Animal Rights, Top Stories

The Case Against Factory Farming

Imagine a world in which every time you tied your shoes, you contributed to a process that resulted in the unintended death of thousands of people around the world. In this world, like ours, shoelaces are useful: they save time, are a little cheaper than using Velcro ties, and more convenient than wearing slip-on shoes. But when everyone ties their shoes, lots of people die, and many more suffer.

This is a strange world to imagine, but it is a lot like the world we live in. The culprit isn’t tying shoelaces, of course, but consuming factory farmed meat. Factory farms are wicked places – one of the last bastions of legally sanctioned cruelty toward animals. But more than this, they are bad for human health.

Like many practices, there are benefits as well as costs: meat from factory farms is cheaper than meat from free-range animals, often about half the price. This is partly because factory farms allow animals to occupy less space, which makes their production cheaper, and this savings is passed on to consumers.

Deadly Viruses and Resistant Bacteria

But despite the gains to some, the costs to everyone – those who consume factory farmed meat, and those who do not – are staggering. And the costs are not reflected in the sticker price of meat in supermarkets and at restaurants. Some of these costs come in the form of zoonotic viral infections, like Avian flu and Swine flu. These often life-threatening strains spread between animals, and from non-human animals to people. In fact, all forms of the influenza virus that currently infect us probably derive from our initial domestication of animals about 10,000 years ago. But the modern practice of packing animals together on factory farms creates ideal conditions for new strains to emerge and spread between animals and people.

Zoonotic viral infections are one kind of cost, but antibiotics are the main threat to human health from factory farming. Contrary to popular opinion, the problem is not that antibiotics are passed along from animals to people who eat them, and that this is bad for our health. Instead, the problem is that the more antibiotics we give to livestock, the more we encourage the emergence and spread of antibiotic resistant bacteria.

By using antibiotics unnecessarily, we are not usually creating new kinds of resistance, but instead encouraging pre-existing resistance mechanisms to spread between bacteria, and for those resistant bacteria to proliferate.

Eukaryotes, which include people, can evolve rapidly through sexual reproduction. As strange as sex is – each of two independent organisms swapping their genes to create a hybrid – the bacterial equivalent is even kinkier than a San Francisco night club. Bacteria reproduce by cloning themselves, but they evolve throughout their lives by promiscuously swapping genes with other bacteria and by extracting genes from the viruses that parasitize them. This allows them to adapt to new environments quickly: in a lethal environment a small number of bacteria are likely to have some advantage over the trillions that die. And this advantage comes either from a random genetic mutation, or from the lateral transfer of genes from one bacterium to another.

Some genes allow bacteria to fend off the antibiotics that plants, animals, and other bacteria use to destroy them. These naturally occurring antibiotics have existed for billions of years, as part of an unending evolutionary arms race with bacteria. Like their naturally occurring cousins, synthetic antibiotics made in a lab usually involve penetrating a bacterial cell wall and disrupting DNA synthesis, or otherwise slowing or stopping bacterial reproduction.

All a bacterium needs to survive an antibiotic onslaught is some way to either block the penetration of antibiotics by building up a thick cell wall, degrading the chemical with enzymes, or pumping out the chemical if it penetrates their bodies. Once that happens, it’s off to the races. The lucky bacterium multiplies rapidly and spreads its resistance to other bacteria.

On factory farms, once new resistant strains of bacteria emerge, they are passed along to farmers who work with animals, workers who slaughter animals, consumers who eat meat, and people in the more general environment.

We live in a bacterial world. The average person hosts about 40 trillion bacteria at any given time, and we constantly swap bacteria with each other, and with the environment around us. So even though the overuse of antibiotics tends to affect those closest to the source of resistant bacteria – whether animals or people – over time, strains of bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics can spread through trade and travel among people, and through soil and streams around factory farms.

The problem has been studied for a long time, and for more than a decade the European Union has banned antibiotics for growth promotion in farm animals, and tried to impose minimal standards that increase animal welfare and reduce the need to use antibiotics. The US and Australia have begun to follow suit, driven by consumer demand for antibiotic-free meat, and threats of government regulation. But most developing countries are moving in the opposite direction, with explosive growth of antibiotic use in both people and animals in China, India, Pakistan, Egypt, and most sub-Saharan African countries.

Pricing Pollution

Genes that confer resistance to antibiotics can be thought of as a form of pollution in our common microbial environment. This is true whether antibiotic resistant bacteria come from factory farms or hospitals. Either way, the spread of antibiotic resistance is a byproduct of the widespread use of antibiotics – especially when antibiotics are used at sub-therapeutic doses, which is enough to kill off most but not all of the bacteria they are used to destroy.

A common way to handle pollution is to tax its source. If we taxed antibiotics at a high enough rate, farmers would have powerful incentives to change their practices. This would increase the price of meat, but it is not especially onerous to get more protein from plant sources, or to purchase meat from restaurants like Chipotle and grocery stores like Whole Foods, which only buy from farms where animals are treated reasonably well and never given antibiotics.[1]

One of the benefits of pollution taxes is that they encourage socially beneficial behavior, and send signals to entrepreneurs to come up with better ways of creating products that reduce prices and pollution. For many years, scientists have been working on producing “in vitro” meat made in a lab rather than raised in a barn. Laboratory meat can even be created to be more healthy than traditional meat. While some find this process creepy, imagine the vast amounts of suffering we could avoid if we could create meat from stem cells rather than by inefficiently raising and slaughtering walking slabs of meat that can feel pain, get sick, and spread disease.

Imagine a world free of unnecessary pain to animals, a world without the threats of Avian and Swine flu, a world in which we used antibiotics for people rather than squandering them on animals made sick by production practices that will make our descendants wince.


End notes:

For an elaboration of these arguments, see:

  1. Jonathan Anomaly, “What’s Wrong with Factory Farming?” Public Health Ethics (2015)
  2. Jonathan Anomaly, “Ethics, Antibiotics, and Public PolicyGeorgetown Journal of Law and Public Policy (2017).

For an overview of the problem of antibiotic resistance, and potential policy solutions, see:

  1. Michael Greger, “The Human/Animal Interface: Emergence and Resurgence of Zoonotic Infectious Diseases.” Critical Reviews in Microbiology (2007).
  2. Marshal and Levy, Food Animals and Antimicrobials: Impacts on Human Health. Clinical Microbiology Reviews (2011).
  3. Thomas van Boeckel et al, Global Trends in Antimicrobial Use in Food Animals. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States (2015).
  4. Jim O’Neill et al, Tackling Drug Resistance Globally, British Review on Antimicrobial Resistance (2016).


*parts of this essay originally appeared in Encompass magazine at Duke University.

[1] I should emphasize that while Chipotle and Whole Foods have exemplary standards for animal welfare and antibiotics, they are wrong to reject the use of Genetically Modified Foods. This trend is driven by a widely shared but misguided consumer belief that GMO foods are bad for human health or the environment.


    • Anomaly says

      John: what’s wrong with “Coercion by taxation for favored causes”? Isn’t that what laws against murder are? The state collects taxes to “coerce” us (or try to deter us) against murdering one another? This is a widely favored cause, and in fact the whole point of having a state: to do together what we can’t efficiently accomplish separately.

      Well, if each of us dumps mercury into the municipal water and the predictable consequence is death by poisoning, there may be reasons to either ban or tax this use of mercury in this way. Same for the collectively harmful use of antibiotics. That is, there are sometimes reasons to use government to impose a cost on people who pollute when a predictable consequence of pollution is death or serious injury for other people who did not consent to the risk we impose on them.

      • sestamibi says

        Are you serious??!!? “The state collects taxes to ‘coerce’ us . . . against murdering each other??

        Excuse me but murder is illegal, period. Independently of any taxes.

        The only relevant tax is that used by the state to solve homicides and punish the offender, but only after the fact.

        As for your second graf, this was described as far back as 1968 by Garrett Hardin in his famous essay “The Tragedy of the Commons”. Solution is not collective action, but parceling out and privatizing the commons as much as possible.

        • Anomaly says

          Sestamibi: how do you think the state pays police to enforce laws, or pays courts to prosecute murderers, and correctional officers to monitor them in prison? Pretty sure taxes are the ticket.

          The problem of antibiotic resistance is actually much more interesting than a simple commons tragedy. But even so, as Hardin recognized, and as David Schmidtz put the point: private property is not a panacea. It sure helps in standard cases of cows over-grazing common pastures, but not cases where monitoring is expensive or impossible, and where the harms are caused by billions of inter-dependent actions, rather than a particular discrete actions that impose visible costs and benefits.

          Pollution problems, some of which can be captured by the commons tragedy model, are not always solvable through private property rights. The best article on this is by Carol Rose, “Liberty, Property, Environmentalism.”

  1. Question: once we have our vat-grown meats, what happens to all the animals currently reared for food?

    • Anomaly says

      To PM: The current ones are eaten and future potential factory farmed animals are never born. That seems pretty uncontroversial to me.

    • Adrian says

      The process of changing products would happen over many decades. The demand for such intense breeding would gradually fade, diminishing the number of animals kept in these farms. The animals would still in exist in low numbers and not being subjected to the horror of factory farms.

    • Zach says

      Once we have our own mechanical transport, what happens to all the horses reared for cart-pulling?

  2. Jon S says

    Some well made and important points but it leaves one big question? How do we feed the world or even the US without factory farms? A very large percentage of the public cannot afford free range birds. One other quick thing, if you think “free range” farms are different you might want to check again. The label “Free Range” has very minimal qualifications.

    • There are many cheap sources of protein.
      A very large percentage of the public cannot afford the medicine/treatment to fight against antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections. All it takes is one serious pandemic. Is that worth your chicken mcnuggets?

    • Anomaly says

      These are good questions. As you suggest, there is a range between factory farms and backyard barns. And in fact, many large animals operations are more humane and environmentally safe than some small backyard operations. So it’s a lot more complicated than many assume. I’ll go even further: large farms are generally better for the environment because of economies of scale. So a lot depends on the details of a particular farm.

      It turns out, though, that with minimal requirements meant to keep animals from extreme suffering, and the rejection of antibiotics for most purposes, Europe is doing just fine feeding themselves and exporting food to the world. It really doesn’t take much to accomplish this. As mentioned, some American companies exceed the standards of European countries and are able to produce on a massive scale.

    • Something like 80% of crops are grown to feed livestock. It would be much more efficient for us to just eat plants directly. Google livestock conversion ratios. It turns out that eating lower on the food chain is a way to feed many more people, not fewer.

  3. Bill says

    I think your conclusion is robbing Peter to pay Paul. Factory farming is polluting due to antibiotic use, bacterial/viral mutation with a vector to humans. Ok, but then you counter replacing with plant based protein which, in order to achieve density since demand there would skyrocket, introduces the pesticide/herbicide is polluting argument currently embroiling Monsanto with in the is it or isn’t glycophosphate carcinogenic debate with competing studies/omitted studies.

    So let’s assume there is 100% buy in to your points and conclusion. We get rid of say, 70% of factory meat production. That 70% protein requirement is made up by plants so you’ve either severely eroded the available calories for consumption (people starve, and it would be third-world first making the US even more “evil” in the eyes of many) or now we’re killing fish, polluting water, etc.. Or perhaps now we have even larger problems with fisheries as humans seek to replace the protein deficit through more fishing?

    Does my example scenario make sense? My intent is to pose the question as a challenge in case you have (or come up with) an alternative conclusion since I feel that is the weak point in your presentation. The suggested remedy has pitfalls equally bad or worse in the current form.

    • Since something like 80% of crops grown are fed to livestock, there’d actually be less demand for plant proteins if we stopped eating factory farmed meat and just ate the plants directly. Feeding soy, corn, barley, etc through chickens, hogs, turkeys and cattle turns out to be a very inefficient way of using their calories. Google “livestock conversion ratios.”

      • Bill says

        Except you don’t get that full return for the calorie pool. Let’s use corn for example since I think the UN report from 2006 said 80% of corn produced in the US is for livestock — but is it? When field corn is processed it isn’t only into livestock feed but also ethanol, corn oil, and carbon dioxide with remnants used to make other things as well. That would still need to be done only now with the many pounds of waste product no longer recycled into livestock feed pellets. It isn’t that magically the 80% of field corn will be harvested as sweet corn that can be shipped for humans to consume because the byproduct demand is still there. The numbers I saw said 1 bushel (56lbs) of field corn makes 18lbs of high protein livestock feed, 14lbs of corn gluten pellets (also livestock feed), 17lbs of carbon dioxide, 2.8 gallons of ethanol, 1.8lbs of corn oil, etc.

        The big crops (corn, soybean) are now multipurpose the same way as crude oil. You make an engine that runs on water and completely eliminate the demand for gasoline — but the oil companies would still be pumping crude out of the ground and processing for plastics and other products only now with this waste product called gasoline nobody wants.

        Interesting thing, the UN report spoke of the decreased cost of feed grains as driving their use versus fodder. This was in 2006. That same low price of those feed grains, again using corn, drove up the demand for the scraps of those feed grains as the choice in biodiesel/ethanol production such that by 2013 corn oil was the dominant choice for the same reason corn became more prevalent as a live stock feed. It’s now also being used by marijuana farmers as a pesticide and fungicide because it’s organic.

  4. Pingback: giantmecha // Blog Archive // The Case Against Factory Farming

Comments are closed.