By Ken Swensen
One morning many years ago, I was surprised to find myself panicking after being slid into a full-body, closed MRI. Feeling an intense fear which I later came to recognize as claustrophobia, I had to get out, take some deep breaths and try again. And again. I didn’t know at the time that the incident was a step towards becoming an animal advocate. Years later, while watching the movie Amazing Grace, I saw images of the layout for keeping captured Africans immobile on the ocean journey to a life of slavery. The way they were tightly confined in the dark holds of the ships reminded me of gestation crates for sows, so small that the captives could not sit up or turn around. I knew that I would have gone insane during the brutal months-long crossing.
At that moment there was a flash connection between human and animal suffering that instantly turned me into an animal advocate with a desire to work towards ending the institutionalized form of animal cruelty known as factory farming. Factory farms (also called CAFOs or concentrated animal feeding operations) raise thousands or even hundreds of thousands of animals in tight confinement, usually in barren, windowless sheds. Diet, space allocations, and treatment (including amputations of body parts) are designed to maximize financial profit.
The steady growth of factory farming in the developing world is by far the greatest threat to animals, both in terms of total numbers and aggregate suffering. Although we are making some progress in the U.S. due to the steadfast efforts of animal advocates and a slowly awakening public, worldwide the factory farming story grows steadily more desperate. Hundreds of millions of animals are added each year to the number driven insane by the brutal treatment and confinement. Factory farms are expanding in many developing countries including India, Brazil, Mexico and South Africa, but the growth in China is the greatest and most immediate threat. The trends in China offer a preview of a bleak global future that includes more animal suffering, enormous environmental degradation, and inevitably, greater human suffering.
China has a population of 1.34 billion, a rapidly growing middle class, a pent-up demand for meat and dairy products, and a proven ability to standardize the most efficient forms of industrial production. The authoritarian government is forcing urbanization on rural populations and eliminating small farms. Aware of the psychological impacts of the Great Famine, the government is committed to providing its citizens with a growing supply of animal-based food products.
In the coming years, enormous numbers of animals will be shifted from small farms and traditional Chinese backyard farms to industrialized production. Although exact figures are difficult to confirm, about 25 to 35 percent of the approximately 700 million pigs raised in China last year were raised on factory farms. That percentage is rapidly increasing because of the same economies of scale that eventually forced most American small farmers to abandon raising livestock—it’s much cheaper to raise animals in huge numbers on factory farms. In 1992 about 30 percent of pigs in the U.S. lived on large factory farms. Just 15 years later that figure was 95 percent. China is undergoing a similar transition.
When a nation’s factory farming system expands, it not only fulfills consumer demand, it creates additional demand. As meat and dairy products become more uniform, supply more predictable and prices more affordable, the size of the market grows. Big corporations enter the industry and compete for market share and revenue growth. They steadily improve efficiencies and reduce expenses—at great cost to the animals—while developing marketing campaigns to spur demand. Factory farming begets more factory farming.
If the Chinese match our average level of meat consumption (currently about twice theirs) and eliminate the small farmer, they would create a factory farming system several times the size of our own. The net effect would be the greatest increase in animal suffering ever experienced. That suffering reaches far beyond the factory farm gates, as we steadily shrink wildlife habitats in order to plant ever more grain and soybeans to feed the legions of pigs, chickens, and cattle.
The ecological impacts of such an expansion would exacerbate every major environmental problem we face, including climate change, deforestation, ocean acidification, soil erosion, and fresh water depletion. In fact, a case can be made that the steady increase in worldwide meat consumption enabled by the growth of factory farming is the single largest factor in worsening each of these problems, any one of which threatens the future of human civilization. Factory farming requires huge amounts of grain. Growing that grain requires huge amounts of land and water. The methods we use to produce the grain and raise the animals create enormous environmental damage. Although almost every mainstream environmental writer has effectively ignored the impacts of rapidly rising worldwide meat consumption, Lester R. Brown, President of Earth Policy Institute, recognized the importance 20 years ago in Who Will Feed China? He wrote:
"Never in history have so many people moved up the food chain so fast…. As China looks to consuming more meat in the future, it must also look for more grain. More meat means more grain—two kilograms of additional grain for each kilogram of poultry, four for pork, and seven for each kilogram of beef added in the feedlot…. With the cropland base shrinking and with water shortages spreading, much if not all the growth in demand for food in China translates directly into imports."
Today those imports are playing an outsized role in the global food market. China now imports 70 million tons of soybeans (almost two-thirds of the global export market) to feed its pigs, while also buying up enormous swaths of arable land in Africa to grow grain for livestock feed. The U.S. Department of Agriculture predicts that China’s soybean imports will reach 110 million tons in the next decade, currently the entire world export production. The question may not be who will feed China, but who will feed China’s livestock, and will the world survive the environmental impacts? More....