At Farmdrop, we know it’s possible to give people amazing fresh food without trashing the planet or screwing over your producers. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the big corporations in food do not follow the same high standards, relying on dangerous and cruel methods of factory farming.
We thought we’d share with you some of the most alarming statistics that show the damage caused by industrialised farming and why it needs to end.
1. The number of factory farms in the UK has increased by a quarter (26%) in the last five years.
If we ever needed proof of society’s growing disconnect with the people who feed us then a massive surge in the number of factory farms surely provides it. The latest official figures reveal that there are now 1,674 intensive animal farms holding a permit, with an additional 352 factory farms being established since 2011.
Around half of these factory farms (789) are classified as mega-farms, meaning that at any one time they will house a minimum of either 125,000 broiler chickens, 82,000 laying hens, 2,500 pigs or 1,000 beef cattle.
The checkout price of factory farmed meat might be cheap but there are hidden costs. Intensively reared animals are kept in crowded and dirty conditions, without access to natural pastures, and are routinely fed antibiotics.
Worryingly, the overconsumption of meat treated with antibiotics is thought to be partially responsible for humans growing resistance to these drugs. And if left unchecked, antibiotic resistance would make it difficult to carry out even the most routine operations and medical treatments.
2. You would have to eat six intensively reared chickens today to get the same amount of nutrients as one chicken produced in the 1970s.
The cost of chicken might have plummeted in recent decades but we shouldn’t kid ourselves by thinking that we are still eating the same thing.
Chicken used to be a rare treat – the birds were allowed roam freely throughout their life and didn’t reach full maturity until around 81 days. Today factory farmed chickens are kept indoors throughout their life and sent to slaughter after just 35 days.
The nutritional quality of chicken has suffered as a result of the shorter lifespan and more intensive conditions. One study shows that you would have to eat 6 intensively reared chickens today to get the same amount of healthy Omega 3 fatty acids as one chicken from the 1970s.
Moreover, being slaughtered at the relatively young age of 35 days, factory farmed chickens have a much higher prevalence of campylobacter (a bacteria that lives in their gut and disappears as they mature), making intensively reared chicken more dangerous to human health.
3. There are 750,000 fewer dairy cows in the UK compared to two decades ago, but we produce more milk today than at anytime in the last 25 years.
If you already take an interest in food provenance, you will know that dairy producers have suffered the most from the many years of fierce competition between the supermarkets. The cost of milk in particular has plummeted with the biggest retailers using it as a “loss leader”. This is an deeply unethical practice, selling milk cheaper than it costs to make so as to lure customers into the store where they will buy more profitable items.
Around 22,000 smaller dairy farmers have gone out of business in the last twenty years as they they have been unable to go on producing milk at a loss. The dairy farms that remain have had to scale significantly and extract more milk from a fewer number of cows.
Average herd sizes have almost doubled from 75 cows to 133, and despite there being three quarter of a million fewer dairy cows than 20 years ago, the UK is actually producing more milk now – 14.6 billion litres in 2014 – than it was in 1990.
The proliferation of mega dairies has had an adverse impact on both the quality of our milk and the life of dairy cows. Previously your milk might have come from one or two local herds whereas now it will be a mix of milk from hundreds of different herds, and some will even be kept indoors for their whole life on zero-grazed systems.
4. Farming will only be possible for another 60 years if soil degradation (a by-product of factory farming) continues at the current rate.
Humans can survive a lot of things but we can’t survive without healthy soils. Around 95% of our food comes from the soil. That is why their dramatic decline in fertility is causing so much worry among scientists.
United Nation (UN) estimates suggest that if we carry on the same trajectory of soil destruction then we will only have 60 years of farming left, and in particularly degraded areas like the East of England, we might be only 30 years away.
Yet again industrial farming appears to be the main culprit. Mega farms have been routinely drenched with chemical fertilisers that boost yields in the short-term but reduce the fertility, and productive capacity of the soil, in the long-term. Fertilisers do this by supplanting the role of naturally occurring nutrients in the soil, which then lose fertility as they no longer serve a purpose.
Is there a future without factory farming?
The introduction of rotational cropping and smaller mixed farms is crucial for maintaining and ultimately restoring soil fertility. The snag however is that the economic case for sustainable farming is not great – it receives little public subsidy and is more labour intensive.
Of course, consumers can be a big catalyst of change by choosing to shop from local farms and producers, rather than from the conventional supermarkets.