From Farm to Factory
Over the last half-century, the traditional family farm has largely been replaced by massive, industrialized operations known as Animal Feeding Operations, or AFOs. The biggest AFOs are called Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs.
Though the small, diversified family operation evoked by the character "Old McDonald" still accounts for the vast majority of U.S. farms, those operations produce only a tiny fraction of the estimated nine billion animals raised and slaughtered for meat each year.
The remainder are raised on the nation's roughly 450,000 AFOs and CAFOs, where operators enjoy massive economies of scale. Both categories of animal feeding operations also go by the generic title, "factory farms."
The Environmental Protection Agency defines AFOs as "agricultural enterprises where animals are kept and raised in confined situations."
The sheer number of confined animals is staggering.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, "a CAFO is an AFO with more than 1000 animal units," which it classifies as "an animal equivalent of 1000 pounds live weight and equates to 1000 head of beef cattle, 700 dairy cows, 2500 swine weighing more than 55 lbs, 125,000 broiler chickens, or 82,000 laying hens or pullets."
If you've eaten an animal recently, there is an overwhelming probability that it came from an AFO or CAFO before being taken to slaughter.
"Large confinement operations now account for the vast majority of meat production in the United States," wrote Hope College professor Steven McMullen in the Journal of Animal Ethics (University of Illinois Press). "Moreover, for most consumers animal products from these producers are the only ones available in the local supermarket."
Importantly, McMullen does not blame farmers for the change in how animals are raised. In a competitive market, he notes, farmers have little choice but to "adopt the low-cost production methods or go out of business."
The transition from family to factory agriculture began in earnest after World War II. The soldiers who helped their parents operate the typical 120-acre farm had little interest in returning to the difficult and often unprofitable profession of subsistence farming.
They had “seen Paree” and envisioned a more financially rewarding and urbanized lifestyle for themselves and the families they were eager to start.
Meanwhile, President Dwight Eisenhower's Secretary of Agriculture, Ezra Taft Benson, advised farmers to "get big or get out." Twenty years later, President Richard Nixon's USDA chief, Earl Butz, issued the same warning — loudly and often.
With food shortages of the Great Depression still embedded in the public consciousness, the expanding post-war population and shrinking family farm production caused agricultural scientists to seek ways to avoid the long-feared “Malthusian catastrophe” in the last half of the twentieth century.
Efficiency and mass production had contributed to winning the war, and in the 1950s and 1960s sparked an unprecedented rise in living standards. It seemed reasonable to apply the factory template to agriculture.
Advances in technology made that application possible.
Refrigeration meant that animals could be slaughtered in one part of the country and shipped long distances over several days to meet consumer demand in another. Synthetic foods enabled operators to remove farm animals from their natural environments and feed them cheaply, while adding extra weight to their bodies quickly. Antibiotics allowed farms to cram more animals into less space.
It is not a pretty picture.
"C.S. Lewis's description of animal pain — 'begun by Satan's malice and perpetrated by man's desertion of his post' — has literal truth in our factory farms," wrote author Matthew Scully, "because they basically run themselves through the wonders of automation, and the owners are off in spacious corporate offices reviewing their spreadsheets."
The rise of the factory farm to a position of near-total market dominance is not simply a matter of making the traditional family farm larger and more efficient. Sadly, factory farms represent a perversely qualitative change in the way animals are treated.
Few Americans seem to understand the brutal realities of modern animal agriculture. Even for those who may know, or at least suspect, what actually happens in confinement agriculture, it is too often a matter of out of sight, out of mind.
Turning away from a grievious wrong never solved anything. Please view this short video from Mercy for Animals and see the wrong for yourself.