Memories often crystalize around food. Family rendered immobile by Sunday afternoon mac and cheese; hot pecan pie topped with melting ice cream on a crisp night; burgers slung into buns from a tailgate before the big game; pulled pork dropping from steaming carnitas devoured at a bustling market; relatives gathering around a gleaming turkey on the Thanksgiving table.
Meat, dairy, and eggs—indeed, the whole gamut of animal-derived foods—are woven into the fabric of American life and have been for as long as most will remember. But what’s on our plates will change significantly when factory farming is taken off the table, a once-unthinkable scenario that may soon become reality.
A 2017 survey of U.S. attitudes towards animal farming showed that as nearly half of U.S. adults support a ban on intensive, or ‘factory’, farming, a figure that would surely become a majority were the scale and horror of the industry fully understood. While it’s tempting to imagine factory farming as an aberration, something far from the cozy images of green fields filled with happy cows, the brute fact is that most foods at the heart of our cherished memories, traditions, and everyday lives are born of intensive animal agriculture. Though pasture-raised animals are more visible, spreading across nearly 35 percent of the total land area of the contiguous United States, 99 percent of all farmed animals in the U.S. are held in around 250,000 factory farms across the country. Already almost unfathomably massive, these operations are only increasing in number and scale.
The number of new factory farms (often referred to as concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs) in the U.S. increased from 18,000 to 20,000 between 2011 and 2017. Moreover, their size has increased alongside their number. Between 2012 and 2017, the number of animals in factory farms grew by 190 million, with an increase in the average number of all categories of animals except beef cattle. And that growth doesn’t seem to be slowing down.
The ubiquitous expansion of factory farming is a clear indicator of how the products of intensively-reared animals dominate our plates, particularly in developed nations like the U.S. (and increasingly in rapidly growing nations like China and Brazil). The richer the country, the more animals it consumes. In 2014, the global average for meat consumption per person was 95 pounds. In the U.S., the figure was 220 pounds. As of 2020, the figure is 264 pounds per person.
Outside of the direct and brutal impact on the billions of animals processed for food within the U.S., factory farming practices are well-understood to have devastating effects on the environment as well as human health and wellbeing. Industrial animal agriculture destroys rural communities, targets immigrants, and disproportionately affects poor and minority communities. Within the facilities themselves, workers in the U.S. are three times more likely to suffer a severe injury than the average, making meat processing plants one of the most hazardous industries in the U.S.
While factory farms are seemingly inescapable, the conversation about their closure is growing in volume. As the overwhelming scale and harm of animal agriculture become increasingly well-known, a once-unthinkable ban on factory farming is moving into the realms of possibility. In addition, the emergence of the novel coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the serious public health risk associated with factory farms, and the pandemic fuelled supply chain disruptions which caused many animal processing plants to shut down or operate at reduced capacity.
There is a political appetite for ending factory farms. In 2020, Senator Elizabeth Warren announced she would co-sponsor Cory Booker’s bill to phase out large-scale factory farming by 2040. The Farm System Reform Act would prohibit new large factory farms from going into business and force others to cease expansions before halting operations entirely within two decades. In late 2021, the San Francisco legislature passed a resolution supporting a moratorium on the construction and expansion of animal feeding operations. On the other side of the Atlantic, a legal attempt to get the UK Government to phase out animal factory farming is underway.
Changing consumer preferences are also having an impact. Thousands of American dairies have closed as milk consumption plummets. Indeed, the collapse of both dairy and cattle agriculture has also been predicted to occur as soon as 2030 by RethinkX, an independent think tank that analyses the speed and scale of disruption to propel the demise of these industries.
There are growing examples of people formerly inside the U.S. animal agriculture industry changing tack. New York dairy Elmhurst ditched cow milk after 90 years and switched to plant-based milk production in 2017. Former beef and dairy farmer Harold Brown changed not because of demand or pandemic impact but because of a change of heart. Now a vegan activist and the founder of Farm Kind, Brown has developed an online resource that invites people to explore the interrelationships of food, environment, and animals. Howard Lyman is a fourth-generation cattle farmer who converted a small organic dairy farm into a massive factory farm operation before experiencing a health crisis that caused him to go vegan, a turning point that saw him transform his ranch into a wildlife sanctuary.
Compounding the case for the end of factory farming is that the need to holistically reduce demand for animal products is a scientifically mainstream view. Moreover, we know that plant-based diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, adolescence, older adulthood, and athletes. Only a significant decrease in meat and dairy consumption will allow us to deliver a sustainable food system fit for a future in which we are already attempting to mitigate the worst effects of a climate crisis well underway.
As both the end of factory farming and the mass adoption of plant-based diets loom, proponents of animal agriculture continue to come forward with ‘solutions’ which do little more than replace one form of animal exploitation with another. The idea that hunting, for example, is the answer to life beyond factory farming is a fantasy. In the United States, there are not enough wild animals to feed everyone, and demand would far overwhelm supply. Increasing the number of pasture-raised animals is untenable too. Pasture farming has much lower yields, in part because this type of animal production occupies much more space than factory farms and would require significantly more land clearance, and demand would again far overwhelm supply. Nor does eating different animals help, as there is evidence that abstaining from eating one kind of animal while switching to another would reduce demand in one area while increasing or maintaining it overall.
Moving toward a mainly or entirely plant-based diet is the only viable alternative solution to the multitude of problems caused by animal agriculture and the inevitable outcome of the demise of factory animal farming. With a shift away from using animals, individual consumption would move closer to the science-based Planetary Health Diet. This suggests massive cuts in meat-eating in western countries and radical changes in sugar and oil consumption worldwide and would translate to 84 percent less red meat and six times more beans and lentils filling U.S. plates.
Consumers worldwide are already embracing a wide range of plant-based foods. With more options than ever to replace the staples, and new products emerging all the time, the meat (and other animal products on your plate) may become cultivated or ‘clean’ meat. At the same time, milk from stem cells will take its place alongside the exploding market for plant-based meat and dairy replacements.
A nationwide shift to plant-based agriculture would significantly change what’s on our plates. Less (or no) animal products, with the space filled by many more vegetables, legumes, grains, and an ever-growing range of plant-based meat, dairy, and egg alternatives.
While most people may be unable initially to fathom a world without fried eggs, dairy ice cream, and turkey roasts, a post-factory farm future would not be devoid of edible pleasures. It is possible for us to not only survive but to thrive without factory farming, reaping the benefits for animals, consumers, workers, and ecosystems.
Perhaps as 2030 comes and goes, we’ll see families rendered immobile by cashew and nooch-fuelled mac and cheese; crisp nights filled with hot pecan pies covered in melting oat ice cream; Beyond Burgers jostling for space with vegan-friendly beers on a heaving tailgate as the game looms; cultivated pulled pork dropping from steaming market-stall carnitas. The family is still gathering around a gleaming turkey at Thanksgiving, of course, this one made from plants and indistinguishable from the ‘real thing’ to everyone (including the grandparents).
As the transition to plant agriculture made by former livestock farmers like Harold Brown and Howard Lyman show, people who made a living from factory farming are making radical, inspiring changes away from harmful practices to better align with their values and consumer demand. If individuals more deeply invested in animal agriculture than most of us can make such a change to their everyday reality, there is hope for individuals to act in lock-step with political change, making our cherished memories all the richer, with what’s on our plates being proof we consigned the horrors of factory farming to history.
Based in North East England, Leigh has been writing professionally since 2013 and has worked at a senior level in the culture and heritage sector for over a decade. Initially writing about food and culture, his work now encompasses animal ethics, plant-based living and sustainability.