It is a common narrative that factory farming – despite the cruelty to animals, environmental destruction and impacts on human health – has net benefits that make it an important part of society, especially in rural America. It provides affordable meat to our people, creates jobs in small towns, boosts local economies and helps families thrive.
This article was produced by Earth | Food | Lifea project of the Independent Media Institute.
This narrative has made it easy for the meat industry to create a false dichotomy that pits people against animals: “Do you care more about a pig than my family’s livelihood?” »
Factory farming has been the dominant industry for decades now, but have rural communities really benefited from their supposed economic benefits? Has industrial agriculture made life easier for people in small towns?
A 2022 report from Food and Water Watch suggests otherwise. The report views Iowa’s pig farms as a case study in how our corporate-controlled food systems are failing environments, animals and communities.
Until the end of the 20th century, most pigs were raised for food on family farms. But a combination of government policies in the 1970s and grain price crashes in the 1980s led to the loss of nearly 90 percent of its hog farms in Iowa over three decades, with small-town farmers struggling to difficult to remain economically viable.
Meanwhile, across the state, the juggernaut of controlled animal feeding operations — facilities that raise thousands of animals in extreme confinement conditions to maximize production and profits — began to grow.
These factory farms, operated by multi-billion dollar corporations like Smithfield and JBS, now dominate the meat market. These facilities screen food entering our restaurants, such as Dunkin Donuts, Sonic, Bob Evans, Ingles Market and Cracker Barrel, as well as our schools, hospitals and stadiums from food service providers such as Sodexo and Compass Group.
In 1980, the four major hog companies slaughtered one in three American hogs. This market share now has double. Locally, Food and Water Watch found that these companies have an even stronger grip on the market, with the top four companies slaughtering 9 of Iowa’s 10 hogs between 2004 and 2011.
Factory farms use this dominance to set hog price conditions, preventing fair pricing, contributing to market volatility and driving down the real price of hogs.
The fact that these huge corporations and their equally huge factory farms control the market is irrefutable. But do they at least provide more jobs on the ground for the community? Despite years of claiming otherwise, the answer is simple: absolutely not.
The study found that between 1982 and 2017, real median household income and total salaried employment declined in counties that sold the most hogs and had the largest farms. The population also fell, twice as much as in more rural Iowa counties. Job losses were also commonplace. Statewide, total agricultural employment fell 44% between 1982 and 2017, the boom years of industrial agriculture.
The results of this study are clear: factory farming is bad for the economy, driving up the price of pigs without returning the benefits to local farmers. This puts local farms out of business and creates net jobs loss. Families are struggling as incomes decline and property values decline due to rampant pollution from factory farms.
On top of that, it ensures that factory-farmed pigs grow up and die in misery, while our climate catastrophe worsens, human health deteriorates and local communities suffer.
Not only does meat consumption increase the risk of developing heart disease, diabetes, pneumonia, etc., but the systematic use of antibiotics by the meat industry to protect its bottom line is leading to antibiotic resistance in farm animals and the people who eat them.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), at least 700,000 people die each year from antibiotic-resistant infections, a number that could rise to 10 million by 2050. Who are are industrial farms useful? The big corporations, who keep selling us the lie that we need them.
Commercial factory farms threaten that if they cannot maintain their monopoly on industry, the small towns in which they operate will lose jobs and economic prosperity. It is simply misinformation. Factory farms are not good for anyone, especially the local communities that exist in their shadow.
But, all hope is not lost. When we advocate for smallholder farmers to use more sustainable agriculture, plant-based agriculture and cell technology, new opportunities open up for a fairer food system.
This food system would be better for our planet, allowing us to recover from years of agriculture-related pollution and deforestation, and good for people too. Small farms that treat animals humanely could thrive. Food and agricultural projects could be carried out by and for members of their communities.
Let’s tear down the boxing ring built by the meat industry, a ring that positions people and animals as adversaries, ordering us to support one side while brutalizing the other. But industrial agriculture – and its grip on rural communities – is just as brutal on humans as it is on animals.
We have to put the pigs and the people in their place, on the same side.
Authors biography: Vicky Bond is a veterinarian, animal welfare specialist and president of the Humane League.
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