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The Issues

The Issues

Threatening our health

Antibiotic resistance

In order to maximise efficiency and keep costs down, animal factories farm livestock at a very high density, resulting in extremely crowded and stressful environments that make animals vulnerable to illness, as well as concentrating the illness’ transmission. This fact has meant that in order to keep the animals alive, antibiotics are routinely administered in quantities that has caused bacteria to become resistant to them. Antibiotic resistance is a natural phenomenon that has been present in bacteria in the environment for millennia, however, the accumulation of manufactured antibiotics in the environment creates the conditions for the proliferation of resistant bacteria. Resistant bacteria would ultimately render antibiotics ineffectual, and could mean the end of essential medicines [1].

How did we get here?

Antibiotics

Evidence suggests that the faster growing breeds of livestock used by corporate farms, and stress associated with large scale production lead to an increased risk of livestock contracting an infection [2]. This fact, combined with the crowded and unnatural conditions in which factory farmed animals live, means that they are routinely given antibiotics in feed to prevent disease, bolster their weakened immune systems, and boost profits. The problem is the scale on which these antibiotics are administered (which is directly related to the scale of the meat industry) – across the world at least half of all the antibiotics used are dispensed for livestock, with 74% of the antibiotics sold in the US in 2011 being used for livestock and poultry, and only 26% for human medical use [3]. Around 80-90% of all antibiotics used for humans and animals are not fully digested or broken down, leaving them to pass through the body and enter the environment intact via waste effluent [1]. Once in the water, bacteria can develop resistance through exposure, and these drugs could enter into the human body through consumption [4].

Antibiotics & superbugs

MRSA

Evidence suggests that this overuse of antibiotics is helping to spread drug-resistant strains of diseases such as MRSA (Methicillin-resistant S. aureus) and E. coli, which can cause humans serious illness and fatalities [5]. The transfer of MRSA from pigs to humans is already recognised in the Netherlands, where it accounts for around 39% of human cases of MRSA [5]. An American study suggests people living near an MRSA-positive intensive pig farm may also be exposed to high concentrations of MRSA in the air and are thus more likely to become MRSA-positive. Significantly S. aureus was the organism most frequently found in samples taken from pig sheds, accounting for 76% of the organisms tested [6]. The scientists concluded that the high concentrations of multi-resistant bacteria in the air at distances of (at least) 150m could pose a potential human health effect for those who work within, or live in close proximity to, these facilities’ [6] – indeed cattle farmers in Denmark and the UK are 20 times more likely to carry MSRA than an average member of the public [1]. There is consensus that for some bacterial infections, such as Campylobacter and Salmonella, farm antibiotic use is the principal cause of resistance in human infections. For other infections, like E. coli and enterococcal infections, it is agreed that farm antibiotic use contributes, or has contributed, significantly to the human resistance problem, and that livestock-associated strains of MRSA infecting humans are a developing problem; a direct result of the high use of certain antibiotics in farm animals [5]

Further studies have also revealed that motorists and those living near the roads used for transporting intensively farmed chickens and pigs to slaughter are at significantly greater risk of exposure to these airborne pathogens and antibiotic-resistant bacteria [7]. It is not just those in close proximity to animal factories that are at risk of direct infection however, a study conducted this year argues that insects represent a link between animal factories and urban environments, and that antibiotic resistant bacteria can be proliferated through the movement of insects [8].

A solvable issue?

50%

A recent study conducted in the U.S. [9] found that there was a lower prevalence of antibiotic-resistant Salmonella on large scale conventional poultry farms that had transitioned to organic practices compared with their conventional counterparts. Indeed the differences were dramatic, with newly organic farms registering an 11% concentration of resistant strains, compared to 69% on conventional, antibiotic abusing farms. Another recent study into antibiotic use in the swine industry recommends that all non-necessary antibiotic (antibiotics are often used as growth supplements) be discontinued immediately to avoid compromising human medical treatment [10]. The answer therefore, is a shift away from the animal factories that breed antibiotic resistant bacteria, towards a method of farming that does not operate in an environment that makes routine antibiotic use a necessity – the answer is free range, and organic.

Footnotes

  • [1] Parliamentary Office of Science & Technology, (2013) Antibiotic Resistance in the Environment
  • [2] CIWF (2013) Zoonotic Diseases, Human Health and Farm Animal Welfare
  • [3] The Pew Commission (2011) Antibiotics and Industrial Farming
  • [4] Chee Sanford, J.C. et al. (2009) Fate and Transport of Antibiotic Residues and Antibiotic Resistance Genetic Determinants During Manure Storage, Treatment, and Land Application. Journal of Environmental Quality, 38(3):1086-1108
  • [5] CIWF (2013) Antibiotic resistance – The impact of intensive farming on human health: A report for the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics
  • [6] Gibbs et al. (2006) Isolation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria from the air plume downwind of a swine confined or concentrated animal feeding operation, Environmental Health Perspectives, 114(7):1032-7.
  • [7] Rule et al. (2008) Food animal transport: A potential source of community exposures to health hazards from industrial farming (CAFOs), Journal of Infection and Public Health, 1(1): 33-39
  • [8] Zurek, L. & Ghosh, A. (2014) Insects Represent a Link between Food Animal Farms and the Urban Environment for Antibiotic Resistance Traits, Applied and Environmental Microbiology 80(20): 3562 – 3567
  • [9] Sapkota et al. (2014) Lower prevalence of antibiotic-resistant Salmonella on large-scale U.S. conventional poultry farms that transitioned to organic practices, Science of the Total Environment
  • [10] Barton, M. (2014) Impact of Antibiotic Use in the Swine Industry, Current Opinion in Microbiology (19): 9-15

Depleting global resources

Environmental impacts

Our food system has become increasingly stretched across the globe, making the process of getting food onto our plates very complex. The combined effects of all of the stages of the food system, make food and drink the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in UK households [1]. The volume of greenhouse gases are only set to rise, as farming is further intensified and numbers of livestock and amounts of fertiliser used increase; this is not a sustainable option. According to the Soil Association 35–40% of all cereals produced worldwide are fed to livestock, and this could rise to 50% by 2050 if meat consumption continues to rise as predicted. If all cereals were fed to people not animals, we could feed an extra 3.5 billion people [2].

The situation

  • Intensive factory farming has meant that livestock are increasingly eating grains and soya, rather than being grass-fed or eating food waste. These imported grains and proteins cause deforestation and are an inefficient use of productive land [3].
  • These grain operations, along with large scale pig farms, produce huge amounts of waste that is often high in chemicals and nutrients that are detrimental to the environment, pollution water supplies and contributing to climate change [2].
  • Moving animal feed across the globe, and livestock between farms, slaughterhouses and processing plants means that intensive farming is very energy intensive.
  • Depleting and increasingly unpredictable resource supplies mean that the planet will not be able to sustain intensive livestock production in the future [2]; change is needed now.

emissions

Polluting water supplies

In the past livestock would have been raised on grass, crops or waste produced on the farm itself. With the advent of supply chains however, animal feed is now used instead. These practices have added to the vulnerability and the unsustainability of our food chain as we rely on imported grain from across the globe [5]. We are using more land and resources to feed farm animals rather than growing grain that would go directly to consumers – the huge amount of land needed to grow the animal feed to support the rapidly expanding livestock industry has led to deforestation and land degradation [1]. According to the FAO, an estimated 33-40% of the world’s entire cereal harvest is used as livestock feed. The production of livestock feed consumes nearly 43% of the world’s food energy and returns only 29% of it, due to the inefficiency of meat production[2].

The expansion of industrial soya farms has displaced countless small farmers in Latin America, destroying previously sustainable farming systems that worked in harmony with the existing ecosystem, and provided for families and local communities [6]. With the food sovereignty of these regions now threatened, food security has become an issue, with productive land now being used to produce crops that are exported. The profitability of soya production for agribusiness, and the unclear land rights in Latin American countries has led to land grabbing by corporations, sometimes by violent means, to meet the demands of animal factories in Europe and elsewhere [6].

deforestation

More hidden, external costs

The external costs of factory farming include livestock’s contribution to the contamination of water, as mentioned above; air pollution, including greenhouse gas emissions; damage to wildlife and habitats; damage to soil; animal production diseases; food poisoning; human diet-related illness; and a decline in animal welfare [2]. In 2005 agriculture and food policy experts calculated that the total external costs of UK agriculture up to the farm gate are £1.5 billion annually, costs that are not included in the price of the food, or covered by the producers [2].

Well managed grazing and grass-fed farms are better for the environment, using fewer inputs which produce waste that is less harmful and in lower concentrations. This means that soil quality is conserved, erosion and water pollution are less prevalent, better carbon sequestration takes place and biodiversity levels are preserved [7]. The use of compost and rotational grazing ensures that soils stay healthy and productive, whilst also providing natural pest and weed resistance in the face of climate change [7]. Scaling down livestock production in the rich countries of the world is the fastest and most effective response that we can make to reduce the environmental footprint of food production and to free up grain for human consumption [2].

energy

Footnotes

Wrecking rural communties

Wrecking rural economies & communities

Farming has always exerted a strong influence on the rural landscape and it’s people; shaping it physically, providing economic stability for countless families, and constituting a way of life. With the arrival of big agribusiness however, many rural communities have started to suffer as small farms cease to be financially viable and rural life is diminished.

How did we get here?

Technological advances in animal agriculture, due to their high cost, have meant that intensive farms must produce at maximum capacity to make a profit, maintaining high production levels even at times of low demand [1]. This has reduced the economic freedom of small farmers, forcing them to either intensify, work to contract, or simply shut down. Further, the vertical integration of the meat market means that product moves around inside the supply chains of big agribusiness [1]. In other words, big farms do not utilise local meat packers, processing plants, slaughterhouses and equipment dealers. These local and independent businesses, however, are vital for providing employment, investment and stability to rural communities [2].

Intensive farm

Draining communities dry

It has been found that farms with a gross income of $100,000 make nearly 95% of their expenditures locally, whereas larger farms with gross incomes in excess of $900,000 spend only 20% or less locally [1] – corporations will source inputs from wherever is cheapest, which is rarely locally. This means that there is no multiplier effect when large corporate-owned farms are built in a community – in a Michigan study, an average of $67 per hog was spent by small farms within their local community, but only $46 for larger operations [1]. If local communities are to benefit from farming operations, there needs to be a large number of small farms utilising local services and labour forces, rather than a few big farms who get their resources from further afield, neglecting the local economy.

According to the Pew Commission [3], animal factories disrupt and dramatically change the ‘social fabric’ of rural communities. Intensive animal factories are highly mechanised and so are more reliant on technology than on labour; there are therefore very few employment opportunities for locals. One economic analysis of Missouri hog farms found that a contract facility making $1.3 million in annual sales generated 9.4 jobs on and off the farm, whereas an independent operation making the same amount in sales generated 28 jobs on and off the farm [4]. Those that are employed tend to be temporary or migrant workers due to the fact that they can be paid less and are less likely to unionise or to know labour laws [5]. The net effect of large animal factories that do not source their materials or labour locally, is a system where money is drained from rural communities with no prospect of economic growth in return. This can be clearly seen in the UK, were a quarter of all farmers live in poverty, and a farmer’s average income is just £13,300 a year. Indeed across the EU, one farmer goes out of business every minute, forced out of the market by the monopoly of large agricultural conglomerates [6].

Monopoly

Devaluing the countryside

Animal factories do not just operate in isolation from rural communities, shutting them out of the huge amounts of profits that they draw in, they have also been found to significantly reduce land prices in local communities due to the foul odor and health risks. Properties located upwind of intensive animal farms in Iowa were found to drop roughly 10% in value, and properties within a 1/10 of a mile radius lost a huge 88% of their value [5]. A 2003 survey in rural Iowa indicated that the construction of pig factory farm was less desirable to Iowan locals than that of a prison, a solid waste landfill, a slaughter plant, or a sewage treatment plant [7].

Devaluing the countryside

Footnotes

Abusing pigs

Animal abuse

Industrial animal production is designed as a system to be run at maximum efficiency, producing as much yield and profit as possible. This model reduces the animal to a unit of production [1], a machine of inputs and outputs rather than a sentient being with physical and psychological needs. Animal factories are thus inherently at odds with the well being of pigs, where the maximisation of efficiency and cost-effectiveness always conflict with animal welfare.

The situation

  • Approximately 10,000,000 pigs a year are slaughtered in the UK every year, 70% of which are reared intensively [2].
  • The welfare standards in animal factories are at best, minimal, and at their worst, squalid and illegal, as has been shown time and time again [3][4].
  • For years, mutilation (tail docking, teeth clipping) and extreme confinement in gestation crates has been standard practice in animal factories, but EU legislation has been passed that will ideally put and end to these practices, although it’s implementation has been problematic [3].

Intensive

Immobilised

Sows spends most of their 16.5-week pregnancy in the individual stall, unable to turn round for the duration of this time, lying on a concrete and slatted floor with no straw or other bedding material for comfort. In their natural environment, pigs spend up to 50% of the time using their snouts foraging and rooting in soil, but such behaviour is impossible in the confines of a concrete and metal-barred crate [5]. It has been found that the bleak and unstimulating environment within confinement creates drives pigs to bite at the bars of their enclosures so incessantly that blood coats the front of their crates. The confined quarters also result in pressure sores and ulcers from not being able to move, untreated abscesses and various infected wounds worsened by the bodyweight of pregnant pigs[6]. Confinement continues until the sow is ready to give birth, when she is transferred to a slightly larger enclosure that has space for her piglets, who stay with the mother for only 3-4 weeks, compared to the 17 weeks that would occur under natural conditions [5].

Sow stalls

Abhorrent conditions

The Humane Society [6] conducted an undercover investigation of a Smithfield breeding facility, to verify Smithfield’s pledge to phase out its use of gestation crates – metal cages used to enclose pigs. The investigation revealed a pattern of systematic abuse against the pigs, and documented abuse far beyond the misery of the extreme confinement of gestation crates. The workers at the breeding plant were seen to treat the pigs with neglect and malice, with the investigator recounting a pig being stunned and thrown into waste bin whilst alive and breathing. At a different breeding plant, a pile of 20 dead pigs was found, along with dustbins, full of empty medication bottles for diseases with symptoms that include diarrhoea, respiratory problems, intestinal lesions, among others [7]. The poorly ventilated quarters, rife with bacteria and filth, has been shown to cause lung damage and pneumonia among pigs from animal factories, with 40-80% of pigs, depending on conditions, showing lesions in their lungs at the time of slaughter [8].

Sick pig

Systematic mutilation

Despite EU legislation prohibiting tail-docking and requiring materials be provided for environment enrichment being implemented 11 years ago, the systematic mutilation of pigs in the form of tail-docking, teeth clipping and castration is seen routinely throughout Europe. CIWF has found numerous and persistent cases of non-compliance with EU legislation for animal welfare in member states across the EU [3][4]. In 2009 [3] CIWF found that 100% of farms visited in the Netherlands and Spain had a significant number of tail-docked pigs present, and a follow up report in 2014 [4] found that problems still persisted in the two member states, as well as the UK, Poland, the Netherlands, Italy, Ireland and France. Tail docking is practiced to reduce tail biting, which occurs when pigs are not sufficiently stimulated and live in stressed conditions. The incidence of tail biting can therefore be reduced without resorting to tail docking, by addressing the initial problem. By providing materials such as straw as a minimum requirement, or allowing them to roam free, the pigs are kept occupied and stimulated, thus removing the root of the problem [9].

Tail docking

The choice is with the consumer

Animal factories with the abhorrent and deplorable conditions described above persist because there is a demand for cheap pork. There are hidden costs to this cheap meat, in the form of animal suffering, but also the suffering of humans, communities and the environment, who all pay the price from meat produced in animal factories. Under the British Soil Association’s organic standards, the use of farrowing crates and sow stalls in pig production is prohibited, and pigs are reared with space to move about, explore and wallow in mud (click here for more information labelling standards). Animal abuse can therefore be avoided by buying high welfare pork and supporting farmers that are producing pork with animal welfare in mind, shifting demand away from animal factories.

Happy pigs

Footnotes

Globalised food

Globalised food

Democratic, localised control of food is being eroded by an intentional economic stranglehold of global food markets by large agribusiness and biotech corporations. A blinkered focus on profit for shareholders does not and will not produce outcomes truly designed to feed a growing global population for the long term. Instead, fewer and fewer corporations seek to maximise the control and sale of higher value products to burgeoning markets, damaging access to nutrition for the most vulnerable.

UK case study: cheap imports

The cheap meat found on UK supermarket shelves come at a price which is not shown on the packaging. The majority of this cheap imported meat can only be produced at such low costs by disregarding animal welfare and environmental safety, often in open defiance of EU legislation. Over 50% of our bacon is now imported, with the majority coming from Denmark and the Netherlands. 43% of other pork products come from Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg, where the same poorer conditions on pig farms are allowed [2]. In the UK pork is produced to a higher standard making it more expensive, but better for animals and the environment. By buying locally, consumers can ensure that the meat they are eating is ethical, as well as keeping local farmers in business and contributing to the local economy.

As of January 2013, the EU implemented legislation intended to move towards a higher standard of welfare, including a ban on the use of cramped individual sow stalls for any more than five weeks during pregnancy, and an increase in the amount of space available to piglets and sows [3]. According to new data from the European commission however, only 13 member states of the EU are fully compliant with the new EU standards, with infringement found in at least nine countries, including Belgium, France, Ireland and Poland, with other states still being investigated [4]. Much of the cheap pork in the UK can be traced back to factory farms in these countries [1],[5], where pigs often spend their entire lives in narrow metal stalls that restrict their movement to sitting and standing and little else. Deprived of their natural environment and any outdoor space, the conditions in sow stalls do not allow for pigs to behave naturally (spending the day rooting and foraging) and induce severe stress, causing physical and psychological damage [6]. Further still, routine tail docking has been prohibited by EU legislation since 2003, but a CIWF report published this year [7] shows that at least 7 major EU member states, including the UK, France, Poland and the Netherlands are failing to comply with this now 11 year old directive.

Sow stalls have been categorically banned in the UK since 1999, but by importing up to 60% of our pork, we are allowing pork that has been raised in inhumane conditions to reach local supermarkets and consumers. With labelling unclear, purchasing pork that is not British runs the risk of being produced under the practically non-existent welfare standards of some countries in Europe and further afield. Indeed in 2005, an estimated 70% of pork sold in Britain would have been illegal to produce here [5]. The selling of meat that flouts EU and UK standards for welfare is not only morally problematic, but it will also perpetuate the competitive disadvantage under which the UK pig industry has operate since 1999, damaging the UK’s agricultural sector [1].

imports

Solution: food sovereignty

By outsourcing our meat production to farms elsewhere in the world, we risk becoming over reliant on a supply over which we have little control, putting our food security at risk. Consumers are one link in a complex and long chain of suppliers, this interconnectedness means that a bad harvest or epidemic somewhere as far away as Asia can affect food prices in the UK – in 2008 for example the price of a 125g packet of ham went up by 45.4% as a result of a global spike in food commodity prices [9]. By producing and purchasing our pork locally, from British farmers, the price of pig meat can be made more consistent, and the supply reliable and shock proof. It also becomes easier to regulate farms producing pork when they are decentralised, and to ensure traceability and high standards of welfare.

Food sovereignty‘ presents a framework for creating an alternative to the dangerous trend of increasing corporate control over food and the economic, social and environmental consequences it brings. The term was coined in 1996 by members of global peasant organisation La Via Campesina, the world’s largest social movement, incorporating 200m members from 183 organizations in 88 countries.

In its most basic sense food sovereignty asserts the right of people to define their own food systems by:

  • Focusing on food for people: The right to food which is healthy and culturally appropriate is the basic legal demand underpinning food sovereignty. Guaranteeing it requires policies which support diversified food production in each region and country. Food is not simply another commodity to be traded or speculated on for profit.
  • Valuing food providers: Many smallholder farmers suffer violence, marginalisation and racism from corporate landowners and governments. People are often pushed off their land by mining concerns or agribusiness. Agricultural workers can face severe exploitation and even bonded labour. Although women produce most of the food in the global south, their role and knowledge are often ignored, and their rights to resources and as workers are violated. Food sovereignty asserts food providers’ right to live and work in dignity.
  • Localising food systems: Food must be seen primarily as sustenance for the community and only secondarily as something to be traded. Under food sovereignty, local and regional provision takes precedence over supplying distant markets, and export-orientated agriculture is rejected. The ‘free trade’ policies which prevent developing countries from protecting their own agriculture, for example through subsidies and tariffs, are also inimical to food sovereignty.
  • Putting control locally: Food sovereignty places control over territory, land, grazing, water, seeds, livestock and fish populations on local food providers and respects their rights. They can use and share them in socially and environmentally sustainable ways which conserve diversity. Privatisation of such resources, for example through intellectual property rights regimes or commercial contracts, is explicitly rejected.
  • Building knowledge and skills: Technologies, such as genetic engineering, that undermine food providers’ ability to develop and pass on knowledge and skills needed for localised food systems are rejected. Instead, food sovereignty  calls for appropriate research systems to support the development of agricultural knowledge and skills.
  • Working with nature: Food sovereignty requires production and distribution systems that protect natural resources and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, avoiding energy-intensive industrial methods that damage the environment and the health of those that inhabit it.

Footnotes

Take the Pig Pledge

I pledge to only eat meat from real farms, not animal factories – or go meat-free. See more.