food Program

Industrial Livestock Production

On This Page:
What is Industrial Agriculture or Factory Farming?
Industrial Crop Production
Industrial Animal Production
The Characteristics of Industrial Agriculture
Corporate Involvement in Agriculture
The True Costs
Did You Know?
What You Can Do
For More Information
Reports and Articles


In the last few decades, consolidation of food production has concentrated power in the hands of fewer and fewer corporations. Many of today’s farms are actually large industrial facilities, not 40 acres of pastures, red barns, and rows of mixed vegetable crops that most Americans imagine. These consolidated operations are able to produce food in high volume but have little to no regard for the environment, animal welfare, soil and water quality, or food safety. In order to maximize profits, industrial agriculture often trades the health of consumers and rural communities, as well as the nutritional quality of the product, for an economy of scale through consolidation and mechanization.

What is Industrial Agriculture or Factory Farming?

While there is no strict definition, industrial agriculture and factory farming refers to a modern type of agriculture which 1 ) requires high inputs of money, fertilizers, and eliminate jobs (industrial farms use “labor-saving” technologies such as pesticides in the place of weeding and heavy machinery for planting and harvesting), in the case of crop production and 2 ) for animal production is characterized by a dense population of animals raised on limited land and requiring large amounts of food, water and medical inputs.  FFactory farming and industrial agriculture are used interchangeably, although industrial agriculture tends to be used more to describe this intensive type of crop (plant) production and factory farms is used when referring to industrial animal production.

Industrial Crop Production:

Drive through Iowa and you can get a clear picture of industrial agriculture: the landscape is dominated by miles and miles of mostly two crops - corn and soybeans. Monocultures, or the production of only one crop over a large area, are a main component of industrial agriculture, and, in addition to growing only one or two crops, this type of agriculture is characterized by a dependence upon external inputs (like fuel and pesticides), extensive mechanization (i.e. the use of machines like harvesters to replace human labor) and consolidation of ownership. The widespread application of only one species goes against the basic principals that operate in the natural world (i.e. diversity) and because of this, many problems occur. While proponents of industrial agriculture claim to have modernized and streamlined the production of food in the United States, such evolution has been at the expense of biodiversity, environmental sustainability, stable rural communities and even individuals' health.  F

Industrial Animal Production:

Animal production has gotten so far from the traditional methods of farming that the government no longer refers to these operations as farms. They are now called “Animal Feeding Operations” (AFO). According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), AFOs are “agricultural operations where animals are kept and raised in confined situations” and they “congregate animals, feed, manure, dead animals, and production operations on a small land area.”  FIn order to be classified as an AFO, a lot or facility must have animals that “are, or will be stabled or confined and fed or maintained for a total of 45 days or more in any 12-month period” and “crops, vegetation, forage growth, or post-harvest residues are not sustained in the normal growing season over any portion of the lot or facility”.  F

A Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO  G) is defined according to the number of animals in an operation. Numbers for both large and medium CAFOs (factory farms) are listed on the EPA’s site. A large CAFO includes 1000 cattle (other than dairy, which is 700), 2500 hogs over 55 pounds, or 125,000 chickens, if a liquid manure system isn’t used, and 30,000 if it does.  FA liquid manure system is when the animal’s urine and feces are mixed with water and held either under the facility or outside in huge open air lagoons - these manure systems create a lot of pollution (which many times taxpayers end up paying for). The chickens they refer to are chickens other than laying hens – laying hens must number between 30,000 - 82,000, depending on how the manure is handled. A medium factory farm (CAFO) has between 300-999 cattle other than dairy (200-699 if dairy), 750-2,499 hogs if 55 pounds or more, and 37,500 to 124,999 chickens (other than hens that lay eggs) if the facility doesn’t use a liquid manure handling system and 25,000 if it does.

The Characteristics of Industrial Agriculture:

Even though the numbers above are how the EPA defines a factory farm, the general definition is characterized by:

Excessive Size

  • In crop production, monocultures  of corn,  Fwheat and soy occupy miles and miles of land in some parts of the United States. These fields require intensive use of fertilizers to provide nutrients and pesticides to keep insects and disease under control, since through planting only one species over a large area, pests are naturally attracted. They are mechanically planted, weeded, and harvested.
  • On animal factory farms, an unnaturally large number of animals are confined closely together. Cattle feedlots generally contain thousands of animals in one place, while many egg-laying businesses house one million or more chickens. The main animals for such operations are cows, pigs, chickens and turkeys, but this practice is also applied to sheep, goats, rabbits, and various types of poultry.

Disregard for Soil and Water Quality

  • Monocultures deplete the soil of nutrients by growing the same crop for miles and miles, year after year.
  • Because the soils have been stripped of their nutrients, in order to produce high enough yields, the farmers must use chemical fertilizers. These fertilizers contain high amounts of nitrogen that can leach from the fields into rivers and streams. The heavy application of chemical fertilizers prevent the soil from holding together, so in addition to losing the fertilizer, the soils from these croplands are being eroded at very high rates.  F

Disregard for Animal Welfare

  • Metal buildings confine animals indoors, with minimal room for normal behaviors and little or no access to sunlight and fresh air.
  • Animals are mutilated to adapt them to factory farm conditions. This includes cutting off the beaks of chickens and turkeys (de-beaking), and amputating the tails of cows and pigs (docking).
  • Pens and cages restrict the natural behavior and movement of animals. In some cases, such as veal calves and mothering pigs, the animals can’t even turn around.

Reliance on Chemicals, Medicine and Hormones

  • Pesticides may kill pests in a field, but they also kill beneficial insects and can sometimes get passed on through the food chain and affect other animals.  F
  • The use of fertilizers can increase the salinity of the soil, making any available nutrients inaccessible to plants and therefore requiring the application of even more fertilizers.  F
  • Low doses of antibiotics  G are administered regularly to animals in a preemptive move to ward off the diseases bred by unnatural, unsanitary conditions.
    In addition to preventive medicines, animals are fed hormones and antibiotics to promote faster growth.

Mismanagement of the Agricultural System

Separating animals and plants in production disrupts the natural cycle of renewal. In a sustainable farming system, the needs of all components are met by the wastes of another: animal manure is incorporated into the soil to replenish the nutrients which are drawn from the soil by crops that are fed to the animals. It is a complete circle of renewal. When you separate these two, the soils become depleted and wastes accumulate to a point of toxicity.

  • Chemical fertilizers are overused, damaging the soil and creating conditions where excess nitrogen leaches from farm fields into nearby water ways, encouraging the overgrowth of algae and depriving the wildlife in the water from oxygen.  F
  • Widespread use of pesticides results in the loss of beneficial insects and  the development of pesticide-resistant pests.  F
  • Excessive waste created by large concentrations of animals is handled in ways that can pollute air and water.
  • Man-made manure lagoons  Gon industrial farms hold millions of gallons of liquid waste that can leach into groundwater. The manure is normally sprayed on crops, often excessively, leading it to run off into surface waters.
  • Nutrients and bacteria from waste can contaminate waterways, killing fish and shellfish and disturbing aquatic ecosystems.

Socially Irresponsible Corporate Ownership

  • The types of companies generally involved in industrial agriculture are no longer farm operations and have adopted a term to better reflect their corporate (rather than agrarian) nature: agribusinesses. Two business arrangements common within conventional, industrial agriculture systems are contract farming  Gand vertical integration  G. These systems are largely responsible for the shift toward consolidation within agriculture and tend to be harmful to farmers, both those who have stayed outside of the industrial agriculture system and those that have become a part of it.

Corporate Involvement in Agriculture:

Contract Growing

Contract growing is a common practice for companies which process crop items (such as corn) and for animal production (primarily the production of hogs and chickens). In a contract farming arrangement with crops, a corporation will sign a contract before the crop is planted which will specify how much finished product the company will buy and at what price.  FIn animal production a corporation that owns livestock contracts with farmers to raise the animals to maturity.

Generally, a contract growing system works like this: A major food corporation delivers to the farm the seeds and any inputs or the feed and a large number of immature animals. This allows the corporation to control the variety or breed product and all inputs (feed, fertilizers, etc). The farmer raises the animals for a pre-determined amount of time, after which the company collects, processes and distributes the product.

While this system guarantees farmers a market for their product, it also burdens them with tremendous financial risk. Farmers must pay for all inputs (feed, fertilizers, etc) and absorb any financial loss from crop loss, rejection of product because of low quality or animals that die. Farmers often invest considerable capital to purchase harvesting equipment or build structures for housing the animals, usually a considerable debt that is carried for years. The farmer is also responsible for following waste disposal regulations and other environmental protection laws.

Throughout the process, the corporation maintains full control in this arrangement, often causing the farmers to lose power by growing dependent upon the companies for “inputs” (seed, fertilizer, animals, feed, etc..) and know-how. Additionally if something causes the farmer to no longer be able to raise the crop or animal cheaply enough, the farmer becomes "non-competitive'' and can lose the contract and be stuck with investments for machinery and buildings to support only that one crop or animal. Too much time without a replacement contract could drive a farmer into bankruptcy. This loss of knowhow and the need to keep costs low reduces a farmer from a steward to the land to someone who manages an industrial process.

Vertical Integration
Contract farming is one piece of the grander scale of corporate ownership in agriculture. Vertical integration is a management arrangement where several steps in the production and/or distribution of a product or service are controlled by a single company or entity, in order to increase that company’s or entity’s power in the marketplace. In addition to contracting with farms to raise their crop or livestock, corporations will own a seed or feed company, a farm supply company, and a processing and distribution company. This allows them to profit from every level of food production without investing in permanent assets like land or losing money to unpredictable elements such as crop failure due to unpredictable weather or animal mortality.
While vertical integration in some areas of industry is fine (it is a proven method to maximize profits), it has dire consequences in the case of agriculture, especially when combined with contract farming, since the farmers take all the risk and the companies receive the benefits. Vertical integration and contract farming forces farmers into debt, supports farming practices that harm the environment and abuse animals, and compromises the quality of the food we eat and the soil on which it is grown.

The True Costs

Industrially produced food appears to be inexpensive, but the price tag doesn’t reflect the actual costs that we taxpayers bear. Monocultures and factory farms pollute communities and adversely affect public health, thereby increasing medical costs for those living near such farms—costs that are often shouldered by public budgets.  FTaxpayers fund government subsidies which go primarily to large industrial farms. Jobs are lost and wages driven down as corporate consolidation bankrupts small businesses and factory farms pay unethically low wages for dangerous, undesirable work.

Because factory farms are considered “agricultural” instead of “industrial,” they are not subject to the regulation that their scale of production (and level of pollution) warrants.  FBecause they employ powerful lobbyists that can sway the government agencies responsible for monitoring agricultural practices, industrial farms are left free to pollute, to hire undocumented workers (and pay them next to nothing), and to locate their industrial facilities without regard to the impact it has on surrounding communities.


Did You Know?

  • In the last 40 years nearly one third of the world’s arable (farmable) land has been lost.  F
  • In 2008, American farmers planted 85.9 million acres of corn and 75.7 million acres of soy.  F
  • In 2002, 21% of American farm operators did not live on the farm they operated.  F
  • Two percent of livestock farms now raise 40 percent of all animals in the US.  F
  • In the United States in 2007, 81.5% of pigs are raised on farms with 2,000 pigs or more.  F

What You Can Do

We can all help put an end to the factory farming system by buying our food from smaller, sustainable farms. These businesses still aim to profit from their labor, but that’s not their only objective. They have essentially a triple bottom line - of social, environmental and financial gain - which means they won’t sacrifice the health of the land or the quality of food simply to make a few dollars more.

  • When you buy local fruits, vegetables, and meat products, you support your local economy. More of the money you spend goes directly to the farmers themselves because less goes to transportation and middlemen. Buying locally also means burning less fossil fuel to get food from the farm to the table, which benefits the environment.
  • Shop Sustainable. When you buy sustainably grown and produced foods, you send a message with your food dollars: “I do not support industrial and factory farming!”
  • You can buy local foods by joining a CSA  Ggroup, visiting a farmers market or using the Eat Well Guide to find a farm near you.

For More Information

  • Find a local farmer through the Eat Well Guide and start asking questions about how they produce food.
  • To find out which corporate farms received the bulk of government subsidies from 1995-2004, visit the Environmental Working Group’s Farm Subsidy Database.
  • Watch this Sierra Club video, “Living a Nightmare: Animal Factories in Michigan”, a 24-minute documentary about the horrors of industrial agriculture.

Reports and Articles