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November 15, 2015

3 minutes read

Ending Factory Farming

Factory farms, also known as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) or Industrial Farm Animal Production (IFAP) facilities1 can house more than 125,000 animals2 under one roof and are designed to produce the highest possible output at the lowest possible cost to the operator. These farms and their associated industrial slaughterhouses produce “cheap” meat, eggs, and dairy by externalizing their costs. The costs to the public from the ecological damage and health problems created by factory farms are not considered any more than the law requires, and companies have often found it less expensive to pay fines for breaking those laws than to alter their methods. For this reason, the true cost of meat is never reflected in the price consumers pay. Animal suffering is given no meaningful consideration except in a few idiosyncratic cases.

Factory farming now accounts for more than 99 percent of all farmed animals raised and slaughtered in the United States.3  (Virtually all seafood comes to us by way of industrial fishing or factory style fish farms.)4

Farmed animals are remarkable creatures who experience pleasure (pasture-raised pigs, for instance, are known to jump for joy)5  and have complex social structures (cows develop friendships over time and will sometimes hold grudges against other animals who treat them badly).6  The cheap animal products churned out by factory farms come at a high cost to the animals themselves (many are confined so intensively that they cannot turn around or stretch a wing).7  The structure of factory farming ensures that even the animals’ most fundamental needs—clean air, sunshine, freedom from chronic pain and illness—are denied them.

The present system of producing food animals in the United States is not sustainable and presents an unacceptable level of risk to public health and damage to the environment, as well as unnecessary harm to the animals we raise for food.
–Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production

At the same time, factory farming’s industrial slaughterhouses have created worker conditions that Human Rights Watch describes as “systematic human rights abuses.”8 Employing illegal immigrants and underage workers is a common practice—in part because the vulnerability of these populations allows the industry to avoid compensating them for the numerous injuries and chronic pain that are equally standard in industrial slaughter. Processing-plant line workers in California interviewed by Farm Forward reported, to their shame, that it was not uncommon for them to be denied access to the bathroom in order to “hold the line” and maintain productivity.

The factory farm record on the environment is no better: Worldwatch, the Sierra Club, the Pew Commission, Greenpeace, and other major environmental watchdogs have singled out factory farms as among the biggest polluters on the planet.9 There is now a scientific consensus that animal agriculture is the second largest contributor to global warming—outstripping even the transportation industry in its production of greenhouse gases.10 A 2008 New York Times article reported that “if Americans were to reduce meat consumption by just 20 percent it would be as if we all switched from a standard sedan—a Camry, say—to the ultra-efficient Prius.”11

The disturbing nature of these problems can make it difficult for many people to accept the truth about factory farming when they are first confronted with it: “Surely,” one is tempted to say, “it can’t be that bad.” But once the scale of the devastation that this industry is wreaking on our health, the environment, and animals becomes clear, the most surprising aspect of factory farming is how effectively these problems have been hidden from the public in the first place.

There are more just, higher welfare, and sustainable ways to eat. Now more than ever there are numerous progressive alternatives to factory farms. With your help, we can find that best way forward.



While “CAFO” is often used in newspapers  to refer to factory farms in general. It is technically defined by the EPA as referring only to a subset of the largest factory farms. Thus, some smaller factory farms are officially not considered CAFOs. The term “IFAP” was coined by the Pew Commission to refer to all factory farming. When Farm Forward speaks about factory farming, we are referring to IFAP facilities.


Farm Forward calculations based on U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2012 Census of Agriculture, June 2014.,_Chapter_1_US/usv1.pdf


Jonathan Balcombe, Pleasurable Kingdom (New York: Macmillan 2006).


Jonathan Leake, “Cows Hold Grudges, Say Scientists,” The Australian, February 28, 2005.


Bill Niman, Niman Ranch Cookbook (Berkeley: Ten Speed Press 2008).


Human Rights Watch, “Blood, Sweat, and Fears” 2004.


Worldwatch Institute, Happier Meals: Rethinking the Global Meat Industry, August 2005; Sierra Club, “Water Contamination From Factory Farms;” Pew Commision on Industrial Farm Animal Production, Putting Meat on The Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America, April 2008; Greenpeace, The True Cost of Food, March 2007.


Mark Bittman, “Rethinking the Meat-Guzzler,” New York Times, January 27, 2008.