Factory Farming Hurts People and Communities
The devastating impacts of food-animal production on a massive scale—on factory farms, which the industry calls “Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations” (CAFOs)—aren’t just limited to the animals or our environment. Factory farms spew toxic gases that impact rural communities; they rely on the exploitation of workers; and they trap farmers in cycles of debt. The ASPCA is committed to working alongside allied organizations to build a more humane, rational and healthy food system for everyone.
Evidence shows that CAFOs are directly associated with occupational and community health risks as well as the social and economic decline of rural communities. Those most affected by CAFOs are people living in rural communities, people with ancestral ties to land that has been unethically taken from them, and poor and historically marginalized populations who live near CAFOs or work in them.
Poor animal-rearing conditions, including crowding and extreme confinement, are characteristic of industrial-scale animal operations. They present opportunities for disease transmission among animals and transmission between animals and humans. The common CAFO practice of administering antibiotics to animals at levels too low to treat disease (non-therapeutic use) fosters the proliferation of antibiotic-resistant pathogens. Resistant infections in humans are more difficult and expensive to treat and more often fatal than infections with non-resistant strains. In fact, a 2023 study by World Animal Protection has linked one million human deaths to factory farm antibiotic abuse, with that figure on track to double by 2050.
People living near industrial-scale animal operations face increased exposure to air pollution. Air emissions include particulate matter, endotoxins, volatile organic compounds and gases such as nitrous oxide, hydrogen sulfide and ammonia. These pollutants can cause or exacerbate respiratory conditions including asthma, COPD, and pneumonia, as well as cause nausea, allergic reactions and acute increased blood pressure.
Odors associated with manure and other pollutants from large-scale animal operations have been shown to interfere with overall quality of life, impeding neighbors’ daily activities, property values and community cohesion.
The increased concentration and density of farm animals in CAFOs over several decades has resulted in the concentration of animal waste. Manure from these operations can contaminate ground and surface waters with nitrates, drug residues, and other hazards which local communities are exposed to through recreational uses and drinking water. Exposure to elevated levels of nitrates in drinking water is associated with adverse health effects, including various forms of cancer, birth defects and other reproductive problems. This is of particular concern as many rural residents rely on private wells, which are not monitored by government agencies for drinking water and household use.
Learn more about how factory farms negatively impact public health with Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future’s resources .
In factory farms, workers may suffer long-term exposure to hazardously polluted air and diseases [PDF]. In slaughterhouses, workers have reported being denied bathroom breaks and contend with dangerously fast line speeds and machinery that put them at risk for limb amputations and repetitive motion injuries [PDF].
During the COVID-19 pandemic, massive illness outbreaks were reported among workers in industrial-animal production facilities as well as animal-processing facilities. Investigations into the contributing factors associated with these outbreaks have highlighted crowded working conditions, long hours of work and poor safety protocols. These production facilities and the health of the workers directly influenced community health and transmission of the disease.
Companies like Tyson®, JBS Foods® and Smithfield® dictate the breed of animal, type of feed, medications, barn housing and pricing to farmers within this factory farm system. The sector is highly concentrated, allowing a handful of companies to control what is paid to farmers and workers as the companies expand to sell into global markets.
A relatively small number of companies control most of the factory farm system through contracts with farmers. Nearly all U.S. poultry production is done under contract with a major poultry firm, nearly 70% of pork production is under contract, and a growing percentage of beef production is under contract as well. Under contracts for poultry, as an example, the poultry company sends the farmer the birds, feed, medications, a schedule for production and parameters for raising the birds. The farmer takes all the risk (and debt) on capital costs, such as animal housing built to the company’s specifications, and provides the land and labor. Described as a modern plantation system, these poultry contracts have been the subject of numerous investigations and publications, including the popular book “The Meat Racket: The Secret Takeover of America’s Food Business.”
As a result of this system pushing farmers to get big or get out, the nation has lost more than 100,000 farms over the past decade. Farm debt is forecasted to hit $535.1 billion in 2023, which is an all-time high. Luckily, a number of groups are working to help farmers exit these oppressive contracts and find ways to repurpose their investments into more humane and sustainable businesses. The ASPCA is proud to support a number of these innovative programs, including Socially Responsible Agricultural Project’s Contract Grower Transition Program.
Learn more about how factory farms negatively impact farmers: RAFI USA.
A handful of multi-national companies [PDF] have tight control on the entire production of animal products including feed, equipment and the animals themselves, ultimately out-competing smaller, local farms that would have higher costs and shutting down the businesses that supported those farms. Just four companies now control 85% of cattle slaughter, 70% of pork production and 54% of the poultry products on the market. As these companies exert more power over the marketplace, they are taking more of the profits and leaving less and less in rural communities. The latest USDA data show farmers getting only 14.5 cents of the food dollar, the lowest level since the agency has been tracking this data.
Right-to-Farm laws and other deregulation efforts backed by the factory farming industry have left many rural communities without the tools or resources to fight back when factory farms seek to build in their community.
To learn more about how factory farms impact communities, read this report [PDF] by the National Association of Local Boards of Health, and explore the work of the Socially Responsible Agriculture Project and Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy
- Join our Factory Farming Task Force to be a part of the solution. Learn how to shop, advocate and educate to end factory farming. Together, we can build a kinder, healthier, more sustainable world.
- Call on your elected representatives to support policies that would regulate CAFOs and force industrial animal agriculture to take responsibility for the impact it has on animal, people and our environment.