Revealed: the secret horror of the world's 'mega' factory farms

Raising cattle in the feedlot industry is a constant challenge. In tough times, the return on an animal can be just a few dollars per head
As the UK grapples with the arrival of 'mega' farms like Nocton and Foston, a shocking new book, CAFO, reveals the cruelty and vast scale of the global meat and dairy industry

CAFO or ‘Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation' is the acronym used to describe the industrial farming model that America has perfected and is currently exporting abroad. CAFOs have taken farming to a frightening new level of ‘efficiency'. By concentrating farm animals in the smallest space possible, to gain weight as quickly as possible and at the least cost, CAFOs deny the most basic rights of an animal as a living being. Doug Tompkins, whose Foundation for Deep Ecology published the book, argues in the forward that CAFOs should be renamed for what they really are: industrial animal concentration camps. After reading this book, it's hard not to agree.

Shock, horror, and disgust are just a few of the feelings you get flicking through the 450 behind-the-scenes images, but the fact is that we are all connected to CAFOs. Already the majority of animal products consumed in the US are produced in this way. As meat consumption is on the rise worldwide, we can only assume that CAFOs will be touted as a modern ‘farming' method that will enable us to feed the world, whether there be 7, 8 or 9 billion of us.

Yet none but a few of us will ever come close to seeing these factories with our own eyes. This book offers that rare, wincing glimpse, and with it, we begin to get an idea of the true cost of cheap food. If our ready-made chicken curries or fast food burgers don't taste as nice afterwards, then the book has done its job in jolting us out of apathy. There is no hiding - the truth is there for all to see.

Essays by Robert Kennedy Jr., Anna Lappe, Wendell Berry, Michael Pollan and more cover the myths behind CAFOs and spell out the impacts they've had on America's landscape and farming communities, and the warped financial incentives that make these operations viable, indeed profitable. Armed with knowledge, we can become an ‘army of activists' campaigning to eliminate these food animal factories.

The pictures speak for themselves, but the statistics are also very telling. A dairy cow with an engorged and unnaturally cumbersome udder has, through decades of industrial breeding, been reduced to a mere machine. In 1950s America, a milk cow produced 5,300 pounds of milk annually. By 2000 that cow would produce 18,000 pounds of milk a year. Sound gross? You bet it does.

All but 5 per cent of the 280 million hens in the US egg-laying flock are raised in battery cages- each bird has a living space smaller than a single sheet of letter-sized paper.

One of the most despairing cases is that of the sow. The gestation stalls that pregnant hogs are confined in has been described by Dr. Temple Grandin as, ‘like being stuffed into the middle seat of a jam-packed jumbo jet for your whole adult life, and you're not ever allowed out in the aisle.'

The recent complaint by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) against Smithfield Farms, the largest pork producer in the world is proof that the fight to end this cruel practice is far from over. Smithfield committed publicly to phasing out gestation crates by 2017, but, HSUS claim they have gone back on this commitment, leaving no timeline for a phase out. Smithfield have responded to the complaint, pointing out that 30 per cent of sows will be out of gestation crates by end 2011.

The catalogue of detrimental affects goes on: from tremendous waste, to environmental pollution, risks to human health, destruction of landscapes and the obliteration of local farming communities. ‘It is not uncommon for a CAFO on 100 acres to generate the same amount of sewage as a city of 100,000. The difference is there are no carefully monitored sewage treatment plants.' The waste is sprayed on adjacent fields or stored in lagoons, often seeping into groundwater.

America has shown us a hellish example of cheap and efficient food production systems and the rest of the world should not follow. In the UK, plans for an 8,000-cow dairy farm in Lincolnshire were dropped earlier this year after the Environment Agency's objections of ‘unacceptable risk to groundwater supplies' from slurry pollution. Hanging in the balance is a decision over the mega-pig farm of up to 25,000 animals in Foston, Derbyshire.

CAFO: the tragedy of industrial animal factories has a clear message: the US-style factory farming route is a route of shame. Facing growing pressure to adopt these ungodly methods, countries around the world should be defiant.

The CAFO reader: the tragedy of industrial animal factories, University of California Press, £14.41

Further information:

CAFO website

CAFO Facebook

Photo credits

Photo 1: Edward Burtynsky/Hasted Hunt Gallery, New York/Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto; Photo 2 : PETA; Photo 3: Joe Cavaretta/AP/Wide World Photos; Photo 5: PETA; Photo 6: Gabe Johnson/The New York Times/Redux Pictures; Photo 7: Dubuque Telegraph Herald/Dave Kettering; Photo 8: J. Henry Fair; Photo 9: Rick Dove/; Photo 10: Peter Menzel/; Photo 11: Pat Morria; Photo 12: Karen Hudson/Socially Responsible Agricultural Project/; Photo 14: Janice Haney Carr/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Photo 15: Nayef Hashlamoun/Reuters/Corbis; Photo 16: Max Rossi/Reuters/Corbis

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