09/28/2005 11:56 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Factory Farming Meets the Third World: The Jungle, 2005

A new report from the Worldwatch Institute describes how factory farms are breaking the cycle between small farmers, their animals, and the environment, causing collateral damage to human health and local communities. Changing that destructive path will require a new approach to the way animals are raised.

Since the latest outbreak of avian flu began in southeast Asia in 2003, public health officials, farmers, veterinarians, government officials, and the media have referred to the threat as a "natural" disaster. However, avian flu, mad cow disease, and other emerging diseases that can jump from animals to humans are symptoms of a larger change taking place in agriculture: the spread of factory farming.

According to Happier Meals: Rethinking the Global Meat Industry, the greatest rise in industrial animal operations is occurring near the urban centers of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, where high population densities and weak public health, occupational, and environmental standards are exacerbating the impacts of these farms. Concentrated animal feeding operations account for more than 40% of world meat production, up from 30% in 1990. Once limited to North America and Europe, they are now the fastest growing form of meat production worldwide.

"If [Upton Sinclair's] The Jungle were written today, it would not be set in the American Midwest," says Danielle Nierenberg, the report’s author. "As environmental and labor regulations in the European Union and the United States become stronger and more prohibitive, large agribusinesses are moving their animal production operations overseas, primarily to countries with less stringent enforcement."

Industrial systems today generate 74% of the world's poultry products, 50% of all pork, 43% of beef, and 68% of eggs. While industrial countries dominate production, it is in developing nations where livestock producers are rapidly expanding and intensifying their production systems.

Among the leading concerns cited in the report:

  • Crowded, inhumane, and unhygienic conditions on factory farms can sicken farm animals and create the perfect environment for the spread of diseases, including avian flu, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, or mad cow disease), and foot-and-mouth disease.

  • Factory-farmed meat and fish contain an arsenal of unnatural ingredients, among them persistent organic pollutants (POPs), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), arsenic, hormones, and other chemicals. Overuse of antibiotics and other antimicrobials in livestock and poultry operations, meanwhile, is undermining the toolbox of effective medicines for human use.
  • Factory farming is resource intensive: producing just one calorie of beef takes 33% more fossil-fuel energy than producing a calorie of potatoes. Eight ounces of beef can require up to 25,000 liters of water, while enough flour for a loaf of bread in developing countries requires only 550 liters.
  • Despite the fact that fisheries worldwide are being fished out, about a third of the total marine fish catch is utilized for fish meal, two-thirds of which is used to fatten chickens, pigs, and other animals.
  • Only about half of all livestock waste is effectively fed into the crop cycle; much of the remainder ends up polluting the air, water, and soil.
  • Global trade and advertising, lower meat prices, and urbanization have helped make diets high in animal protein a near-universal aspiration, writes Nierenberg, noting that the world price of beef per 100 kilograms has fallen to roughly 25% of its value 30 years ago. Meat consumption is rising fastest not in the U.S. or Europe, but in the developing world. From the early 1970s to the mid-1990s, meat consumption in developing countries grew by 70 million tons, nearly triple the rise in industrial countries.

    In response to intensifying consumer demands and other factors, several food companies and international policymaking and funding institutions are exploring new approaches to the business of food. In the U.S., McDonald's and Whole Foods Market have introduced more comprehensive animal welfare standards in the past decade. And in 2001, the World Bank reversed its previous commitment to fund large-scale livestock projects in developing nations, acknowledging that there was a significant danger of crowding out smaller farmers, eroding the environment, and threatening food safety and security. Also, in June 2005, the 167 member countries of the World Organization for Animal Health unanimously adopted voluntary standards for the humane transportation and slaughter of animals.

    While many in the agribusiness industry have embraced food irradiation and genetic engineering of livestock as solutions to the myriad problems caused by factory farming, technology-based responses are often merely stop-gap measures, says Nierenberg. "These end-of-the-pipe remedies are certainly innovative, but they don't address the real problem. Factory farming is an inefficient, ecologically disruptive, dangerous, and inhumane way of making meat."