The number of land animals being farmed globally grew from 7.3 billion in 1970 to 24.2 billion in 2011. In 2019 that number was estimated at 31 billion alive at any given time, with a further 38.8 billion to 215.9 billion fish, the vast majority of whom are raised on intensive farms. This style of farming comes at huge cost to the welfare of the animals, the environment, and the health of humans.
WHAT IS INTENSIVE ANIMAL FARMING?
Intensive animal farming is a way of farming animals that maximizes production while keeping costs low. These kinds of farms are also known as factory farms.
Animals are kept at high stocking densities, meaning each individual is given very little room to move. And everything from their feed to the amount of light they get is unnatural and regulated. Intensive farms aim to bring animals up to slaughter weight as fast as possible, and to get dairy cows and egg-laying hens to produce as much as possible with the smallest amount of costs to the farmer.
WHAT ARE THE TYPES OF INTENSIVE ANIMAL FARMING?
Over the last 100 years, most forms of farming have changed dramatically in order to produce more food more cheaply, and to compete internationally. For farmed animals this has meant the rise of intensive farming and an unimaginable amount of suffering.
More chickens are farmed and slaughtered for meat every year than any other land animal. A 2023 estimate suggests 34 billion are alive on Earth at any one time, and in 2016 a staggering 66 billion chickens were killed worldwide. Around 70 percent are raised in intensive farming systems. While the UK and EU banned tiny battery cages in 2012, and the EU intends to ban all cages by 2027, British and European laying hens can still be confined in cages, which hold around 80 birds and contain a scratch mat and perches. Intensive barn systems don’t use cages but can house up to 50,000 chickens in one packed shed. Elsewhere in the world, including the US, Asia, Canada, and Australia, battery cages are still widely in use.
Gestation crates enclose mother pigs for the entirety of their four-month pregnancy. These cages are so small they cannot turn around, or even take a step forward or backwards. What a shocking way to treat a fellow sentient being. Their young will be taken from them and kept indoors on concrete or slatted floors for around five months when they will be trucked to the slaughterhouse. By then, their mother will be pregnant again and back in the crate.
The US, Europe, and China, have the highest concentrations of farmed pigs. In 2022, China opened the world’s largest intensive pig farm, a 26-storey building with capacity to slaughter a million pigs a year to supply the country’s rocketing demand for pig meat.
Both dairy and beef cows are farmed intensively. Beef cows might graze on pasture initially and then be moved into feedlots to be fattened on grain before being slaughtered. US feedlots hold more than 13 million cows, who have nothing to do, nowhere to go, no pasture to graze. They eat processed, imported foods until they can be profitably slaughtered.
Dairy cows are likely to spend their entire lives in heavily mechanized indoor farms, where they are artificially inseminated in order to give birth to a calf every year so that they can produce milk almost continuously. After all, cows produce milk for their calves, not for us. The modern dairy cow produces twice as much milk as she did just 40 years ago, at an average of 22 liters a day in the UK, or as much as 30 liters a day for US dairy cows.
The intensive dairy industry also supports meat production, as dairy cows who are no longer productive (after about three years) are slaughtered for meat, and their male calves, who are considered useless to dairy farming, are turned into veal.
Industrial aquaculture has boomed across the world in recent decades. Intensive farms keep the fish at a high stocking density, and depend on processed imported feed, including soy harvested from deforested Amazon lands. Some fish farms are on land, with fish kept in large tanks, while others are a series of pens located in the open sea. Finfish like salmon are the most commonly farmed species. Carnivorous fish like salmon are fed a diet of fishmeal — derived from wild-caught species like anchovies. In this way, fish farming drives the destruction of ocean ecosystems.
WHAT ARE THE DISADVANTAGES OF INTENSIVE ANIMAL FARMING?
Intensive farming means serious and prolonged suffering for the animals trapped in this system. A large part of this suffering is inherent in the factory farming model: animals being kept confined together, packed into indoor spaces with insufficient room; they are selectively bred to be as productive as possible, but this almost always compromises their health and wellbeing. For example, egg-laying hens are pushed to lay far too many eggs, and for these they need calcium. Inevitably, the production of all those eggshells weakens their bones and leads to osteoporosis and fractures.
Let’s start with the size of modern broiler chickens — this is the term for the birds who are farmed for their meat. These poor birds have been selectively bred to grow much faster than they would naturally. They now reach a slaughter weight in just five or six weeks, three times faster than the birds who were farmed in the 1950s. All that weight is hard for their skeletal system to cope with, and bone fractures and joint dislocations are all too common as a result. Being kept in overcrowded barns means they don’t have enough space to move around or stretch their wings freely. The barn floors are typically cleaned only after a flock has been sent to slaughter, so the chickens sit around in their own waste, which is acidic and can burn their skin. Egg-laying hens suffer too. Even the bigger “enriched” cages many European hens are kept in don’t give them enough space or ability to engage in natural behaviors. Hens often have part of their beaks cut off to stop them from pecking each other, which causes both acute and chronic pain. Male chicks born into the egg industry are unwanted and are thrown alive into grinding machines or gassed to death on their first day of life.
Being kept in crowded, barren sheds is stressful for these bright and inquisitive animals. As a result, farmed pigs are prone to nipping and biting each other. To prevent damage from this, which dents profits, piglets often have their teeth clipped and their tails cut off without anesthetic. Undercover investigations have revealed that physical abuse and neglect of pigs occur on an alarming number of farms.
In the dairy industry, calves are separated from their mothers usually a day after being born, which is stressful for both the calves and their mothers. But their ordeal doesn’t end there; the female offspring may join the dairy herd while the male calves are of no use to the dairy trade as they cannot produce milk. Often, these young animals will be kept in isolation and raised for veal.
Dairy cows, meanwhile, spend much of their day standing on concrete floors, which can lead to chronic pain and lameness. Mastitis, the inflammation of the udder, is one of the most common health problems experienced by dairy cows globally, and it is horribly painful.
Some species of farmed fish like Atlantic salmon are migratory species, navigating across great distances in their lifetimes. Confined to overcrowded sea pens, they are unable to perform these natural behaviors and become highly stressed. Farmed fish can become infested with parasites like sea lice that eat their flesh — something that they generally don’t suffer from in the wild. The method of slaughter for most farmed fish is also cruel, as they are left to suffocate in the air or on ice.
RISKS TO HUMAN HEALTH
Intensive animal farming presents multiple risks to human health. One growing concern right now is bird flu, which has been tearing through flocks across the world. In 2021, seven workers on a poultry farm in Russia contracted the H5N8 strain of bird flu. All recovered and there was no human-to-human transmission, but the recent spread of the H5N1 strain to mammals, including mink being intensively farmed for their fur in Spain, has got experts more worried about the potential for it to be transmitted more easily among humans.
Other pathogens can also spread and mutate under intensive farming conditions. For example, the bacteria Campylobacter jejuni, commonly found in farmed cows, is the most common cause of gastroenteritis and is resistant to antibiotics. The World Health Organization considers antibiotic resistance, which is driven in part by the use of antibiotics in animal farming, to be one of the most serious threats to public health. Pollution from intensive animal farms is also a big health concern. Air pollution from animal farms is bad for the respiratory health of both farmers and nearby residents.
WHY ARE ANTIBIOTICS GIVEN TO INTENSIVELY FARMED ANIMALS?
Animal farming is responsible for 70–80 percent of antibiotic use globally, because the number of farmed animals on earth is far greater than the number of humans and the conditions they are kept in are so bad that they cannot survive without them. Antibiotics are supposed to be used to treat sick animals, but it has become common to use them to prevent animals from getting sick in the first place. In some countries they are also used liberally as they increase growth rates and productivity in animals, which boosts profits for farmers, even while it risks the health of people worldwide from antibiotic-resistant pathogens.
HOW DOES INTENSIVE FARMING AFFECT THE ENVIRONMENT?
Intensive farming causes many types of environmental damage. The large amounts of manure created by high-density farming pollute the land, air, and waterways. For example, increased chicken farming on the Chesapeake Bay has severely polluted the water in recent years, killing aquatic life.
Intensively farmed animals are generally fed on diets of corn, soy, and other crops. Some of these are grown on land that was once tropical forest. Soy production has historically helped to drive deforestation in the Amazon, and 77 percent of all soy is fed to farmed animals. Soy production continues to expand, usually into pasture land, which in turn causes more deforestation to create more pasture. Deforestation releases huge amounts of carbon dioxide, threatens the survival of many wild species, and makes fragmented and degraded forests more prone to wildfires.
HOW MANY BRANDS RELY ON INTENSIVE FARMING?
Fast food restaurants like McDonald’s, Nando’s, and KFC depend on intensive animal farming to sell huge amounts of burgers, chicken nuggets, and other items cheaply. Supermarkets are also guilty of selling meat and dairy from intensively farmed animals.
INTENSIVE ANIMAL FARMING FACTS
- Many animals farmed intensively don’t survive long enough to be slaughtered.
- Intensively farmed animals also suffer when they are exported to other countries. Almost two billion animals, including piglets, chickens, and calves, are exported around the world every year on journeys that are incredibly stressful and cruel.
- In the US, around 25 million animals are slaughtered every day.
Most farmed animals are raised on intensive farms, and suffer throughout their lives as a result. While some welfare protections exist for at least some of these animals, the conditions on intensive farms are so bad that they would be illegal for dogs or cats. These farms also compromise public health, pollute the environment, and contribute to climate change. The best way to end the horrors of intensive farming is to stop consuming animal products.