Are Farmers to Blame for Factory Farming?

by David Clough

When I talk to people about the cruel ways animals are treated in modern systems of factory farming, I am frequently asked, ‘What are you saying about farmers?’ While far fewer of us now are employed in agriculture, often someone in the audience is or knows people who are still  involved in farming animals. People often make the case to me that the farmers they know care about the animals they look after.

In fact, I don't need convincing. I spend time with farmers who very clearly care deeply for the animals they are raising. I am impressed by their devotion to a life of care for animals hour by hour and day by day, often with little in the way of time off. Their lives are much more intensely entwined with other animals than than mine is, they have a deep understanding of what it takes to provide for the wellbeing of the animals on their farm, and they are acutely attuned to signs that something is wrong. I know a farmer of beef cattle whose saddest days are those he sends animals to the abattoir, which he has carefully chosen to ensure they will be treated well in their final hours and to minimize the distance they need to travel. Some people found it hard to understand the attitudes of farmers who wept over their herds subject to compulsory culling during the outbreak of Foot and Mouth disease in 2001, but it is obvious to me that this was a tragedy for many, quite apart from any financial considerations.

I'm sympathetic to the difficult economic situation many farmers find themselves in, too. In the years since the Second World War, farmers in the UK and well beyond have been asked to produce more food at a lower and lower cost. In recent years, the pressure has come from supermarkets which try to drive down the price of food in order to increase their market share. Farmers have been forced to cut costs and cut margins in order to win and retain supermarket contracts, with inevitable impacts on the resources available to care for their animals. Those unwilling or unable to make such hard decisions have had to find alternative markets for animals raised to higher welfare standards, sustain economic losses, or go out of business entirely.

The position these farmers find themselves in reflects a problem with the way our systems of food production operate. In systems of mass production, animal bodies are mere commodities, and consumers have often been presented with animal products as if the only relevant reason for choosing between them is price. The agricultural industry has developed astonishingly elaborate systems of breeding and raising farmed animals that make large farms ever more efficient in producing food at optimal cost. It is still shocking to me that broiler hens are now bred to reach slaughter weight in just 35 days. The profit margins on this process are so small that there is no possibility of attending to animal welfare: the main human interaction during the 35 day period is when they walk through the sheds in order to remove the corpses of hens that die. These radically novel production systems were introduced without public knowledge or consent. The recent attempts of agribusiness in the US and elsewhere to introduce 'ag-gag' laws to make it illegal to let people know how animals are being raised is a clear sign that agribusiness bosses think their business is only sustainable on the basis of consumer ignorance.

The problem with these systems is not malicious farmers, but production and retail systems that produce animal products for sale at a price that is wholly incompatible with a good life for the animals unfortunate enough to be caught up in them. We have become accustomed to eating more meat, dairy, and eggs than ever before, and we spend less and less of our income on food. The first step to any change is likely to come not from farmers but from consumers who reject the products of the factory farming industry and expand demand for smaller scale farms, which provide an environment for for farmed animals in which they can live lives worth living.

I have met other farmers who seem content to operate systems in which animals have become mere parts of a production machine. I was given a tour of a huge broiler hen facility where 600,000 hens were being raised from one day old to 35 days old in 24 identical windowless warehouses. I visited an intensive dairy facility where cows were being raised indoors without access to grass. Their calves taken from them moments after birth, and they were killed for their meat after 3 or 4 lactations, when their yield dropped below the optimal range. The manager of the dairy farm told me that he knew his cows were happy where they were, because he left the gate open to a grassy field one day and they didn't even want to go through it, but that wasn't my interpretation of the story: I was stunned at the idea of cows who had been conditioned into forgetting what it meant to graze.  These two managers are representative of those who subject animals to the constraints of factory farming systems in order to earn the highest possible economic, and I wish that they recognized the inadequacy of the constrained lives they were offering their animals. Even in these contexts, though, the problem is not malice, but the prioritizing of production efficiency. The owner of the broiler operation told me he would happily raise free range birds instead if consumer demand grew sufficiently to make it economically viable for him.

So farmers are not primarily to blame for factory farming: the primary fault must lie with the designers of the production systems, those who seek to conceal their operations from the public, and--to a lesser extent--to consumers who are content to purchase animal products without showing interest in the lives of the animals. Farmers are not usually the villains here, and the best of them are heroes in sustaining patterns of raising farmed animals that offer the animals the genuine opportunity to flourish as God's creatures. CreatureKind is keen to visit more of these farmers, and to draw attention to the big differences between the lives they give their animals and the lives of intensely-raised animals, who make up the the vast majority of farmed animals. If you know a farmer you'd like to commend to us for the good life they offer to the animals in their care, do let us know.