Cattle feedlots and most other animal factory operations exchange quality of life for rapid weight gain. The system seems efficient until the all the necessary resources are tallied: feeds that are often shipped vast distances; antibiotic drugs and growth hormones; water pumped from ancient aquifers; fossil fuels; highways to transport the animals to processing facilities.
Industrial Food is Efficient
Industrial food animal producers often proclaim that “bigger is better,” ridiculing the “inefficiency” of small- or medium-size farms using low-impact technologies. CAFO operations, however, currently rely on heavily subsidized agriculture to produce feed, large infusions of capital to dominate markets, and lax enforcement of regulations to deal with waste disposal. Perverse incentives and market controls leverage an unfair competitive advantage over smaller producers and cloud a more holistic view of efficiency.
Factory farms and CAFOs appear efficient only if we focus on the quantity of meat, milk, or eggs produced from each animal over a given period of time. But high productivity or domination of market share should not be confused with efficiency. When we measure the total cost per unit of production, or even the net profit per animal, a more sobering picture emerges. Confinement operations come with a heavy toll of external costs—inefficiencies that extend beyond the CAFO or feedlot. These hidden costs include subsidized grain discounts, unhealthy market control, depleted aquifers, polluted air and waterways, and concentrated surpluses of toxic feces and urine. The massive global acreage of monocrops that produce the corn, soybeans, and hay to feed livestock in confinement could arguably be more efficiently managed as smaller, diversified farms and pasture operations, along with protected wildlands.
Reverse Protein Factories Animal factory farms achieve their efficiencies by substituting corn and soybeans and even wild fish for pasture grazing. To gain a pound of body weight, a broiler chicken must eat an average of 2.3 pounds of feed.1 Hogs convert 5.9 pounds of feed into a pound of pork.2 Cattle require 13 pounds of feed per pound of beef,3 though some estimates range much higher. To supplement that feed, one-third of the world’s ocean fish catch is ground up and added to rations for hogs, broiler chickens, and farmed fish.4 The 2006 United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization report Livestock’s Long Shadow summed it up this way: “In simple numeric terms, livestock actually detract more from total food supply than they provide. . . . In fact, livestock consume 77 million tons of protein contained in feedstuff that could potentially be used for human nutrition, whereas 58 million tons of protein are contained in food products that livestock supply.”5
Total Recall The efficiency of slaughterhouse practices should also be called into question, as their incessant increases in speed, drive for profit, and huge scale have resulted in contamination and massive meat recalls. In the United States, between spring 2007 and spring 2009 alone, there were twenty-five recalls due to the virulent E. coli O157:H7 pathogen involving 44 million pounds of beef.6 When all costs of research, prevention, and market losses are added up, over the last decade E. coli contamination has cost the beef industry an estimated $1.9 billion.7
Mounting Waste The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that factory animal farms generate more than 500 million tons of waste per year—more than three times the amount produced by the country’s human population.8 On a small, diversified farm, much of this manure could be efficiently used for fertilizer. Instead, most CAFOs store waste in massive lagoons or dry waste piles with the potential to give off toxic fumes, leak, or overflow. Ground and surface water can be contaminated with bacteria and antibiotics; pesticides and hormones containing endocrine disruptors; or dangerously high levels of nitrogen, phosphorus, and other nutrients. Inconsistent enforcement of regulations has allowed CAFO waste disposal problems to escalate in many areas. Meanwhile, the environmental and health impacts of this pollution are rarely calculated as part of the narrow range of parameters that CAFO operators use to define efficiency.
Government Subsidies Not only do CAFOs burden citizens with environmental and health costs, they also gorge themselves at the proverbial public trough. Thanks to U.S. government subsidies, between 1997 and 2005, factory farms saved an estimated $3.9 billion per year because they were able to purchase corn and soybeans at prices below what it cost to grow the crops.9 Without these feed discounts, amounting to a 5 to 15 percent reduction in operating costs,10 it is unlikely that many of these industrial factory farms could remain profitable. By contrast, many small farms that produce much of their own forage receive no government money. Yet they are expected somehow to match the efficiency claims of the large, subsidized megafactory farms. On this uneven playing field, CAFOs may falsely appear to “outcompete” their smaller, diversified counterparts.
Anticompetitiveness Another issue clouding any meaningful discussions of efficiency is the lack of access to markets among many independent producers. Because CAFOs have direct relationships with meat packers (and are sometimes owned by them, or “vertically integrated”), they have preferred access to the decreasing number of slaughterhouses and distribution channels to process and market products. Many midsize or smaller independent producers have no such access and as a result must get big, develop separate distribution channels, or simply disappear.
1. Doug Gurian-Sherman, CAFOs Uncovered: The Untold Costs of Confined Animal Feeding Operations (Cambridge, MA: Union of Concerned Scientists, April 2008), 18.
4. Deborah Zabarenko, “One-Third of World Fish Catch Used for Animal Feed,” Reuters UK, October 29, 2008.
5. Henning Steinfeld, Pierre Gerber, Tom Wassenaar, Vincent Castel, Maurice Rosales, and Cees de Haan, Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options (Rome: United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, 2006), 270.
6. “E. coli O157:H7 Season Is Nearly upon Us: Will It Be 2005 and 2006 or 2007 and 2008?” E. coli Blog, April 5, 2009.
7. “USDA Announces New E. coli Measures,” Food Nutrition & Science, November 26, 2007.
8. Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, Putting Meat on the Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America (Washington, DC: Pew Charitable Trusts and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, 2008), 23.
9. Elanor Starmer and Timothy A. Wise, Feeding at the Trough: Industrial Livestock Firms Saved $35 Billion from Low Feed Prices, Policy Brief No. 07-03 (Medford, MA: Tufts University Global Development and Environment Institute, December 2007), 1.
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