, mothering their young, mating without artificial insemination, and socialization with other animals.
  • Farmed animals are bred with healthy genetics that optimize their comfort and vigor, rather than optimizing fast growth at the expense of health.2
  • Farms limit the number of animals they raise to a size that can
    sustain optimal welfare conditions.

Efforts to support highest welfare farming take a wide variety of forms. The central goal of this work is promoting alternative models to conventional factory farms, providing animals with lives worth living and often producing social and environmental benefits as well. Support for highest welfare farming includes ensuring that highest welfare operations can sustain themselves, and growing the number of farmers raising animals in highest welfare systems. Models being practiced in the US include but are not limited to heritage3 farming and some instances of regenerative farming.4

Because highest welfare farmers face a variety of hurdles, advocates and funders supporting this work as a strategy of farmed animal protection have many opportunities.

Direct forms of support include:

  • helping farmers preserve and pass on knowledge about methods for raising animals in higher welfare systems;
  • preserving genetic breeds that are well suited to being raised in high welfare systems;
  • assisting farmers in connecting with investors and philanthropists who can help them build the infrastructure
    necessary to expand their businesses;
  • connecting farmers to institutional buyers that can help them
    create a stable market for their products; and
  • providing business advising and consulting services to help
    them make their businesses more financially sustainable.

Indirect support includes:

  • agricultural and market research aimed at highest welfare farming;
  • university extension programs targeting highest welfare farmers and practices;
  • consumer education about the benefits of highest welfare farming (e.g. ASPCA’s Shop With Your Heart campaign);
  • state and federal agriculture policies that provide financial support for highest welfare farms and farm practices (e.g. USDA’s Farmers Market Promotion Program, and the USDA Conservation Stewardship Program).

Another important aspect of this strategy leverages highest welfare farms as models to help change narratives about what may be possible within animal agriculture. So-called “humane” industrial-scale farms appear less attractive to consumers when compared to the significantly better welfare seen on optimal farms. Holding up models of highest welfare farming can also help advocates push for more progressive incremental improvements within industrial-scale farming; food companies and integrators find it harder to argue that a given change is impossible or impractical if other successful farms are already using that practice.


Many Americans believe that factory farming is the inevitable result of a slow evolution of farming practices toward greater and greater efficiency, but this is not the case. The factory farming system predominant in the US and many other parts of the world today is the result of a rapid revolution in agriculture implemented
in the US through aggressive government policies and economic investments starting in the 1940s through the 1960s, which are just now being aggressively implemented in other parts of the world. Talk to an American farmer who was alive during that era and they will tell you about a mass displacement of a rural way of life—changes individual farmers had little control over and rarely benefited from.5

Factory farms may have been “efficient” in a narrow sense of “calories of feed in” to “calories of meat out,” or in terms of profits for the largest meat companies, but all other costs have been externalized. There is broad consensus that factory farming is unsustainable.

Transforming our industrial system into something that is better for all lives in the food chain will require a broad-based movement in which representatives of multiple advocacy communities work together to pressure governments and companies to create radically new forms of agriculture—much closer to the vast networks of small farms that fed this country for centuries. It will require the participation of academic institutions, culture-makers, and religions. It will require talented and well-resourced leaders skilled in collaboration and negotiation. It may be helped along by new technologies and strategic investments, but it will be sustained by deeper adaptations in our culture, institutions, and economy.

Most farmed animal advocates believe that the best of all possible futures is one in which animals are not raised and killed for food at all, but thus far, decades of experience in building alliances with farmers, environmentalists, human rights and labor advocates has demonstrated that the vision of an exclusively vegan world is too polarizing to unite the movements that together are capable of ending factory farming in the near term. Similarly, on the international front, replacing traditional small-scale subsistence animal farming with farm systems dominated by corporate food companies producing plant-based “animal” products will not necessarily provide net welfare improvement for animals (human and nonhuman).

If, for the foreseeable future, animals will continue to be raised and killed for food, models of animal farming that serve as meaningful alternatives to industrial animal farming can be tools for not incrementally but radically improving the conditions of farmed animals’ lives.

To participate in this strategy, animal advocates must offer a vision for the future that other stakeholders find inspiring too. Thus, it must uplift rural communities, treat humans with dignity, protect and regenerate the environment, and feed communities. One such vision—but by no means the only one—is a world that produces its food on smaller, more diverse farms, farms rooted in local communities, practicing ecologically-sound methods, where farmed animals are allowed lives worth living. Americans would need to modify their dietary habits considerably for this system to work. Such a system would necessarily include far fewer animals
than today’s system, and diets would have to become more plant-heavy—like they were historically.

Nonprofit groups whose farmed animal advocacy has engaged farmers and the highest welfare farming movement as allies include Compassion in World Farming US and UK, and Farm Forward. A small but active group of funders supports highest welfare farmers directly, or support work that benefits highest welfare farming. There is also an emerging group called Funders for Regenerative Agriculture which aims to organize and coordinate funders in this space.



Farm Forward takes a position that is unusual among farmed animal protection groups. In addition to supporting efforts to reduce suffering on farms and to reduce animal product consumption, we also work to help some of the highest welfare forms of farming succeed, both in the US and globally. For a deep understanding of our seemingly contradictory approach, we suggest reading the book Eating Animals, which our founder, Dr. Aaron Gross, helped to produce with author and Farm Forward board member Jonathan Safran Foer—in particular, the chapter entitled “The Vegan who Builds Slaughterhouses.”


The Farm Forward page “What is Hybrid Poultry” describes the role that genetics plays in the poultry industry, and illustrates why “hybrid” genetics have become a key feature of the industrial poultry model.


Andrew deCoriolis, “Understanding Modern Poultry Breeding,” Farm Forward, May 15th, 2020. Available here.


To read more about regenerative farming and its relationship to farmed animal welfare, see Farm Forward’s report “TK,” accessible here.


For example, the United Nations released “Livestock’s Long Shadow” in 2006; the Union of Concerned Scientists wrote “The Hidden Costs of Industrial Agriculture” in 2008; by 2016, even World Finance had written “Why Factory Farming is No Longer Sustainable.” Accessible here, here, and here.