by Peter Franklin
Wednesday, 18
November 2020
Idea
07:00

How do we bring down factory farming?

It will be difficult, but not impossible
by Peter Franklin
Credit: Carsten Koall / Getty

Where will the next pandemic come from? A good bet is somewhere among the world’s factory farms. In a powerful piece for UnHerd this week, John Lewis-Stempel describes the terrifying disease risks we create when we cram animals together in conditions where pathogens can mutate, proliferate and spread into the human population.

We need to defuse the ticking time bomb before it’s too late, but how?

Highlighting the sheer scale of production — “one billion pigs, three billion ducks and 69 billion chickens are slaughtered annually to meet the demand for meat” — John doubts the world is about to go vegan. I’m sure he’s right about that, but is there any more chance that we might “de-intensify and deindustrialise the livestock industry”, as he advocates?

This would entail a fundamental change of direction in a foundational sector of the economy. Right now all the momentum — the investment, the expertise, the supply chains and most of the consumer demand — is behind intensification.

So what could possibly turn that around? Technology, perhaps. Cultured meat, if convincing enough, could beat the factory farmers at the their own game — leaving real meat as a premium, free-range product.

But if tech doesn’t come to the rescue, then a long, hard, political battle lies ahead. It wouldn’t be the first time that a global industry has been brought down by moral arguments. At one point, the transatlantic slave trade was as powerful as it was evil — and yet it was eventually abolished. Mind you, that did take decades of advocacy, a revolution in Haiti, a civil war in America and the intervention of the Royal Navy.

A more recent example is the fight against climate change. Though a long way from being won, we have seen previously unthinkable progress over the last decade, for instance the near elimination of coal from the British energy sector. Furthermore, nation after nation is committing itself to achieving net zero emissions by 2050. Therefore, long-term concerns for the common good can overcome the profit motive.

Let’s hope that a parallel process might commit the world to the end of intensive meat production. Perhaps our descendants will look back and ask how such an inhumane and dangerous practice was ever allowed. However, they might also honour those nations and leaders who first took a stand against it — and warned other nations of the consequences of inaction.

In 1989, Margaret Thatcher’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly played a vital role in catalysing the international effort on climate change. Today, there’s an opportunity for another bold leader — perhaps another British Conservative Prime Minister — to speak up against the cruelty and existential risks of factory farming.

Join the discussion


  • The primary solution to ending factory farming was glossed over and dismissed in this article. Going vegan would eliminate the demand for animal flesh, a.k.a. animal-sourced meat. While sounding impossible to expect, remember that many people thought society would collapse without slaves, as societies had so heavily depended upon slavery and in some cases still is because of greed.
    Mountains of science has proven that we can thrive on an entirely plant-sourced diet. Every major health/nutrition organization has an official statement supporting the superior health benefits of a well-balanced vegan diet.
    The ethical considerations against animal agriculture become paramount since we don’t need to eat meat.
    Lab-grown meat will help lessen the demand for animal agriculture but still has major environmental and production problems.
    Raising truly free-range farmed animals requires exponentially more land. Currently all agriculture occupies 70% of all ice-free land. Animal (includes fowl) farming takes up about 70% of agricultural land for feed, animals, their excrement and slaughter.
    Another devastating consequence of animal farming is the killing of millions of wild lives who “compete” with farmed animals for land and resources.
    Eating fish also presents equally-threatening consequences to the planet, and by 2048 there may be no fish left in the oceans. Fishless oceans is “game-over” for life on earth as fish are vital to the oceans’ ecosystem which is vital for life to exist on Earth. Farmed fish, aquaculture, is just as damaging and cruel as farming land animals.
    As the popularity and proliferation of vegan food continue to rise, we find more variety and abundance of foods. Meaty/hearty plant-sourced foods are making their way onto menus satisfy just as much as animal flesh.
    It is quite profound to discover that turning sentient beings into commodities is not necessary and presents moral considerations only answered by embracing behaviors based upon compassion and stewardship.

  • In a powerful piece for UnHerd this week, John Lewis-Stempel describes the terrifying disease risks we create when we cram animals together in conditions where pathogens can mutate, proliferate and spread into the human population.

    I believe that earlier this week, another scribe was extolling the virtues of doing the very same thing with human beings, lauding how places like Singapore and Hong Kong with their high-density living should be the urban norm. And are you seriously comparing farming to the slave trade? Really?

    Furthermore, nation after nation is committing itself to achieving net zero emissions by 2050. Therefore, long-term concerns for the common good can overcome the profit motive.
    Have you given any thought to the fallout of this? Nuclear is emissions-free, yet the strident change crowd wants no part of it, and few things are more amoral than “the common good.” History has demonstrated that in ample manner.

    These things collectively sound far less like attempts at tackling real issues that impact real people and more like efforts to use the coercive power of govt to force people into living in a prescribed manner.

  • Well done for offering some thoughts on dealing with a problem which is likely to become a key focus of attention in the years to come – for health and moral reasons. It matters not whether your ideas are perfect – what matters is that you have stimulated debate.

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