Factory farming has been expanding in the U.S. over the last two decades, and the size of those farms has increased dramatically—dominating the market, squeezing out smaller producers and setting the agenda for farming practices—to the detriment of food consumers.

That's the conclusion of a new study, Factory Farm Nation: 2015 Edition, released by Food & Water Watch.

"Over the last two decades, small- and medium-scale farms raising livestock have given way to factory farms that confine thousands of cows, hogs and chickens in tightly packed facilities," says the report. "Farmers have adopted factory farming practices largely at the behest of the largest meatpackers, pork processors, poultry companies and dairy processors. The largest of these agribusinesses are practically monopolies, controlling what consumers get to eat, what they pay for groceries and what prices farmers receive for their livestock."

This is occurring as the public is marching in the other direction, as demonstrated by McDonald's declining profits, the positive public response to Chipotle's moving toward organic, non-GMO and locally raised products, and raised awareness of the issues around meat and dairy products containing growth hormones and antibiotics used for preventive purposes due to factory farming confinement practices.

Factory Farm Nation cites the power of agribusiness monopolies, along with what it refers to as "misguided farm policies," with causing factory farms to explode in size and adopt practices that are unhealthy for consumers and for the environment.

“As I documented in my book Foodopoly, corporate monopolies continue to run our food system, exercising unchecked power over the food that Americans feed their families," said Food & Water Watch executive director Wenonah Hauter. "As factory farms grow in size and number, so too do the problems they create, such as increased water and air pollution; fewer markets for independent, pasture-based farmers; public health burdens like antibiotic-resistant bacteria; and large-scale food safety risks for consumers.”

The report analyzes how much each type of factory livestock operation has grown, using U.S. Department of Agriculture data from 1997, 2002, 1997 and 2012, finding that both the size and number of such farms and the number of animals they raise has grown dramatically in most cases. Among other things, it found:

  • The total number of livestock on the largest factory farms grew by 20 percent between 2002 and 2012, increasing from 23.7 to 28.5 million. “Livestock units” measures animals based on their weight.
  • These livestock produced 369 million tons of manure in 2012, 13 times as much as produced by the entire U.S. population.
  • The number of dairy cows on factory farms doubled, and the average dairy factory farm size increased by 49.1 percent between 1997 and 2012. The number of cows on farms with more than 500-head grew 120.9 percent, from 2.5 to 5.6 million in that time.
  • The number of hogs on factory farms increased by 37.1 percent, and the average farm size grew 68.4  percent from 1997 to 2012.
  • The number of broiler chickens on factory farms—ones that sold more than half a million a year—grew 79.9 percent percent from 1997 to 1.05 billion in 2012 billion.  And the average size of U.S. broiler chicken operations rose 5.9 percent in the same period, from 157,000 to 166,000 birds. In California and Nevada, the average chicken farm raised more than 500,000 birds in 2012.
  • The number of egg-laying hens on factory farms with more than 100,000 birds grew 2.48 percent from 1997 to 2012. The average egg operations has grown by 74.2 percent in 15 years, to an average size of 695,000 birds in 2012.
  • The number of beef cattle on feedlots rose five percent from 2002 to 2012. The average size increased 13.7 percent from 2007 to 2012 and continued to grow despite the drought reducing the overall number of animals.

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Food & Water Watch provides an interactive map so you can visualize where these factory farms have grown and how they have expanded.

With the size of the operations comes political power that drives weaker environmental rules which allows their size to increase, creating a vicious cycle that gives consumers shrinking choices and puts them at more danger from food-borne illnesses.

“Waste from factory farms is an enormous problem, one that we cannot begin to curb through market-based approaches such as pollution trading, which will not actually stop factory farms from polluting our nation’s water ways,” said Hauter. “In reality, pollution trading simply moves the problem around, shifting waste to other watersheds, rather than tackling the issue that factory farms concentrate too many animals—and too much waste—in one place.”

"As factory farms grow in size and numbers, so too do the problems they create," said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch. Photo credit: Food & Water Watch

Food & Water Watch also made a series of recommendations. It suggests that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declare a moratorium on new factory farms and the expansion of existing ones, and enforce rules to prevent pollution, such as giant manure lagoon of unprocessed animal waste; that the Department of Justice block future mergers and consolidation of facilities to create still larger ones; that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ban use of antibiotics to prevent the spread of disease in overcrowded facilities; and that states crack down on the permitting and enforcement of water and air pollution regulations involving factory farms.

Food & Water Watch will call attention to its study results with an electronic billboard, Factory Farms Are a #LoadOfCrap, which will be on display in July in a location far from any factory farms: New York City's Times Square.

"Factory farms produce more than just the majority of the meat, milk and eggs we consume—they breed disease, misery and pollution," said Hauter. "In fact, every day, America’s factory farms produce enough waste to fill the Empire State Building."

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