TOPIC GUIDE: Factory Farming

"Factory farming is necessary"

PUBLISHED: 01 Sep 2012

AUTHOR: Jason Smith

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“The world wants to imagine that it’s a lot more idyllic than it actually is” says Mike Mack, chief executive of the agricultural chemicals and seeds giant Syngenta about contemporary attitudes to agriculture and farming. This outlook, some argue, is the cause of the difficulties we face with regards to feeding a growing global population [Ref: The Times]. Those who argue against the increased industrialisation and intensification of agriculture and farming suggest a change in our attitudes toward animals and the environment must take precedence over bringing Western levels of consumption to the rest of the world, and of corporate profits [Ref: CIWF]. In the UK this disagreement has recently been aired through protests against two proposed intensive farms units: a pig farm in Derbyshire which planned to raise 100,000 pigs a year; and a 8,100 cow mega-dairy in Lincolnshire, both of which were described by opponents as inhumane, environmentally disastrous and an unnatural way to produce food [Ref: Ecologist]. The Observer food columnist, Jay Rayner, agrees that factory farms can be an ugly business but argues that most people want and need cheap food and cannot afford to develop middle-class ‘foodie’ obsessions that many of the arguments against intensive agriculture represent [Ref: Guardian]. Whilst some are willing to overlook the concerns raised by protesters, others see a much broader problem. The current trajectory of farming, argues renowned philosopher Peter Singer, represents society’s moral decay as we choose to treat animals and the environment unethically [Ref: Minnesota Daily]. Others, like Peter Kendall, the president of the National Farmers Union, suggest that emotive arguments against increased productivity in the agricultural sector are a consequence not of concern for animal welfare, but of ignorance [Ref: Guardian]. Larger farms, it’s argued, are best placed to increase animal welfare standards, protect the environment and sustain the world’s population [Ref: Global Harvest Initiative].

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This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

Animal Welfare
Opponents of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) or factory farms, claim that animal welfare standards are lower on these farms than on conventional ones [Ref: Daily Mail]. Intensive farming treats livestock as machines on a production line, breeding chickens that display psychological damage, pigs contained in pens where they do not have enough room to turn around [Ref: WSPA] and dairy cows that are milked at an unnatural rate and live shorter lives as a consequence [Ref: CIWF]. Dr. Temple Grandin, Professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University,  has described conditions on modern pig farms as, “like being stuffed into the middle seat of a jam-packed jumbo jet for your whole adult life, and you’re not ever allowed out in the aisle” [Ref: Ecologist]. Others counter that although some farming practices can appear cruel and unnecessary there are good reasons for doing so and such practices are common on farms of all sizes. Farrowing crates, for example, restrict the movement of a pregnant sow for welfare reasons as she may easily kill the piglets to which she is giving birth simply by moving and crushing them to death, and therefore the welfare of the animals is paramount [Ref: UK Agriculture]. In addition, larger farms are able to employ full-time vets who care for livestock around the clock which is impossible on smaller, traditional farms [Ref: Innovation Centre for US Dairy]. However, opponents argue that constant veterinary attention is only necessary because of the problems caused to animals by being raised in intensive units and the intensive use of unnecessary antibiotics [Ref: Der Speigel].

Environment issues
According to the Food & Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) report, ‘Livestock’s Long Shadow’, the livestock sector generates 65 percent of human-related nitrous oxide, 37 percent of all human-induced methane and 64 percent of ammonia, which contributes significantly to acid rain [Ref: FAO]. The major polluting agents are animal wastes, antibiotics and hormones, chemicals from tanneries, fertilizers and the pesticides used to spray feed crops [Ref: FAO]. These contaminate the water supply, cause soil erosion and endanger human health, although critics, have argued the report is full of errors and its claims are fallacy [Ref: ILRI]. So the potential ‘unforeseen consequences’ of large scale agriculture raises concerns but technological development, it’s suggested, is the practical solution to overcoming these objections with innovations such as anaerobic digesters, which allow farms to avoid the potential controversial practice of muck spreading and the resulting runoff which can pollute streams and rivers [Ref: Too Much Slurry]. But these technologically advanced solutions are only likely to be available on larger farms with a much higher income to invest in new technologies [Ref: Energy Justice Network]. Whilst some critics of factory farming can see the benefit of technological innovation within the industry, they argue factory farms are just going in the wrong direction as they treat food production in the same way as industrial production, such as making a car on a production line [Ref: VIVA]. The modern dairy cow is a case in point, they argue: with its engorged and cumbersome udder, developed through decades of industrial breeding, the dairy cow been reduced to a mere machine. All but five percent of the 280 million hens in the US egg-laying flock are raised in battery cages with each bird having a living space smaller than a single sheet of letter-sized paper. In this argument, technological innovation is part of the problem, and we should consider a return to older, more traditional ways of farming [Ref: Worldwatch Institute].

Feeding the planet
While many argue that intensive production is the only way to feed the world efficiently others counter that small-scale local initiatives are best [Ref: Guardian]. Organic farms and even household allotments are seen as an alternative method of feeding ourselves ethically and cheaply [Ref: spiked]. Opponents argue that such alternatives are not really alternatives at all, with the global livestock sector providing livelihoods to roughly 1.3 billion people around the world [Ref: Royal Society of Biological Sciences] and if society wants to reduce the amount of land given over to farming in order to protect the environment,  then larger, more intensive farms are the way forward as small traditional farm holdings contribute relatively little to overall food stocks [Ref: Peak Energy]. The growth of a Western-style, high protein diet, in China and other emerging economies, means more food needs to be produced efficiently [Ref: Guardian]. Agriculture operates in a world market and on a global scale [Ref: USDA] and farms must produce food ever more efficiently in order to be competitive. The application of science to farming has had spectacular results since the Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. For example, between 1950 and 2000 the number of dairy cows in the United States fell by more than 50 per cent, yet during that same period the average annual milk yield more than tripled [Ref: CQ Researcher]. However, others agree that factory farming may be efficient but ask, ultimately, is it right? [Ref: Minnesota Daily].




It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.

Factory Farms

Congressional Quarterly, Volume 17, Number 2 12 January 2007

What’s the Future of Food?

spiked in association with the UK Food and Drink Federation


Giving the world the tools to feed itself

Chris Johnston The Times 9 July 2012

Intensive farming may ease climate change

Jeff Tollefson Nature 15 June 2010

The Omnivore’s Delusion: Against the Agri-intellectuals

Blake Hurst The American 30 July 2009

‘Only intensive farming’ will feed Britain

David Adam Guardian 18 April 2007


Farmers must take better care of our countryside

Louise Gray Telegraph 9 January 2012

We should all have a beef with factory farming

Geoffrey Lean Telegraph 3 June 2011

Cheap meat comes at a high price

Tracy Worcester New Statesman 9 March 2011

The pigs’ revenge

Felicity Lawrence Guardian 2 May 2009


Intensive farming ‘massively slowed’ global warming

Andy Coghlan New Scientist 14 June 2012

How can we feed the world and still save the planet?

Madeleine Bunting Guardian 21 January 2012

World hunger best cured by small-scale agriculture: report

Nidhi Prakash Guardian 13 January 2012

In praise of factory farming

Dan Murphy Dairy Herd Network 22 June 2011

Global Food crisis: The challenge of changing diets

Richard King Guardian 1 June 2011

The Mr Bigs of farming leave a barren legacy

Charles Clover The Sunday Times 12 July 2009

Who gives a cluck about broiler a chicken

Justine Brian spiked 8 January 2008

What is factory farming

Tony Wardle Vegetarians International Voice for Animals


Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.


Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.

Tonight: The Food We Eat

ITV1 24 August 2012

You Eat What you Are

Stephen J. Dubner Freakonomics 6 July 2012

Look what happens on a diet of platitudes

AA Gill The Sunday Times 24 June 2012

How to Make the Food System More Energy Efficient

Michael E. Webber Scientific American 29 December 2011

So what does the EU think farming is for?

Clive Aslet Telegraph 12 October 2011

Foston Pig Prison Protest

Vegetarians International Voice for Animals (VIVA) 18 May 2011

The Future of Food and Farming

Foresight Report The Government Office for Science 2011

Opinion on the Welfare of the Dairy Cow Farm

Animal Welfare Council October 2009

Factory Farming: A Moral Issue

Peter Singer Minnesota Daily 22 March 2006

Can Organic Farming Feed Us All?

Brian Halweil Worldwatch Institute

Modern Agriculture and its Benefits - Trends, Implications and Outlook

Dr William C Motes Global Harvest Initiative

Pig Business

Farms not Factories

An introduction to farm animals

Compassion in World Farming


Tonight: The Food We Eat

ITV1 24 August 2012

You Eat What you Are

Stephen J. Dubner Freakonomics 6 July 2012

Foston Pig Prison Protest

Vegetarians International Voice for Animals (VIVA) 18 May 2011

Pig Business

Farms not Factories

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