The Hidden Pitfalls of Small Scale Animal Agriculture: An Overview

What follows are extended talking points for the lecture that I will give this semester at several venues. I begin this Thursday at Wesleyan University, and will move on over the next three months to Berkeley, Southwestern University, MIT, the University of Texas, Augustana College, the Ottawa VegFest, the Madison Vegfest, and a TEDx talk in Los Angeles. I plan to blog about the responses that I get to what will prove to wide variety of audiences. -jm

(note: searching for a better title!)

Why Support for Small Scale Animal Farms Will Never Threaten Industrial Agriculture

James McWilliams

There’s a lot to celebrate when it comes to our growing awareness of factory farming.  Mainstream consumers are finally becoming cognizant of the impact industrial animal agriculture is having on the environment, human health, and animal welfare. We’re coming to realize that raising 10 billion animals a year in squalid and highly concentrated conditions has impacts that reverberate throughout society. We’re turning our outrage on corporations who profit from this exploitation, from Monsanto and Smithfield to McDonald’s and Jack in the Box, where, I just read, you can know buy drink called a bacon milk shake.

One might say that consumers are at a crossroads, a point at which, given the clear harm caused by factory farming, a critical mass of us are poised to reject the bacon milkshake and make a lifelong change regarding our relationship to the industrial food system. Thus far, most consumers who have taken a close look at industrial agriculture, and been appropriately appalled, have chosen to seek alternatives in options marketed as alternatives to industrial agriculture. Influenced by The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Food Inc, we’re opting for local, sustainable, and more humanely raised animal products–goods produced on smaller farms, often by people we know, and goods that are sold at Farmer’s markets and co-ops. In general, we’ve accepted the premise that, when it comes to animal agriculture, smaller is a kinder, more eco-friendly way to bring us our meat, eggs, and dairy.

But this response is entirely inadequate answer to the hegemony of industrial agriculture. Granted, the alternatives enjoy enormous support from the food media, environmental groups, and even advocates for animal welfare.  But this path, in the long run, will lead us right back to where we started. It will do precious little to help the fate of animals, the environment, or to improve our health. In fact, it’s a choice that may very well perpetuate the very system of factory farming right minded citizens want to abolish.

I should very clear and tell you that I have an agenda. I speak today as an activist more than a scholar, and my goal is to convince you that the only way to truly fight factory farms, the only way to viably take on the insidious evils of industrial agriculture and the current state of our food system, is convert to a plant-based diet. Until we do so, every act of resistance, every dollar spent on local meat, every condemnation of factory farming is, as one scholar has put it, rain without thunder.

I have three reasons for holding this opinion:

a) First, when we choose alternative options we’re engaging in inconsistent welfare consideration for the animals we claim to care about–some have called it moral schizophrenia. Think about why we dislike factory farms so much–much of our disgust has to do with the way animals are treated: they’re overcrowded, they cannot run free, eat what they want, reproduce on their own, and are forced to live in squalor, caged, confined, and covered in feces.

It’s for these very reasons–which are all based on the correct assumption that animals have intrinsic worth–that we support systems of production in which animals are treated with dignity. That’s wonderful, because it shows that we know farmed animals have feelings, emotions, and intelligence; it shows that we know that they are social; that they can suffer; that, as living and sentient beings, they are worthy of our moral consideration. This is why we think it’s horrible for them to be raised as they are in factory settings. This is precisely why so many of us are outraged to be begin with.

How, then, can we simultaneously nurture this belief in the moral worth of animals, so much so that we act on it by rejecting factory farms, and then turn around and support an alternative system that, when you break it down to its essence, does the exact same thing? Small farms might treat animals better than factory farms, but don’t be fooled: they ultimately seek the same goal as factory farms–raising animals to kill, commodify, and send to market for food we do not need. So I ask: Is it possible to genuinely care for an animal’s welfare and, at the same time, kill it for the purposes of human indulgence? This is a very difficult question to answer logically, and, unfortunately, it is one that we are never asked to consider.

I don’t care how big or small the farm is, there is one thing that they all have in common: when the market tells the farmer that the animal must die, all welfare considerations for that animal come to a violent end. No animal wants to die. A market determined death for an animal we claim to care about renders all previous acts of kindness, to put it mildly, disingenuous. Never underestimate the importance of this basic similarity between the factory and the alternative farm, nor the power of the human mind to think it away.

[recent example of X on pig’s head]

So, to conclude my first objection, I ask you to think about the following questions: Do we really want to build a new system of animal husbandry on the back of this inconsistency? Even granting that the animals in this system have a decent quality of life, do we want to rebuild our food system on the premise that, just as in factory farming, a human who owns an animal can end that life because there happens to be a market for its flesh, eggs, and milk? Does this essentially inhumane act confer to an animal any real sense of dignity? Who are we to say that we respect an animal and then kill it to sell at a restaurant that will charge a mint because it was humanely raised? I don’t want the future of food to be based on such a sordid paradox.

b) My second claim is that we inadvertently support factory farming when we buy alternatively sourced animal products.  Our choice to seek alternatives is often couched in activist terms: we want to oppose factory farming so we buy meat from local farms where we know the farmers and trust his methods. But I would argue that, by eating animal products from small, local alternative sources, you are not opposing factory farms at all, but indirectly supporting them.

It all comes down to who’s defining the implications of your choice. Michael Pollan and the Food Movement have argued that your decision to eat alternatively sourced animal products means you are sticking it to industrial agriculture and supporting a fundamentally new approach to food. The media reflexively promotes the idea. Industry, however, invests your act with an entirely different meaning. From industry’s perspective, your decision to continue eating animal products–even of they are from alternatively sourced farms–is great news because it directly reinforces the most fundamental prerequisite for factory farming’s existence: the belief that there’s nothing wrong with eating animals. As long as this belief remains intact, the industry–which, recall, produces 99 percent of the animal products we eat–will continue to thrive. What big agriculture fears is not alternative agriculture–they can always co-opt that if they need to–but the emergence of a plant-eating ethic. This is what would put them out of business.

[Eat More Kale t-shirt controversy]

When you support the consumption of animal products–which you do when you buy them from small or big farms–you reiterate a cultural practice that will, however ironically, keep big business in power.Unless eating animals is culturally and morally stigmatized (sort of like smoking is today), factory farms will always remain the dominant mode of production.  As long as we eat animals, there will always be factory farms.

The reason is not only cultural but economic. In a capitalistic society, unfettered demand for anything provides the political, economic, and technological incentives for producers to achieve efficiencies of production. He who produces more with less survives and thrives. This principle leads to many wonderful improvements in modern life. When applied to animals, however, it leads to a profound moral tragedy. As long as we eat animals, the principle of efficient production will always be applied to them.

To think that small farms can escape this reality is simply naive. They might be doing it right now. But as small animal farms proliferate, as they respond to increased demand for alternatives, the result will be competition among alternative farms for a growing demand for so called humane animal products.  The outcome of this competition, according to every economic model every created (with the exception of classic communism), will be to seek improvements in efficiency to produce more product for less. The cycle of efficiency would lead to denser, more streamlined farms that, in name of efficiency, took less and less interest in animal welfare. In no time we’d be back to the large scale systems that the small farms were designed to oppose in the first place. With India and China about to bring hundreds of millions of consumers into the meat market, to think that small farms will proliferate, remain small, and not compete is a willful distortion of thought.

Two recent examples: a) the organic industry and b) Niman Ranch. Both started small and ideal, became popular, grew steadily and, many agree, lost touch with their founding values.

c) My final reason for opposing small scale animal agriculture is that eating animals is environmentally unsustainable–whether the products come from big or small animal farms. We know the ecological impacts of factory farms are horrible: livestock produces more GHG than any other sector of the global economy, including transportation; 80 percent of the antibiotics produced are given to animals; the vast majority of the world’s corn and soy are grown to feed animals; virulent influenzas breed on factory farms; manure lagoons destroy aquatic ecosystems; 70 percent of the water in the American west goes to ranching; it takes 2500 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef, it takes 13 to produce a pound of tomatoes. I could spend the next hour rattling off such stats. But I think you get the point: raising animals to feed 7 billion people is, by definition, an ecological tragedy.

Contrary to common assumptions, the alternatives aren’t much better when it comes to their environmental impact or safety record. With grass-fed beef, there’s a methane problem–cows that eat grass produce 3-4 times more methane than cows that eat grain. With free ranged animals, there’s a land problem–much of the Brazilian rain forest is being depleting to provide land for grazing increasingly popular grass-fed cows. Diseases prevail in free range systems as well as factory farms (recall Germans and US pork). The work of Peter Davies at Minnesota shows that, somewhat horrifyingly, confined pigs are safer to eat than free range pigs.  Then there’s deadstock: where do we take the animal carcasses without rendering plants? Right now alternatives account for about 1 percent of production; these hidden environmental and safety costs would become more evident as these operations proliferated.

Comprehensive studies support the argument that eating plants is far better for the environment than eating any sort of animal product. One recent study–by the World Preservation Institute–confirmed that a global vegan diet (of conventional crops) would reduce dietary emissions by 87 percent. This figure is compared to a token 8 percent for “sustainable meat and dairy.” If organic plants were eaten, emissions caused by food production would drop 94 percent. Another, done by scientists at Carnegie Mellon University, calculated that a vegan diet was seven times more energy efficient than a diet that sourced a normal diet within 100 miles. Localism, in short, is no answer to the environmental impact of food production.

So, to summarize: the alternatives to animal agriculture are often promoted as the answer to the myriad and very serious problems of industrial agriculture. My argument is that these alternatives do very little to confront–and in some cases perpetuate–the problems of industrial agriculture. As I said at the start, though, the good news is that we’re at a crossroads. We know factory farming is not acceptable. This is a start. The next step, I would argue, is not to become compassionate carnivores and support alternative systems, but to pursue do the most effective thing a consumer can do to dismantle industrial agriculture and, in the process, improve his or her health and the health of the environment: become ethical vegans.

The health benefits of veganism are well documented, but it’s amazing how hard it is to promote them.  For example, despite the overwhelming medical evidence supporting the benefits of a plant-based diet, the AHA has said yes it’s good for your heart but too hard for people to follow, so they won’t officially recommend it. How lame. The environmental benefits are equally obvious. But again, those who would seem to be the most logical choices for promoting veganism won’t do it. Take the Worldwatch Institute, which recently put out a report on the environmental problems of meat production in a world of 7 billion, concluded that we need to eat more organic, pasture raised meat. This is astoundingly stupid.  But, the point is this: there are huge health and environmental gains to be achieved through veganism–whether those who should be promoting this message are doing so or not. I now want to focus on two other benefits–if only because they are mentioned less than the health and environmental reasons.

The first is that veganism promotes genuine and full compassion for animals. And compassion for animals translates into compassion for people. We’ll never have a truly morally healthy society when we lives in denial of the mass slaughter we executes on billions of innocent, sentient, emotionally sensitive animals.  But when we choose to avoid animal products we help reduce suffering overall. When we find the decency in our hearts to help prevent animals from unnecessary slaughter we tap something deep within ourselves. We tap and nurture our innate capacity for tolerance, empathy, and affection.  This can only improve the way we treat others. Vegans are often asked why we don’t focus on human problems first, and then focus on animals. This question fails to consider that, in overcoming speciesism–in treating animals with due moral consideration–we lay an essential foundation of compassion that allows us to make essential strides toward confronting racism, sexism, homophobia–and all the other prejudices that keep us from respecting each other as human beings lucky enough to be alive, experiencing pleasure, seeking improvement in our lives.

The final benefit I would mention about veganism is that, with respect to food, it is the absolute purest and most powerful form of activism. And it’s available to everyone, right here, right now. Ten billion animals are killed every year. This mass slaughter is at the core of industrial agriculture. Do we really think that tens of thousands of consumers buying locally sourced, humanely raised meat are going to do anything significant to alter the fate of these 10 billion? We must move beyond this boutique activism. We have to take stronger action. Veganism cuts to the heart of industrial agriculture. There is nothing more direct you can do to fight industrial agriculture than to go vegan.

As a concluding remark I want to implore you to expand the anti-factory farm dialogue. We’re always going to hear about the alternatives. Let’s hear about veganism. There’s more than one way to vote with our fork. Taking on factory farming is a battle; but taking on eating meat must be the real war.






About James McWilliams
I'm a historian and writer based in Austin, Texas. This blog is dedicated to exploring the ethics of eating animals and animal-based products.

9 Responses to The Hidden Pitfalls of Small Scale Animal Agriculture: An Overview

  1. CQ says:


    Suggested title: Why Reviving Old MacDonald’s in the Big Mac Era is a Pipe Dream

  2. Wow. This is a very important post (high praise from a fellow vegan blogger) and a very challenging argument to make. Maybe The Beet-Eating Heeb is not well-read enough, but this is the first time he’s seen anyone confront the issue of small-scale, local, “humane” animal farms in such a thorough way.

  3. magpie says:

    I absolutely agree, what we have to stop is eating and using animal products of any kind. People I have spoken to feel very self righteous, saying, “Oh well, I only eat organic!” or “range free” or “grain fed”. As if this this lets them off!

  4. Provoked says:

    Excellent message with a solid goal – Thank you.

  5. Fireweed says:

    James, I like your working title, because it accurately defines where you take the reader. I’d leave it. Wish I had time to help proofread though, since I know your post is already traveling, complete with unnecessary typos that distract from what would otherwise read as really well-thought-out points! There’s this whole ‘carbon sequestration’ argument being bantered about among the grass-fed advocates that I think needs sound rebuttal. I’ve posted a couple of ‘new’ vid clips you might find interesting here on my blog at Keep up the great work! -Fireweed

  6. CQ says:

    I’m always looking for more information on vegan organic farming to share with vegans — and skeptics who maintain that animals and/or their byproducts are mandatory in agriculture. I found Ian Tolhurst and the site a year or so ago. Now I look forward to watching the other videos you feature in your blog. Have you heard of Gentle World in New Zealand?

    Thanks, Fireweed.

    • Fireweed says:

      Yes, I link to Gentle World on my blog. Check the right hand columns for a whole bunch of urls. VON is the best, but VAN in North America is doing a great job of linking up individuals farms in NA as well.:)

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