Putting Meat on the Table

Industrial Farm Animal Production in America

Putting Meat on the Table


I have witnessed dramatic changes in animal agriculture over the past several decades. When I was growing up, my family operated a dairy farm, which not only raised cows to produce milk, but crops to feed the cows and wheat as a cash crop. When I took over management of the farm from my father in the mid-sixties, on average we milked about 40 cows and farmed about 800 acres. We were one of some 30 such dairy operations in Saline County, Kansas. Today in Saline County and most Kansas counties, it is nearly impossible to find that kind of diversified farm. Most have given way to large, highly specialized, and highly productive animal producing operations. In Saline County today, there is only one dairy farm, yet it and similar operations across the state produce more milk from fewer cows statewide than I and all of my peers did when I was actively farming.

Industrial farm animal production (IFAP) is a complex subject involving individuals, communities, private enterprises and corporations large and small, consumers, federal and state regulators, and the public at large. All Americans have a stake in the quality of our food, and we all benefit from a safe and affordable food supply. We care about the well-being of rural communities, the integrity of our environment, the public's health, and the health and welfare of animals. Many disciplines contribute to the development and analysis of IFAP —including economics, food science, animal sciences, agronomy, biology, genetics, nutrition, ethics, agricultural engineering, and veterinary medicine. The industrial farm has brought about tremendous increases in short-term farm efficiency and affordable food, but its rapid development has also resulted in serious unintended consequences and questions about its long-term sustainability.

I initially hesitated to get involved in the work of the Commission, given that the nature of partisan politics today makes the discussion of any issue facing our country extremely challenging. In the end, I accepted the chairmanship because there is so much at stake for both agriculture and the public at large. The Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production (PCIFAP) sought to develop recommendations that protect what is best about American agriculture and to help to ensure its sustainability for the future. Our work focuses on four areas of concern that we believe are key to that future: public health, environment, animal welfare, and the vitality of rural communities; specifically, we focus on how these areas have been impacted by industrial farm animal production.

The Commission consists of a very diverse group of individuals, remarkably accomplished in their fields, who worked together to achieve consensus on potential solutions to the challenge of assuring a safe and sustainable food supply. We sought broad input from stakeholders and citizens around the country. We were granted the resources needed to do our work, and the independence to ensure that our conclusions were carefully drawn and objective in their assessment of the available information informed by the Commissioners' own expertise and experience. I thank each and every one for their valuable service and all citizens who contributed to the process.

Finally, we were supported by a group of staff who worked tirelessly to ensure that Commissioners had access to the most current information and expertise in the fields of concern to our deliberations. We thank them for their hard work, their patience, and their good humor.

John W. Carlin

Chairman, PCIFAP


 Over the last 50 years, the method of producing food animals in the United States has changed from the extensive system of small and medium-sized farms owned by a single family to a system of large, intensive operations where the animals are housed in large numbers in enclosed structures that resemble industrial buildings more than they do a traditional barn. That change has happened primarily out of view of consumers but has come at a cost to the environment and a negative impact on public health, rural communities, and the health and well-being of the animals themselves.

The Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production (PCIFAP) was funded by a grant from The Pew Charitable Trusts to the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health to investigate the problems associated with industrial farm animal production (IFAP) operations and to make recommendations to solve them. Fifteen Commissioners with diverse backgrounds began meeting in early 2006 to start their evidence-based review of the problems caused by IFAP.

Over the next two years, the Commission conducted 11 meetings and received thousands of pages of material submitted by a wide range of stakeholders and interested parties. Two hearings were held to hear from the general public with an interest in IFAP issues. Eight technical reports were commissioned from leading academics to provide information in the Commission's areas of interest. The Commissioners themselves brought expertise in animal agriculture, public health, animal health, medicine, ethics, public policy, and rural sociology to the table. In addition, they visited broiler, hog, dairy, egg, and swine IFAP operations, as well as a large cattle feedlot.

There have been some serious obstacles to the Commission completing its review and approving consensus recommendations. The agriculture industry is not monolithic, and the formation of this Commission was greeted by industrial agriculture with responses ranging from open hostility to wary cooperation. In fact, while some industrial agriculture representatives were recommending potential authors for the technical reports to Commission staff, other industrial agriculture representatives were discouraging those same authors from assisting us by threatening to withhold research funding for their college or university. We found significant influence by the industry at every turn: in academic research, agriculture policy development, government regulation, and enforcement.

At the end of his second term, President Dwight Eisenhower warned the nation about the dangers of the military-industrial complex—an unhealthy alliance between the defense industry, the Pentagon, and their friends on Capitol Hill. Now, the agro-industrial complex—an alliance of agriculture commodity groups, scientists at academic institutions who are paid by the industry, and their friends on Capitol Hill—is a concern in animal food production in the 21st century.

The present system of producing food animals in the United States is not sustainable and presents an unacceptable level of risk to public health and damage to the environment, as well as unnecessary harm to the animals we raise for food.

The story that follows is the Commission's overview of these critical issues and consensus recommendations on how to improve our system of production.

Robert P. Martin

Executive Director, PCIFAP


How the Current System Developed

Industrial farm animal production (IFAP) encompasses all aspects of breeding, feeding, raising, and processing animals or their products for human consumption. Producers rely on high-throughput production to grow thousands of animals of one species (often only a few breeds of that species and only one genotype within the breed) and for one purpose (such as pigs, layer hens, broiler chickens, turkeys, beef, or dairy cattle). IFAP's strategies and management systems are a product of the post–Industrial Revolution era, but unlike other industrial systems, IFAP is dependent on complex biological and ecological systems for its basic raw material. And the monoculture common to IFAP facilities has diminished important biological and genetic diversity in pursuit of higher yields and greater efficiency
(Steinfeld et al., 2006).

The origins of agriculture go back more than 10,000 years to the beginning of the Neolithic era, when humans first began to cultivate crops and domesticate plants and animals. While there were many starts and stops along the way, agriculture provided the technology to achieve a more reliable food supply in support of larger human populations. With agriculture came concepts of personal property and personal inheritance, and hierarchical societies were organized. In short, crop cultivation led to a global revolution for humankind, marked by the emergence of complex societies and the use of technology.

The goal of agriculture then, as now, was to meet human demand for food, and as the population grew, early agriculturalists found new ways to increase yield, decrease costs of production, and sustain productivity. Over the centuries, improved agricultural methods brought about enormous yield gains, all to keep up with the needs of an ever-increasing human population. In the 18th century, for example, it took nearly five acres of land to feed one person for one year, whereas today it takes just half an acre (Trewavas, 2002)—a tenfold increase in productivity.

There is reason to wonder, however, whether these dramatic gains, and particularly those of the last 50 years, can be sustained for the next 50 years as the world's human population doubles, climate change shifts rainfall patterns and intensifies drought cycles, fossil fuels become more expensive, and the developing nations of the world rapidly improve their standards of living.

Read Full Section: How the Current System Developed (PDF)

Public Health

The potential public health effects associated with ifa p must be examined in the context of its potential effects on individuals and the population as a whole. These effects include disease and the transmission of disease, the potential for the spread of pathogens from animals to humans, and mental and social impacts. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being” (WHO, 1992). This definition is widely recognized in the developed world and is increasingly being adopted by American employers.

In IFAP systems, large numbers of animals are raised together, usually in confinement buildings, which may increase the likelihood for health issues with the potential to affect humans, carried either by the animals or the large quantities of animal waste. The IFAP facilities are frequently concentrated in areas where they can affect human population centers. Animal waste, which harbors a number of pathogens and chemical contaminants, is usually left untreated or minimally treated, often sprayed on fields as fertilizer, raising the potential for contamination of air, water, and soils. Occasionally, the impact can be far worse. In one recent example, farm animal waste runoff from IFAP facilities was among the suspected causes of a 2006 Escherichia coli outbreak in which three people died and nearly 200 were sickened (CDC, 2006).

Read Full Section: Public Health (PDF)


Environmental Risks

Industrial farm animal production (IFAP) stands in sharp contrast to previous animal farming methods because of its emphasis on production efficiency and cost minimization. For most of the past 10,000 years, agricultural practice and animal husbandry were more or less sustainable, as measured by the balance between agricultural inputs and outputs and ecosystem health, given the human population and rate of consumption. IFAP systems, on the other hand, have shifted to a focus on growing animals as units of protein production. Rather than balancing the natural productivity of the land to produce crops to feed animals, IFAP imports feed and medicines to ensure that the animals make it to market weight in the shortest time possible. Animals and their waste are concentrated and may well exceed the capacity of the land to produce feed or absorb the waste. Not surprisingly, the rapid ascendance of IFAP has produced unintended and often unanticipated environmental and public health concerns.

Storage and disposal of manure and animal waste are among the most significant challenges for IFAP operators. By any estimate, the amount of farm animal waste produced annually in the United States is enormous; the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates around 500 million tons of manure are produced annually by operations that confine livestock and poultry—three times the EPA estimate of 150 million tons of human sanitary waste produced annually in the US (EPA, 2007b). And in comparison to the lesser amount of human waste, the management and disposal of animal wastes are poorly regulated.

Until the late 1950s, manures typically were either deposited directly by animals on pastures or processed in solid form and collected along with bedding (usually hay or straw) from animal housing facilities for application to the land as a crop nutrient. There were no regulated rates of application, seasonal restrictions, or requirements for the reporting, analysis, or monitoring of applied manures. This lack of protection may have been without consequence before iIFAP because animal farmers managed fewer animals, widely dispersed among agricultural lands, and relied on natural ecosystems for attenuating pathogens and absorbing or diluting nutrients. But as the number of animals on individual farms increased, the need for more efficient and regulated methods of manure management grew in importance.

As in large human settlements, improper management of the highly concentrated feces produced by IFAP facilities can and does overwhelm natural cleansing processes. Because of the large concentrations of animals and their manure, what was once a valuable byproduct is now a waste that requires proper disposal. As a result, animal feeding operations in the United States, whether IFAP or not, now use a number of manure management strategies depending on the type of operation and state and federal regulations.

Read Full Section: Environmental Risks (PDF)


Animal Welfare

Before the emergence of industrial farm animal production systems, the ethic of animal husbandry held that good care of animals was wholly consistent with the interests of the farmer. Most animals were raised on diversified farms that produced both crops and several species of animals, which generally had access to the pasture or barnyard whenever weather conditions permitted. For the most part, husbandry was considered the responsibility of the producer.

More than 100 years later, farms in the 21st century have become highly specialized systems and no longer produce more than one crop and several species of livestock. Farms producing both crops and livestock still exist, but they are no longer the norm. Now, crop growers sell to feed mills that formulate engineered feeds to sell to farmers who raise and feed livestock. The supply chain has thus evolved to a series of distinct production processes connected through economic transactions. Consumers are now at the extreme end of this supply chain, yet they are increasingly concerned that farm animals are afforded a decent life. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to define what actually constitutes a decent life for animals because doing so includes both ethical (value-based) and scientific (empirical) components.

Increasing public awareness of the conditions prevalent in confinement agriculture (e.g., gestation and farrowing crates for swine, battery cages for layers) has led to consumer demand for changes in animal treatment. A poll conducted by Oklahoma State University and the American Farm Bureau Federation found that 75% of the public would like to see government mandates for basic animal welfare measures (http://asp.okstate.edu./baileynorwood/aw2/aw2main.htm). Possibly as a defensive response, the food animal industry has made changes that are easily marketed and that are aimed at changing public perception. Smithfield, for example, announced recently that it would eliminate the use of gestation crates in its hog-rearing operations, and the United Egg Producers have published standards for the treatment of laying hens.

Read Full Section: Animal Welfare (PDF)


Rural America

Asked to describe rural life, people are likely to talk of pastoral landscapes, open spaces, a slower pace of life, a place where people are friendlier. In short, “rural” evokes an idyllic image of life, a counterpoint to the intense pace of urban life.

But the realities of rural life are somewhat different. A dominant feature of life in much of rural America is persistent poverty. In 2005, more than 15% of the rural population (73 million people) earned family incomes of less than $19,800, which is below the official poverty line. Most of the nearly 400 US counties that are classified as poor are also rural (USDA-ERS, 2008).

Read Full Section: Rural America (PDF)



Toward Sustainable Agriculture

Sustainability is a futuristic concept. Webster's dictionary defines the verb “sustain” as “to maintain,” “to keep in existence,” “to keep going.” By definition, then, sustainability is a journey, an ongoing process, not a prescription or a set of instructions. So when we ask, “How do we sustain animal agriculture?” we are asking how to manage animal agriculture so that it can be maintained indefinitely and what changes are necessary to accomplish that goal.

Sustainable animal agriculture requires that we envision the challenges and changes the future will bring. In his extensive studies of past civilizations, Jared Diamond has observed that civilizations that correctly assessed their current situations, anticipated changes, and started preparing for those changes were the ones that thrived—they were sustainable. Civilizations that failed in these efforts were the ones that collapsed—they were not sustainable (Diamond, 1999; Diamond, 2005).

Read Full Section: Conclusion (PDF)



The Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production was charged with examining the current US system of food animal production and its impact on public health, the environment, animal welfare, and rural communities. The Commission's recommendations are intended to ensure that the system is able to provide safe, affordable meat, dairy, and poultry products in a sustainable way. Commissioners recognize that the current system, like agriculture as a whole, has achieved a remarkable record of increasing productivity and lowering prices at the supermarket, with the result that Americans' expenditures for meat, poultry, dairy, and eggs as an inflation-adjusted share of their disposable income were lower in 2007 than in 1950.

But as industrial farm animal production (IFAP) systems have increased cost-efficient agricultural food production, they have also given rise to problems that are beginning to require attention by policymakers and the industry. Given the relatively rapid emergence of the technologies for industrial farm animal production, and the dependence on chemical inputs, energy, and water, many IFAP systems are not sustainable environmentally or economically.

Much of the basis for concentrated animal production originally derived from inexpensive corn and other plentiful feed grain crops, cheap energy, and free, abundant water. Inexpensive corn, for example, allowed the development of specially formulated feeds that increase growth rates and shorten the time required to get animals to market. But the emerging market for biofuels has changed that equation because the value of corn and other commodity crops is now tied to their energy value, often resulting in higher prices. Similarly, IFAP systems also depend on abundant freshwater resources and on inexpensive fossil fuels for energy. As supplies of both become scarce, their rising costs raise questions about the sustainability of the current production process. Sustainability will require new approaches that use less water and energy.

Industrial farm animal production systems are also highly dependent on intensive animal confinement, which commonly requires the use of antimicrobials to prevent disease, not just to treat it. Together with the use of antimicrobials to promote animal growth, these practices accelerate the emergence of resistant microbes, with obvious risks for both animals and humans.

In addition, intensive confinement systems increase negative stress levels in the animals, posing an ethical dilemma for producers and consumers. This dilemma can be summed up by asking ourselves if we owe the animals in our care a decent life. If the answer is yes, there are standards by which one can measure the quality of that life. By most measures, confined animal production systems in common use today fall short of current ethical and societal standards.

Furthermore, the concentrated animal waste and associated possible contaminants from ifa p systems pose a substantial environmental problem for air quality, surface and subsurface water quality, and the health of workers, neighboring residents, and the general public.

Finally, the costs to rural America have been significant. Although many rural communities embraced industrial farming as a source of much-needed economic development, the results have often been the reverse. Communities with greater concentrations of industrial farming operations have experienced higher levels of unemployment and increased poverty. Associated social concerns—from elevated crime and teen pregnancy rates to increased numbers of itinerant laborers—are problematic in many communities and place greater demands on public services. The economic multiplier of local revenue generated by a corporate-owned farming operation is substantially lower than that of a locally owned operation. Reduced civic participation rates, higher levels of stress, and other less tangible impacts have all been associated with high concentrations of industrial farm production.

Read Full Section: Recommendations (PDF)


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