News Treehugger Voices Factory Farming Is More Destructive Than Ever Plant-based and sustainable farming advocates must join forces to fight it. By Daisy Freund Daisy Freund Daisy Freund is vice president of farm animal welfare at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). Learn about our editorial process Published September 19, 2022 09:19AM EDT Fact checked by Haley Mast Fact checked by Haley Mast LinkedIn Harvard University Extension School Haley Mast is a freelance writer, fact-checker, and small organic farmer in the Columbia River Gorge. She enjoys gardening, reporting on environmental topics, and spending her time outside snowboarding or foraging. Topics of expertise and interest include agriculture, conservation, ecology, and climate science. Learn about our fact checking process Share Twitter Pinterest Email Grafissimo / Getty Images News Environment Business & Policy Science Animals Home & Design Current Events Treehugger Voices News Archive Whenever I see a post by a regenerative rancher or “better meat” advocate denouncing plant-based substitutes or an article by a vegan advocate dismissing the benefits of pasture-based farming, I imagine corporate agribusiness executives watching from the sidelines, delighted. While plant-based and pasture-based advocates go head-to-head, factory farming takes over more and more of our food system, subjecting billions of animals to misery, devastating farmers’ livelihoods, and accelerating climate change. While both better farming and vegan animal advocates have a right to be outraged by the status quo and each brings valid solutions, their respective proposals will work best when paired together. This National Farm Animal Awareness Week in September is the perfect time to remember that farm animals are the ones who suffer the most while advocates exhaust their resources fighting potential allies. Nearly 80 billion sensitive, playful, intelligent pigs, chickens, cows, and turkeys are raised and slaughtered each year for meat, milk, and eggs. The majority of these animals are intensively confined entirely indoors or crowded together in barren feedlots where they suffer immensely. Animals on factory farms have no quality of life, enduring stress from their unnatural, unhealthy conditions, rough handling, and painful procedures that would be deemed animal cruelty if done without anesthesia on a dog or a cat. This industrial method of raising animals is also an undeniable contributor to climate change and environmental degradation. Much of the greenhouse gas emissions from the livestock sector are attributable to industrial beef production, but confinement-based dairy, poultry, and pork farms are also major sources of pollution and long-term damage to the planet. Factory farms generate more than 885 billion pounds of manure which emits significant amounts of methane, one of the most potent greenhouse gases contributing to climate change. These farms and their waste also release other harmful pollutants like ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, volatile organic compounds, and particulate matter into the surrounding air and water, harming local, vulnerable communities. To hasten an end to the inhumane suffering of so many chickens, pigs, and cows, animal advocates often urge the public to take animal products off their plates, touting the climate benefits of making this change. And it’s true—the ingredients in common plant-based meat substitutes like wheat flour, soybean flour, and mushrooms, have anywhere from half to a fraction of the carbon footprint of animal products. Eating plants, as opposed to eating animals who eat plants, cuts out the land, water, and energy needed to grow crops that are ultimately used as animal feed. Simply put, feeding animals food that humans could eat directly is an inefficient use of resources. Still, surveys show that the vast majority of the population still eats animal products and the number of vegans in the US has been unchanged for many years: under 5%. Most telling of all, the number of animals raised for food in the U.S. has only grown over the past ten years. Arun Roisri / Getty Images Meanwhile, there are independent farmers and ranchers raising animals on pasture with significantly better animal welfare and environmental outcomes, but these producers are drowning in a consolidated market flooded with cheap factory-farmed products that have been bankrolled by the government through subsidies and bailouts. As a result, the number of farms across the country is going down while the number of animals on the remaining operations continues to go up. According to the USDA Agriculture Census, in 1950, there were 5.6 million farms raising 100 million farm animals—but in 2017, there were two million farms raising 9.32 billion farm animals. This rapid consolidation has dire consequences for animal welfare, responsible farmers and ranchers, rural economies, the environment, and public health. In an effort to help their struggling members, pasture-based and regenerative groups urge consumers to buy meat from better sources, emphasizing the climate-friendly elements of their practices. And it’s true that if land is managed well, regeneratively raised animals have a much lighter footprint and can even benefit the environment. Grass-eating animals like cattle or sheep rotate through small sections of pasture, turning up the soil with their hooves, and leaving behind manure to compost. In this way, regenerative agriculture can improve the soil and grassland. Healthy and nutrient-rich soil can hold more water, reduce runoff and erosion, support greater biodiversity, and even sequester—or capture and store—carbon, offsetting some of the methane production intrinsic to raising these animals. This environment also allows animals to exhibit natural behaviors and greatly reduces their stress. Unfortunately for farmers and advocates of more sustainable animal agriculture, growing sales of organic, “free-range” and “pasture-raised” products are not adequately benefitting independent, truly pasture-based farms, in part because the lack of food label regulation outlined in recent ASPCA research allows large brands to use these claims despite raising animals in nearly factory farm-like conditions. Even if all of that demand could be funneled into genuine pasture-based animal products, assuming animal product consumption levels hold relatively steady, research suggests that a complete transition to pasture-based systems would be very challenging given land limits. One study found that maintaining current levels of beef production on pasture would require a 30% increase in the national cattle herd and could increase overall methane emissions. Farmers and ranchers are working toward making regenerative farming practices more efficient and sustainable while also protecting wildlife and the environment; however, moving more than nine billion animals out of factory farms and onto pasture is not currently possible or practical if the status quo continues. So while both vegan animal advocates and regenerative livestock farmers have good points, neither of their approaches are silver bullets. But a combination of reducing overall consumption of animal products while, at the same time, sourcing those animal products that are consumed from higher welfare operations has the potential to benefit more animals in the long run and is more appealing to the majority of Americans. Read More Why We Have Factory Farming and How to End It What Is Forced Molting in Factory Farms? Op-Ed: Why Switching From Beef to Chicken Is a Recipe for Disaster Based on recent surveys, 35% of Americans reported trying to eat less meat in 2021, and if those same people also swapped some factory farm-sourced meat, eggs, or dairy they’re eating with pasture-raised products, the impact could be huge. If the number of animals in the system decreases, more land and other natural resources would become available so that more animals can be raised on pasture. By cutting back on the quantity of animal products, consumers may be able to afford to spend a little more on higher-quality pasture-based meat, eggs, and dairy. In fact, if everyone in the U.S. ate plant-based food one day each week and ensured that any animal products they eat one other day that week were from animals raised on pasture, it would spare 2.8 billion animals from factory farming annually, which translates into a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, pollution and resource usage from factory farms by more than 25%. The climate is nearly at a point of no return, responsible farmers and ranchers are unable to survive in the consolidated marketplace, and billions of animals are suffering in atrocious conditions every day. It’s time to stop forcing people to choose between two different valid approaches to fixing the food system when merging the two would be more effective and bring more people into this fight. To bring these strategies together, we urge the public to try ASPCA’s Factory Farm Detox, a one-week focus on reducing animal product consumption and improving the sourcing of any meat, eggs, or dairy that are purchased. Whether through initiatives like the Factory Farm Detox or supporting policies like the Farm System Reform Act, which offers a roadmap for a better world for farm animals, including calls for new funding to help farmers transition to higher welfare or plant-based production, we can tackle a problem as vast as factory farming by bringing our best ideas—and most dedicated advocates—together. View Article Sources "Meat and Dairy Production." Our World in Data. "How Are Factory Farms Cruel to Animals?" The Humane League. Poore, J., and T. Nemecek. "Reducing Food’S Environmental Impacts Through Producers and Consumers". Science, vol. 360, no. 6392, 2018, pp. 987-992., doi:10.1126/science.aaq0216 Rotz, C. Alan. "Modeling Greenhouse Gas Emissions From Dairy Farms." Journal of Dairy Science, vol. 101, no. 7, 2018, pp. 6675-6690., doi:10.3168/jds.2017-13272 Yang, Xufei et al. "Analysis Of Particle-Borne Odorants Emitted From Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations". 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