By Carol Dreibelbis

Most food in the United States comes from industrialized, intensive farms. Meat and dairy are no exception: nationwide, 40 percent of all U.S. food animals are raised in the largest 2 percent of livestock facilities. And these large-scale facilities, commonly referred to as factory farms, continue to grow. Between 1997 and 2007, the U.S. factory farming industry added 4,600 hogs, 650 dairy cows, 139,200 broiler chickens, and 1,100 beef cattle each day. On a global scale, industrial animal production now accounts for 72 percent of all poultry production, 43 percent of egg production, and 55 percent of pork production.

Pastured broiler chickens feed on grass and grain at Virginia-based Polyface Farm. (Photo credit: Polyface, Inc.)

Although factory farms provide large quantities of relatively inexpensive meat, the associated environmental, social, and human health costs are high. Factory farms rely on massive inputs of water, fossil fuel energy, grain-based feed, and other limited resources. Feed production alone accounts for an estimated 75 percent of the energy use associated with factory farming; growing animal feed also requires the input of water, fertilizers, and pesticides, and it occupies arable land that could be used directly to grow food. An estimated 23 percent of all water used in agriculture goes to livestock production.

Industrialized meat production also creates huge amounts of waste, contaminating nearby air and water and threatening the health of humans and wildlife. Some large factory farms produce more waste than large U.S. cities. The livestock industry is also responsible for approximately 18 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions—more than the entire global transportation sector. By contributing to climate change, factory farms affect people both locally and around the world.

Although industrial animal production is on the rise, many farmers, particularly in developing countries, still work within natural systems to provide sustainable alternatives to industrialized meat. Relying on the same holistic, agroecological principles that sustained humanity for generations, these farms produce meat without the negative environmental and human health effects that characterize industrialized meat production. When done correctly, agroecological approaches, including the integration of livestock and crops, can have a positive environmental impact by protecting soil and water while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Studies show that pasture-raised beef requires only half the fossil fuel energy input as factory-farmed beef.

To better understand the differences between the environmental impacts of industrial and sustainable livestock operations, we contrast two farming systems in the U.S. Mid-Atlantic region: industrial poultry farms on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, and Polyface Farm in central Virginia.

Chicken “factories” create waste, exploit growers

In Maryland, agriculture is the largest commercial industry, and industrial poultry production dominates. The state’s farmers produced nearly 301 million broiler chickens in 2010, ranking eighth in the nation for production. Most of these chickens are raised in large, cramped chicken houses located on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. In fact, nearly 60 percent of the state’s broiler operations contain 500,000 or more chickens.

Traditionally, the enormous amount of chicken manure produced in eastern Maryland was used as fertilizer on local agricultural fields. But as broiler production rises and the area of cropland shrinks, excess manure increasingly flows into and pollutes the Chesapeake Bay. In 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported that approximately 19 percent of excess nitrogen and 26 percent of excess phosphorus in the Bay was directly linked to animal manure in the watershed.

Many of the poultry houses and facilities in Maryland are associated with Amick Farms, a South Carolina-based poultry company. According to the local poultry trade association, Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc., Amick Farms ranked 18th in the nation in 2010 for poultry production. Companies like Amick Farms are known as “integrators” because they control production across all stages—from breeding to growing to processing to retailing.

Amick Farms contracts with more than 200 individual growers who produce a total of over 9 million pounds of poultry each week for the company. The contract growing system can be oppressive, as growers go into debt just to enter into business and then have few options other than to accept whatever terms the integrator offers. According to one former contract grower, the occupation “promises job security in the beginning, but then immediately takes away that security in the form of a contract that is one-sided and can be changed or taken away after the grower has borrowed hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

“Polyculture” provides more sustainable option

On the other side of the livestock production spectrum, Polyface Farm, owned and operated by sustainable agriculture advocate Joel Salatin, is a highly productive, pasture-based farm located in central Virginia. Polyface Farm is an example of a polyculture, or a diversified farming system in which grains, fruits, vegetables, fodder, and livestock are produced in the same fields. Polyface Farm imitates the diversity of species in natural ecosystems and makes use of innovative farming strategies to boost production and quality. For example, its broilers are housed in small, floorless, portable field shelters that house about 75 chickens each. These birds are moved to fresh pasture daily, where they feed on local grain and grass sprouts.

Polyface Farm produces 40,000 pounds of beef, 30,000 pounds of pork, 10,000 broilers, 1,200 turkeys, 1,000 rabbits, and 35,000 dozen eggs on just 100 acres each year. According to Miguel A. Altieri, professor of agroecology at the University of California, Berkeley, polycultures like Polyface Farm can even out-produce the yield per unit of single crops grown on large-scale farms.

Polyface Farm and other small-scale farming systems represent a more environmentally sound—and socially just—path for meat production. Rather than contributing to climate change, environmental degradation, and other negative consequences of industrialized agriculture, sustainable farming has the potential to feed a growing population without overexploiting both natural and human resources.

What does sustainable farming mean to you? Please let us know in the comments section below.

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