Most food in the United States comes from industrialized, intensive farms. Meat and dairy are no exception: nationwide, 40 percent of all U.S. food animals are raised in the largest 2 percent of livestock facilities. And these large-scale facilities, commonly referred to as factory farms, continue to grow. Between 1997 and 2007, the U.S. factory farming industry added 4, 600 hogs, 650 dairy cows, 139, 200 broiler chickens, and 1, 100 beef cattle each day. On a global scale, industrial animal production now accounts for 72 percent of all poultry production, 43 percent of egg production, and 55 percent of pork production.
Although factory farms provide large quantities of relatively inexpensive meat, the associated environmental, social, and human health costs are high. Factory farms rely on massive inputs of water, fossil fuel energy, grain-based feed, and other limited resources. Feed production alone accounts for an estimated 75 percent of the energy use associated with factory farming; growing animal feed also requires the input of water, fertilizers, and pesticides, and it occupies arable land that could be used directly to grow food. An estimated 23 percent of all water used in agriculture goes to livestock production.
Industrialized meat production also creates huge amounts of waste, contaminating nearby air and water and threatening the health of humans and wildlife. Some large factory farms produce more waste than large U.S. cities. The livestock industry is also responsible for approximately 18 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions—more than the entire global transportation sector. By contributing to climate change, factory farms affect people both locally and around the world.
Although industrial animal production is on the rise, many farmers, particularly in developing countries, still work within natural systems to provide sustainable alternatives to industrialized meat. Relying on the same holistic, agroecological principles that sustained humanity for generations, these farms produce meat without the negative environmental and human health effects that characterize industrialized meat production. When done correctly, agroecological approaches, including the integration of livestock and crops, can have a positive environmental impact by protecting soil and water while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Studies show that pasture-raised beef requires only half the fossil fuel energy input as factory-farmed beef.