Factory Farming/Industrial Agriculture


Factory farming, also called intensive animal farming, is an animal husbandry system in which large numbers of livestock such as poultry, pigs, sheep, or cattle, are confined indoors in strictly controlled high-density (tightly packed or intensive) conditions. Intensive animal farming is the opposite of traditional extensive farming where the animals range freely outdoors. In industrial animal farming, unlike family farming, livestock products are produced on a mass scale using industrial production methods. Faster reproductive methods are employed, and antibiotics and hormones are given to promote rapid weight gain of the animals to get more food products to market faster while keeping production costs low. Factory farming around the world raises animals as quickly, safely, and efficiently as possible to transform them into the meat, eggs, and dairy products that feed the world's population. Industrial agriculture methods also are employed to grow crops as animal feed and for human consumption. Nevertheless, environmental organizations in the United States report that factory farms and industrial agriculture are polluting air, water, and soil without government oversight and are not following sustainable farming principles. The debate continues between governments, environmental organizations, and the large agribusinesses that dominate the industrial agriculture industry.


The intention of factory farming and industrial agriculture is to maximize food production and minimize the costs of production in order to increase profits. This goal is accomplished on factory farms by using modern technologies that promote faster animal growth, reduce the risk of animal illness, and increase production. In the growing of crops, industrial agriculture reduces labor costs by eliminating tasks such as weeding and replaces them with the use of equipment that spreads chemical fertilizers and pesticides. While factory farming is shown to improve local and national economies, it also has adverse economic effects on small farming businesses. Many individuals and organizations also believe that the methods are harmful to the environment and to farm animals and humans. Many questions remain about the benefits and the risks of factory farming and industrial agriculture, even though they are practiced around the world and are considered necessary to feeding the ever-expanding world population.


The earliest known factory farms for animal production began operating in 1851 as the Industrial Revolution ushered in mass production in other industries. Prior to 1850, most farmers considered farm animals to be living beings with unique needs that should be met in order to produce a good product. The animals were named, spoken to, given comfortable bedding in a barn, allowed to graze in fields, and were fed the best animal feed possible, often produced on the same farm. The farmers interacted daily with the individual animals and knew their personalities and habits. The bonds they formed contributed to the emotional burden of having to slaughter them, even though it was the goal of raising them. If farmers did not perform the slaughtering themselves, the animals were taken to livestock auctions where they were bought for slaughter or sold directly to slaughter houses.

A wheelbarrow full of dead chickens among living birds jammed together in a fattening farm—a condition many birds don't survive.

A wheelbarrow full of dead chickens among living birds jammed together in a fattening farm—a condition many birds don't survive.
(blickwinkel / Alamy Stock Photo)

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the global human population was about one billion people, which increased to more than six billion by 2002. Agricultural production doubled four times between 1820 and 1980 to meet the demands of feeding the expanding global population. During the same time period, the number of people involved in farming dropped from 24% in the 1930s to 1.5% in 2002 after automation and biotechnology had industrialized the farming industry. Intensive animal farming was still a growing industry as of 2018. For example 23,273,767 animals were cycled through farms in 2002, and 28,821,683 animals were raised on factory farms in 2007. The average size of dairy factory farms increased by one-third in ten years, from 1,114 dairy cows per farm in 1997 to 1,481 cows per farm in 2007. The average beef feedlot actually declined by 8.7% from 2002 to 2007 but increased markedly thereafter; in 2012, the average feedlot in Texas had more than 20,000 beef cattle whereas the average in other states was around 12,000. Pig factory farms increased by 42% in the ten years from 1997 to 2007, stabilizing at over 5,000 hogs per farm. Chicken factory farms raising broiler chickens grew to handle 168,000 birds, and in certain states, chickens numbered over 200,000 in individual factory farms.

The early factory farms in the Americas and Western Europe in the twentieth century paved the way for continued acceptance and growth of the industry. In 1990, factory farms produced 30% of the world's meat, which rose to 40% by 2005. As of 1917, factory farming represented the foundation of the meat, egg, and dairy industries. The world population is estimated to be more than 10 billion people by 2050, and industrial animal farming is predicted to be an essential part of feeding that many people.



Factory farms, in contrast to family farms or smaller farming businesses, reduce overhead significantly while earning higher profits. Intensive animal farming follows the approach used by most other types of industrial production. Livestock are kept at higher stocking densities than at traditional farms, meaning that the animals are packed tightly in a given space to minimize movement and to conserve the space required for raising them. The animals are raised in large metal buildings and do not have access to fresh air or sunshine. The hundreds or even thousands of acres needed in traditional animal farming are no longer needed to allow farm animals to graze freely and to care for the soil and water. Animal production has moved so far from traditional animal farming that the Environmental Protection Agency (EFA) refers to the business as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO). For example, a large CAFO is defined as having 1,000 cattle; 2,500 hogs; or 125,000 chickens. Consolidation of food production through mechanization produces food in high volumes with less regard for environmental effects and animal welfare but with cost advantages to the industrial farmers.

Just as in other modern industries, factory farms rely on advanced machinery, biotechnology, and global trade. The animals are treated with vitamins, minerals, and other growth stimulants to support faster weight gain and to generate food at a faster rate. Modern tools and equipment are used to help process meats, eggs, milk, and other food items more quickly and efficiently than can be done in small farming operations. Because food is produced faster than on conventional farms, larger amounts of milk, eggs, and meat reach grocery stores and supermarkets, maintaining availability to consumers. Given the increasing population trends worldwide, increased food production and availability are distinct advantages. Factory farms also help to maintain lower food costs so that low-income countries, communities, and families can still have access to affordable food.

Local advantages of factory farming

At the local level, large-scale factory farming creates jobs. Technologically advanced equipment requires staff to operate the machines, keep the facilities clean, and take care of the animals. Food processing procedures require the skills of trained workers, and since the rate of processing is faster, more workers are needed to keep up the pace. The increased revenues of factory farming allow employment opportunities to be offered to residents of nearby communities. Local businesses such as feed stores also benefit from increased sales.

National advantages of factory farming

At the national level, factory farming encourages technological development so that the industry continues to grow. Scientists and engineers are urged to develop new tools, improve existing tools, and design procedures that improve food production and increase the overall efficiency of intensive agriculture. Many countries subsidize factory farming industry. Industrialized countries that belong to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) provide 18 billion dollars in subsidies to produce beef and pork; 7.3 billion for pig meat; 6.5 for poultry; 1.5 for eggs; and 15.3 billion for milk production. In the United States, industrial-scale production of grains such as wheat, rye, and corn is subsidized by the government for use in animal feed and other uses. National economies in countries that use factory farming methods are said to benefit significantly since the factory farming businesses invest profits into continued improvement within their own countries.

Environmental control procedures

Governments at all levels have contributed to the steady rise in factory farming in the United States and other developed countries and must meet the challenges that come with such growth. The U.S. Congress, for example, is faced with not overtly favoring production of cheap livestock feed (subsidized wheat, corn, and soy crops) over crops grown for feed by local farmers. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is challenged to keep unwanted hormones, vaccines, antibiotics, and other additives out of the factory farming production process so that human health is not compromised. Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) along with state regulators must work to control the impact of factory farms on the environment. But these entities are often compromised by political factors and reelection pressure.

The EPA and state environmental control agencies is charged to oversee and safeguard the public from air and water pollution caused by factory farming. Much of its work, however, rather than devising or enforcing regulations, is to study the problems inherent in intensive farming and oversee whether farms adhere to the established regulations. However, the EPA has done little in terms of oversight and little to actually control the environmental impact of factory farms, even though liquid manure processes on large factory farms are known to pollute air and water and produce greenhouse gases.


In a notable action taken in December 2009, the EPA denied ten petitions from different state agencies and organizations to reconsider the Endangerment and Cause or Contribute findings for greenhouse gases enacted by the EPA as part of the Clean Air Act (Section 202). The petitioners expressed in various ways that the EPA did not follow a robust scientific process when it evaluated the science for endangerment findings for greenhouse gases and challenged the EPA ruling on several specific scientific points. Denial by the EPA essentially invalidated the petitioners' claims because of the inadequate or unscientific evidence they presented. The EPA, in defense of Section 202 of the Clean Air Act, reinforced that “elevated concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere may reasonably be anticipated to endanger the public health and welfare of current and future U.S. generations.” The U.S. National Academy of Sciences affirmed the EPA view and supported the underlying science as valid and compelling. In May 2010, the National Research Council (NRC) of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences supported the findings of the EPA by publishing a comprehensive assessment of the endangerment findings. The NRC concluded that climate change was indeed occurring, that it was affecting a range of human and natural systems, and that it was caused largely by human activities.


In the United states, the EPA, FDA, state environmental control agencies, and local and national public health organizations all have an interest and a responsibility toward protecting the environment and the public from harmful effects associated with factory farming and industrial agriculture. In addition, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, though not directly responsible for air and water quality, is responsible for guiding the farming industry to employ environmentally friendly and sustainable farming practices. The efforts of these organizations to limit air and water pollution and harmful effects on the nation's food supply are ongoing, but many efforts are impeded by the commercial interests of large, powerful agribusinesses that control industrial farming and agriculture operations and their lobbies in Washington, DC.

Effects on public health

Factory farms pollute the air people breathe by releasing hydrogen sulfide, ammonia, and methane into the air from lagoons that store animal manure in water. Factory farming produces 37%of methane emissions, which has 20 times the potential for global warming as carbon dioxide. Manure also contains sodium, nitrogen, and heavy metals that accumulate in soil, pollute streams and rivers, and affect human health. The large amounts of these substances in manure applied heavily to farmland results in dangerous levels of phosphorus and nitrogen in the drinking water supply. Nitrogen also removes oxygen from the water, which destroys aquatic life.

Efforts and solutions

Pollution from factory farming operations goes virtually unregulated except for a stipulation that the EPA should collect data routinely. In November 2016, the EPA was reported to be lagging behind on data collection. The EPA inspector general continued as of 2018 to investigate the agency failure to adequately measure toxic air emissions from factory farms.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization reports that carbon dioxide emissions from factory farms (particularly beef and dairy production) make up about 15% of human-induced emissions globally. No controls are in place for concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), representing a gap in environmental protection worldwide.

The EPA and certain states in the United States have regulations requiring landfill owners to control methane produced in soil from migrating from the property on which it is produced. New Jersey, for example, requires quarterly perimeter boundary testing for methane gas. However, in the early 2000s, the EPA announced that it would create a system to measure emissions from factory farms as required by federal laws limiting pollutants to certain ceilings. Methane, for example, is produced in abundance by industrial farming operations in the lagoons holding animal manure and again when the manure is spread into the soil of fields used for growing industrial agriculture crops. However, as late as 2017, the government, the EPA, and the agribusinesses that control factory farming and industrial agriculture had failed to agree on accurate ways of measuring such emissions, which allowed the factory farms to continue avoiding pollution control.

Sustainable agriculture integrates livestock and crops and manages whole systems and landscapes by rotating crops, planting cover crops, reducing or eliminating tillage, applying integrated pest management, and adopting agroforestry practices. (Agroforestry entails cultivating trees in agricultural production.) The environment benefits from sustainable agriculture through its maintenance of soil quality, reducing soil degradation and erosion, and protection of water sources. Biodiversity is also increased by introducing a variety of organisms within healthy and natural environments. Experts say that sustainable agriculture is needed in the modern world to reverse threats to the global environment and human and animal health. Sustainable farming and land use is recognized by the World Bank Group as the only way to achieve global food security. Land and water must be used efficiently and agriculture must be sustainable to protect the environment and remain resilient to climate change. The World Bank supports investments in environmental management and the sustainable raising of livestock, including reducing methane emissions and soil depletion. As an example of positive change, the World Bank Group has implemented environmental initiatives on livestock farms in Henan Province, China; has installed waste management systems in Thailand to reduce methane emissions; and has supported interventions to protect soil quality in Turkey. Similar interventions are needed worldwide to prevent the continued degradation of water, soil, and air quality and to protect the food supply and human health.

Farming of either plants or animals conducted solely on commercial or industrial principles; a group or conglomerate of businesses related to agricultural produce, processes, and services.
Greenhouse gases—
Any gas (such as carbon dioxide and ozone) that absorbs radiation and contributes to the warming of Earth's atmosphere by reflecting radiation from the surface of Earth.
Industrial agriculture—
Livestock, poultry, fish, or crops produced using industrialized methods, including technological, scientific, economic, and political methods.
Intensive animal farming—
The keeping of livestock such as cattle, hogs, sheep, and poultry indoors at higher stocking density than in other forms of farming.
The main constituent of natural gas and highly explosive; chemically designated CH4 indicating one atom of carbon and four atoms of hydrogen. Although relatively nontoxic to humans, it can displace oxygen in the lungs and asphyxiate; it has greater greenhouse gas potential than carbon dioxide.
Stocking density—
The number or concentration of stock per hectare in a confined area or grazing unit at a given time.
Sustainable agriculture—
The production of food, feed crops, fiber, and animal products using farming techniques that protect the environment, public health, communities, and animal welfare.

The lack of control of waste disposal, which is a high expense in intensive livestock operations, lowers costs for factory farms while it also encourages the development of larger operations that have an even greater effect on the environment. Although a Clean Air Act and a Clean Water Act are in place to protect the environment, mass production of livestock increases air and water pollution and the production of greenhouse gases (methane, in particular) that are derived from huge amounts of untreated animal manure (500 million tons each year). Mass production of animals produces three times as much as waste produced by the human population. In a liquid manure system, the manure lies in designated areas called lagoons, polluting air and water through leakage until it is eventually spread on land as fertilizer. Small family farms sometimes use similar methods of recycling manure and carefully control the runoff, but on factory farms, so much waste accumulates that the soil cannot incorporate the vast quantities, and the excess makes its way into local waterways and contributes to greenhouse gases. The manure contains nitrogen, phosphorus, and bacteria that are unsafe for the environment and for human health.

At the same time, whether the factory farms are growing their own crops as feed or relying on large agribusinesses for feed supplies, the soil in land where the same crops are grown in the same acreage from year to year (monoculture) is depleted of nutrients. To compensate for lack of nutrients, the industrial farming operation uses enormous amounts of chemical fertilizers containing high amounts of nitrogen. The nitrogen leaches into nearby rivers and streams, polluting the environment and causing unsafe levels of nitrogen to leach into food crops consumed by farm animals and people. The soil is also weakened by the fertilizers and does not hold together, causing substantial soil erosion. Soil erosion contributes to the runoff of polluted water into streams and waterways.

Although factory farms are under the regulatory control of the EPA, when control measures are enforced or breaches are investigated, adequate control becomes impossible because of repeated blockage of safeguards or oversight measures by the multinational corporations that control industrial agriculture. Powerful companies that dominate the agribusiness industry employ heavy-handed tactics and manipulative contract terms to keep costs low and production high. Farmers often feel forced to expand or the companies will not continue to buy their products. Consequently, factory farming remains the main method of supplying meat, eggs, and dairy in the United States, and it continues to expand without enforcing corresponding control measures.

In 2009, however, the EPA stepped up to reinforce the Clean Air Act. When ten petitioners challenged the EPA's endangerment finding for greenhouse gases and wanted them to be overturned, the EPA denied all ten petitions, upholding the original Endangerment and Cause or Contribution Findings of the Clean Air Act. Although industrial agriculture and factory farming were not specific targets of the Clean Air Act and its supporters, the effects of these industries—namely the use of pesticides in growing crops and the liquid manure process associated with massive livestock operations—are known to pollute air and water and contribute to the production of greenhouse gases.

See also Air pollution ; Avian flu ; Clean Air Act (1963, 1970, 1977, 1990) ; Clean Water Act (1972, 1977, 1987) ; Food and Drug Administration ; Water pollution .



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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1600 Clifton Rd., Atlanta, GA, 30333, (800) CDC-INFO (232-4636), cdcinfor@cdc.gov, http://www.cdc.gov .

Department of Agriculture, 1400 Independence Ave. SW, Washington, DC, 20250, (202) 720-2791, http://www.usda.gov .

Environmental Protection Agency, 1200 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington, DC, 20460, (202) 272-0167, http://www.epa.gov .

United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, 2121 K St. NW, Ste. 800B, Washington, DC, 20037, (202) 653-2400, http://www.fao.org/north-america/en/ .

U.S. National Academy of Sciences, 500 5th St. NW, Washington, DC, 20001, (202) 3342000, www.nasonline.org .

World Health Organization, Avenue Appia 20, 1211 Geneva 27, Switzerland, 41 22 791 2111, info@who.int, http://www.who.int .

L. Lee Culvert

  This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.