How intensive animal farming is affecting the planet


 |  Biodiversity/Conservation


Do you sympathize with animals that are unwillingly confined? It seems natural to feel some sympathy for their wellbeing when we witness large numbers of animals confined in a building. The traditional animal agriculture was more extensive, allowing animals to roam around and forage for themselves, however, the industrialization of the animal agriculture industry has dehumanized its original practices. Globally, 56 billion livestock are reared under intensive agriculture every year and the numbers are expected to increase (Ilea, 2008). With intensive animal farming taking over the industry, it not only dehumanizes the agricultural process, but also ramps up climate changes.

What is intensive animal farming?

Intensive animal farming means growing many livestock such as goats, cattle, cows, pigs, poultry, etc, in a building with little to no space to move around freely. They can neither find their own food or mate due to the limited space. Instead, the farmer feeds them with high protein diets and creates a suitable (but suboptimal) environmental condition for them. Under intensive animal farming, the farmer uses different ways to take away the animal’s freedom. Animals such as poultry and pigs are caged in buildings with no chance of ever going outdoors (Fox, 1980). While animals such as cattle are not caged but are surrounded by fences and are only allowed to move within the fenced area (Fox, 1980). It’s worth mentioning that in Canada, 12 percent of farm animals are raised under these harsh conditions ( Beaulieu, 2001).

Why is factory farming on the rise?

Since the human population is continuously growing, more food needs to be produced to meet the population’s demand. As a result, farmers are under pressure to produce food more efficiently. This has caused some farmers to abandon the traditional ways of raising livestock, where the animals were unrestricted and allowed to move freely in search of food or mate; whereas in intensive animal farming, animals are usually given antibiotics and their feed is supplemented with compounds that force them to mature quickly. This allows the farmer to produce larger quantities of food in a shorter time frame. If the human population keeps growing, there will be approximately eight billion people in developing countries by 2025, meaning the practice of intensive farming will be expected to increase by 50% (Bellet & Rushton, 2019).

When hundreds of thousands of livestock are crammed together, the wastes generated can easily build up. Approximately 50% of the manure used on soils comes from intensive animal agriculture (Koneswaran & Nierenberg, 2008). Animal waste is rich in nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus, which are essential nutrients required for plant growth.  For this reason, farmers will continue to adopt this system of animal farming to generate a large amount of wastes for their farmlands. When it is applied as fertilizer on agricultural soils, it provides more nutrients for the crops. The decomposition of animal manure also helps to improve the quality of soil by increasing the microbial diversity, soil organic matter, and the structure of the soil.  

In intensive animal farming, the acres of land used to raise high amounts of livestock is less than what would be used to raise the same number of animals under traditional farming systems (Curtis, 1986). By crowding the animals together in a building, farmers can generate much more outputs such as wastes, meat, and other products from these animals. While traditional farming is more humane, it requires more acres of land to raise the same amount of livestock. Therefore, farmers will keep gravitating to this system of agriculture.

Implications of intensive animal agriculture on the environment

Over the years, intensive animal farming has negatively affected the environment by contributing to global warming, freshwater depletion, deforestation, and species extinction, among others.

In terms of global warming, the methane and nitrous oxide gases released by these animals contribute to the increase in the atmospheric temperature of the earth. Methane is produced in the rumen of animals, such as bulls, cows, goats, etc, during the breakdown of carbohydrates into simpler molecules. It is then released into the atmosphere when the animal burps or farts, and in their waste product. Every year, about 30 to 40% of the methane released into the atmosphere comes from animal agriculture (Sonesson et al., 2009).

The feces of livestock also release methane into the atmosphere. During intensive animal farming, livestock are fed a diet high in protein consisting of corn and soybeans, which is very different from the diet of livestock reared using traditional farming (Koneswaran & Nierenberg, 2008). When microbes break down these wastes, methane is released. High amounts of methane in the atmosphere are dangerous because they can hold more heat than any other gas, thereby, making the earth warmer and contributing to global warming.

The urine and feces from intensively reared livestock release nitrous oxide into the atmosphere, which also contributes to global warming. Nitrous oxide is released when microorganisms break down animal wastes and transform the nitrogen atom present into other easily absorbable forms of nitrogen. About 65% of the nitrous oxide gas released into the atmosphere comes from animal agriculture (Oenema et al., 2005). Intensive animal farming is prone to releasing high amounts of nitrous gas due to the large amount of animal wastes generated. When farmers use these wastes as a source of manure on their soils but do not apply them in the right amount, a high amount of nitrous oxide will be released into the atmosphere during their breakdown by microbes. As more nitrous oxide gas is released, it accumulates in the atmosphere and increases in concentration, then reacts with the ozone layer and destroys it. Without an intact ozone layer, the earth will be exposed to high ultraviolet rays of the sun, leading to a global increase in atmospheric temperature.

Intensive animal farming also contributes to global warming by releasing large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is released during the production of animal feeds, from the machinery used to power the farms and transport the feeds, as well as during the processing and transport of the animal products. During the production of animal feed, lots of carbon dioxide is generated from the use of fossil fuels such as diesel to power the machinery used to manufacture the nitrogenous fertilizers that are required to enhance the growth of animal feed crops. As a such, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increases, which ultimately results in global warming. Global warming negatively affects the planet by causing glaciers to melt, ocean temperatures to increase leading to ocean acidification, contributing to the extinction of wildlife, etc. As the oceans get warmer, they release higher amounts of carbon dioxide, which contributes to higher atmospheric temperatures.

Freshwater crisis

Intensive animal farming negatively affects the environment by decreasing the amount of freshwater available to use. Freshwater is the water available for human consumption. It makes up 2.5% of the water on earth, but only 0.3% is available for use, the rest are locked in glacier ice and under the ground in aquifers (Awange, 2020). Unfortunately, the available freshwater is regularly used during intensive animal farming to grow animal feed crops. Apart from growing the feed crops, fresh water is used to mix the feed, maintain the livestock farms, and a source of drinking water for farm animals. Globally, livestock production consumes 30% of the freshwater available (Awange, 2020). Even among the different types of meat, the amount of freshwater used in meat production differs among the livestock. Beef requires a larger amount of freshwater to produce than chicken, pork, sheep, and goat. This difference in the amount of freshwater used depends on what the animal feed is made up of. If freshwater is not managed efficiently, or the technique of converting saltwater into fresh water is not utilized to grow livestock feed crops, the high demand for freshwater for intensive animal farming will result in water scarcity for most people, especially in developing countries.

Over the years, studies have shown that people in developed countries consume more meat products compared to those in developing countries. Meat is rich in nutrients, provides 15% of energy, and a high amount of protein to the body (Mathijs, 2015). Therefore, as the human population continues to increase, people will become more dependent on meat products, implying a higher freshwater demand for the meat production. Over time, there will be less fresh water available to use to grow food crops or produce animal food products, which leads to food scarcity. Freshwater can also get polluted when agricultural wastes are not managed properly. 

Species Extinction

Intensive animal farming can cause species extinction. Animals and plants can go extinct if their home is converted into agricultural lands, destroyed by ‘natural’ disasters, or polluted by human agricultural practices. As mentioned earlier, intensive farming practice releases lots of harmful gases into the atmosphere, which increases the atmospheric temperature. This elevated temperature will affect animal populations that migrate seasonally to and from their habitat in search of food or mate to change their locations and move away from their original habitat where they are at risk of being killed. For example, arctic foxes move towards the tundra forest in late winter and early spring in search of food and come back to the sea ice in fall and early winter. But the high atmospheric temperature has increased the seawater temperature and caused sea ice to begin to melt. As a result, they lose their habitat and are forced to move to a different location where they either adapt or are killed by predators such as red foxes, polar bears, wolves, etc. 

Even reindeers in the arctic are affected by global warming. Reindeers migrate northwards at the beginning of spring in search of food and a suitable place to raise their young. But global warming has increased the freeze-thaw periods with thick layers of ice covering the plants, which prevents them from digging through to eat plants, thereby, leading to starvation and death.

Also, terrestrial plants or animals can go extinct when their homes are used for agricultural purposes, thereby, contributing to the loss of terrestrial biodiversity. For example, the greater prairie chickens that once lived in the prairies of Ontario, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba are no longer found in Canada due to the conversion of their habitat to cultivate crops. The loss of biodiversity, however, has numerous consequences on the environment. Loss of biodiversity can result in the loss of species that play an important role in an ecosystem or result in the addition of invasive species, which will change how that ecosystem functions,  hindering the production of ecosystem services.

How can we prevent intensive animal farming from destroying the ecosystem?

Showing more support to local farmers and encouraging the traditional way of raising livestock is a great way to start. Traditional animal farming practices have been better for the environment because the animals are allowed to move about freely and eat a natural diet, resulting in the release of fewer amounts of methane from their feces compared to the intensively reared ones. It is a more humane practice compared to intensive farming where animals are not given the minimum freedom to roam around. 

Reducing our consumption of animal products and eating more fruits and vegetables is another way to contribute towards conserving the ecosystem. Consuming less meat helps conserve animal species and increase biodiversity. We can start by deciding to reduce the daily consumption of animal products and incorporate more vegetables into our diet.  

From the farmers’ perspective, they can change the composition of the livestock diet to prevent methane emissions, for example: adding supplements and additives to the feed of livestock to reduce methane production in the gut of ruminants (Jayanegara, 2011). There are both natural and synthetic substances or compounds that can be added to the feed. Natural substances include the use of lipids, plant extracts, antibiotics, etc. They should properly manage animal waste to reduce the release of nitrous oxide and methane into the atmosphere by storing wastes in the appropriate containers and applying the right amount of them to agricultural soils. Doing so also helps to prevent manure runoff into water bodies, thus, avoiding marine pollution.

Last but not least, join the animal rights and animal ethics in your community to keep raising awareness about animal cruelty!


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McArthur, J.-A. (2020). Factory farming. From [Image]

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