Factory Farming and Industrial Agriculture

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Last week we talked about sustainable and organic, and the difference between the two. This week, we’re going to delve into the real issue – factory farming and industrial agriculture. The differences between sustainable and organic aren’t as big when you compare them to industrial food production.

Factory farming and industrial agriculture are unsustainable systems that produce large volumes of food but have little to no regard for the environment, animal welfare, soil and water quality, food safety, worker rights, farmers or local communities. The focus is on maximizing profit and efficiency – but at great cost.

Cows on pasture

The terms factory farming and industrial agriculture are used interchangeably, though factory farming is generally used to explain industrial animal production and industrial agriculture tends to describe or include intensive crop production.

What is a factory farm?

Cattle feedlot (factory farm)

A factory farm is a large industrial operation that raises many animals (usually cows, pigs, chickens or turkeys) in overcrowded, confined conditions. Some animals are raised indoors in metal sheds, where they never see sunlight and often live on concrete slats, their feet never touching the earth. Other animals (cows mainly) are raised outdoors on large feedlots, huge tracts of barren land, where they stand in mud and their own feces, with no grass or trees nearby. These animals are not permitted to carry out their natural behaviors, like rooting, pecking and grazing.

Because of the unsanitary, overcrowded conditions, animals often become sick. To combat this, the animals are given low daily doses of antibiotics, contributing to the growing danger of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Both antibiotics and hormones are given to help the animals grow faster and bigger.

These facilities are so unlike farms that the government defines them as animal feeding operations or concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). The difference between the two types is the number of animals raised.

What is industrial agriculture?

Industrial agriculture can include animal production but is also used to refer to a system of growing crops where one crop or monoculture (corn, soy and wheat, for example) is grown on hundreds or even thousands of acres of land. Heavy doses of chemical fertilizers are used to make up for the nutrient loss that comes from growing only one type of crop on the same soil season after season, and large amounts of pesticides are sprayed because growing one type of crop over such vast tracts of land leads to insect problems.

This type of food production relies on heavy machinery, and thus fossil fuels, and also minimizes the use of human labor.


Factory farming and industrial agriculture share several characteristics that define them as more like industrial facilities than farms, including:

Excessive size: Unnaturally large numbers of animals are raised in one spot, so that the land cannot properly handle the waste the animals generate. One crop can be raised on miles of land.

Poultry factory farm

Environmental impact: Large amounts of chemical fertilizers and pesticides are applied to crops (both for animal feed and human consumption). These chemicals can not only get into the food, they often leach into the surrounding soil and can pollute rivers, streams and groundwater. On factory farms, open air pits – or lagoons – of manure hold millions of gallons of animal waste, which is often applied to or leaks onto the surrounding land, polluting groundwater and streams. Factory farms also cause air pollution, emitting foul odors, dust, small airborne particulates and numerous toxic chemicals.

Public health problems: The spread of food borne illness that can be transferred to humans is increased by factory farms’ overcrowded, confined, filthy conditions.

Disregard for animal welfare: Animals are confined in unsanitary, overcrowded conditions and cannot carry out their natural behaviors.

Corporate ownership: The owner of the facility does not live on the property and is often a company, not a person. These corporations often own not only the factory farm but also other aspects of the food production system, including the feed company, slaughterhouse and final stages of production.

Common names for industrial food production and operations include:

  1. Factory farm
  2. Concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO)
  3. Industrial animal facility
  4. Industrial animal production
  5. Concentration livestock operation
  6. Agribusiness
  7. Corporate agriculture

This is just a general overview of what a factory farm is. Participant Media (An Inconvenient Truth, Fast Food Nation, The Soloist) will be releasing Food, Inc. on June 12th – the movie is an expose on factory farms and the factory farm system. We’ll make sure to pass along movie updates as we get them.

Next week we’ll do a comparison of sustainable agriculture and factory farming so you can easily see the differences between the two types of farming.

(Diane Hatz is the Founder of Sustainable Table, Executive Producer of The Meatrix movies and co-Founder of the Eat Well Guide. This is the third installment in her blog series Sustainable Table’s Guide to Good Food.)

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