Fast, cheap, but exploitive: The real price of factory farming

Julia Hall is a junior environmental studies major.

GRAPHIC BY SAMANTHA CADENAS-ARZATE/GRAPHICS CENTER

It is easy to feel desensitized to the torture and slaughter of millions of animals when the end product is a beefy 5-layer Taco Bell burrito for “just $1.69.” But what we pay at the counter fails to account for the hidden costs to human and animal health. It is essential that we critically examine and realize the real price of factory farming. We must call it out for exactly what it is: the driving force behind a morally corrupt food system that jeopardizes animal welfare, public health, and the future of our planet. 

We are at a critical point in both our individual lifetimes and in the history of the human species. We have no choice but to revolutionize our food system to become more ethical and sustainable. Factory farming cannot be dismantled by environmental and animal rights activists alone; rather, it will require knowledge and action from many fields of study at USF  — the social sciences, psychology, business, healthcare, education, journalism, and technology — in order to expand humanity’s moral compass and allow us to live more sustainably. 

While factory farming originated as a way for the food industry to adapt to the increased consumer demand as a result of the economic boom and spending sprees of post-WWII America, it led to the rapid decline of small-scale, diversified farming and paved the way for America’s obsession with fast food. Mass amounts of inexpensive meat produced by industrial poultry farms satisfied customer demand, allowing factory-farmed chicken to develop a dominant role in the food-chain supply. In the 1970s, we took it a step further with the implementation of pork and beef CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) — an automated system of meat production that could produce very high yields of all types of meat at an even lower cost. 

Currently, United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) data reveals that 99% of animals in the U.S. continue to live in factory farms  — meaning that, unless the meat you buy is accompanied by a meaningful certification sticker or label that indicates it was produced humanely like “Animal Welfare Approved” or “100% grass-fed,” it is the product of a factory farm. 

Currently, United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) data reveals that 99% of animals in the U.S. continue to live in factory farms  — meaning that, unless the meat you buy is accompanied by a label that indicates it was produced humanely like “Animal Welfare Approved” or “100% grass-fed,” it is the product of a factory farm. 

For decades, we’ve normalized the fact that the rotisserie chicken and pulled pork on our plates come from animals who are inhumanely raised and slaughtered. But animal cruelty in the modern food industry goes beyond just how animals are killed, as ethical welfare conditions on factory farms are close to nonexistent. Life as a factory farmed animal is not only empty and depressing, but mortifyingly and gut-wrenchingly painful. Often, factory-farmed animals are forced to spend their entire lives confined to battery cages and gestation crates, inhumane caging methods for egg-laying hens that have been banned in the EU for almost a decade. This is what we get when our dominant, corporate food industry is designed to maximize profits above all else.

The truth is that the way the food industry abuses animals is not too different from how it targets and exploits humans as well. Because the government neither subsidizes organic agriculture nor sustainable growing methods, welfare-certified meat remains significantly more expensive than its factory-farmed counterpart. Factory-farmed meat succeeds at providing economically-friendly, yet nutrient-void sustenance for millions of budget-strapped Americans  — but this is precisely the problem with our system. Just because something is legal in our society, doesn’t make it right. As a species capable of moral decisions, it is our responsibility to appropriately care for the animals in our stewardship and our own fellow citizens.  

To claim the average American couldn’t care less about factory farming is simply false. A public opinion survey commissioned by the American Society for the Prevention and Cruelty of Animals (ASPCA) in 2020 revealed that 89% of Americans “are concerned about industrial animal agriculture, citing animal welfare, worker safety or public health risks as a concern.” Though we recognize the impacts of processed meat and food, we have failed to take the necessary, actionable steps to change a system that has negative impacts on human, animal, and planetary health.

Though we recognize the impacts of processed meat and food, we have failed to take the necessary, actionable steps to change a system that has negative impacts on human, animal, and planetary health.

Communities with poor access to healthy food options have been labeled “food deserts;” but “food apartheid,” a phrase that recognizes the intersectionality of food scarcity, paints a much more accurate picture of the problem we are facing. Karen Washington, a political activist for food justice, succintly expressed that “the reason why we bring [‘food apartheid’] up is because ‘food desert’ doesn’t cut it. ‘Food desert’ doesn’t open up the conversation that we need to have when it comes to race [and] when it comes to income inequality.” Food is inherently political, as the exploitative nature of the food industry is rooted in an oppressive power structure that disproportionately affects Black people, Indigenous people, and other minority groups. According to 2015 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, the average farmworker in California earned just $17,500, and the employees in these factories are overworked and underpaid in workplaces laden with fecal matter, polluted air, and disease. In these agricultural areas, residents often lack an alternative source of income, and are thus left choosing between poverty and a hazardous job.

On top of that, recent research performed by the CDC shows that more than 70% of emerging diseases are zoonotic in origin, meaning it may only be a matter of time before the next pandemic emerges from a factory farm on U.S. soil. Selective breeding, which makes entire populations of animals almost genetically identical, enables viruses to become incredibly virulent within that population given its lack of genetic diversity. When 125,000 broiler chickens are cooped together, it’s not hard to imagine how quickly a virus can spread. The disease-spreading potential of factory farms is only worsened by the antibiotic resistance of viruses which originate from these facilities due to the overuse and misuse of pharmaceutical antibiotics on animals. This, coupled with chronic stress levels, means many factory farmed animals develop severely compromised immune systems that are ineffective at fighting off viruses, which can easily be transmitted to human workers. 

Our food system’s abuse also extends to the destruction of the Earth’s soil. Over the past 150 years, half of the planet’s topsoil has eroded due to the transition to modern agriculture, rendering much of that land incapable of growing any crop. Multi-billion corporations and lobbyists have a stranglehold on the policy-making and public discourse that mold our food system and federal food guidelines. Lobbyists in the processed meat, high fructose corn syrup, alcohol, dairy, and sugar industries have far more say in the USDA food recommendations than the farmers who actually produce food. According to recent research done by the University of California, Berkeley, the federal government pours $38 billion into subsidizing the meat and dairy industries, while only providing a meager .04% of that sum ($17 million) for subsidizing the farming of fruits and vegetables. 

According to recent research done by the University of California, Berkeley, the federal government pours $38 billion into subsidizing the meat and dairy industries, while only providing a meager .04% of that sum ($17 million) for subsidizing the farming of fruits and vegetables. 

Where I think the animal rights movement has gone awry is blaming individuals for unethical meat consumption, bypassing the reality that it is our systematically corrupted food system that determines what is grown, produced, marketed, distributed, and available to the public. Sure, I think it’s great to have personal ambition to change the system through individual action, but what will make a greater difference is collective action that produces societal change on a massive scale. 

The ability to make ethical food choices within our capitalist industrial food system is ultimately a privilege, so blaming individuals for their dietary choices only reinforces that system of privilege and divides us. Fundamentally, it will take a lot more than changing consumer demand to drive collective action against a food system that neglects animal sentience, exacerbates our climate crisis, and deliberately exploits human health. 

We have a moral imperative to ban factory farming for good because it sets the tone for what kind of political capital we invest in other morally-righteous causes like animal rights, workers’ rights, and environmental justice. It is time to take necessary political action to achieve a more just, humane, and sustainable food system.

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