The following essay is about farming and it consists of four parts. At first I will illustrate the processes that have taken place in the transition from family farming to industrial livestock farming. The second part will be about the economic advantages modern farming implies for humans and the negative influences it has on animals. Thirdly, I will introduce some measures that have been taken over the last few decades to reconcile the human benefits of such farming methods with the suffering they cause to animals.
Finally, I will show that some resulting compromises between commerce and the animal welfare movement have marked a step forward, but that there is still a lot to be done in order to enhance the life of farm animals.
Farm animals are being taken off the fields and the old lichen covered barns are being replaced by gawky, industrial type buildings into which the animals are put. […] The sense of unity with [the farmer’s] stock which characterizes the traditional farmer is condemned as being uneconomic and sentimental. […] Factory farm animals are assessed purely for their ability to convert food into flesh, or ‘saleable products’. (p. 1)
This is how Ruth Harrison (1964) describes the shift from traditional family farming to modern farming methods like industrial livestock farming.
Having a closer look on this shift, one can see that in early modernity from about 1500 to 1800 farm animals were part of a farm’s community. They lived much closer to their owners than nowadays, it was even common to live with ones animals under the same roof in so called “long-houses”. Furthermore, most farm animals were given names and some farmers knew their cattle so detailed, that they were able to identify them by their hoof prints (Thomas, 1983, p. 94).
Besides, animals served not only as food, but also as instruments for labour on the acre, and most farmers bred animals for personal consumption or for local markets (Thomas, 1983). This rather idyllic method of farming began dying out in the middle of the 19th century, when the industrial revolution started in western Europe. Therefore, especially in Great Britain, urbanization led to bare rural areas. Most farmers were no longer interested in farming and expected better and wealthier lives in the steel industries of the big cities (see Berlanstein, 1992). This resulted on the one hand in a decrease of people working in the agricultural sector and on the other hand in a remarkable increase of farm sizes, because farmers remaining on their farms suddenly had to come up for former farmers, who moved to the cities (K. Stafford, farming, August 13, 2009).
Increasing farm sizes resulted in new forms of animal husbandry. Webster (1998) sums up this development appropriately, even though he refers to a time between 1920 and 1930:
The single key [exposing] all the differences between the modern, industrialised livestock farm and traditional, sustainable but subsistence farming is that the output of the factory farm is no longer constrained by what can be produced off the land it occupies. Most or all of the inputs to the system – power, machinery and other resources – are bought in so that output is constrained only by the amount that the producer can afford to invest in capital and other resources and the capacity of the system to process them. (p. 98)
Accordingly, the general result of the invention of agricultural science after World War II then was a raising production of crop and animal based foods. Besides knowledge in fertilizing and seeds, the so called Green Revolution, dated in the 1950s, led to an increasing productivity and mechanization on the farms. This progress is continuing constantly up to today. In practical terms it means computer-operated, effective feeding, automatic milking, use of vaccines, growth hormones and antibiotics, ventilation and air conditioning. (K. Stafford, farming, August 13, 2009)
This development leads us to the economic advantages of industrial livestock farming for farmers and the negative consequences it implies for farm animals.
The economic advantages of industrial livestock farming for farmers are resulting in a large extend from the innovations mentioned above. In this context, John Webster (2005) points out that factory farming became cheaper, faster and more efficient, when farmers decided to process feed through animals using machines than to let the animals do the work for themselves, for instance by harvesting their own food and spreading their own manure. Thus, after having managed the high set-up costs for buildings and equipment, running costs remained low and cheap energy as well as other resources from off-farm were able to increase output.