The High Cost of Inexpensive Food: Factory Farming and Its Implications on the Global Food Supply

“More than any set of practices, factory farming is a mind-set: reduce production costs to the absolute minimum and systematically ignore or ‘externalize’ such costs as environmental degradation, human disease, and animal suffering. For thousands of years, farmers took their cues from natural processes. Factory farming considers nature an obstacle to be overcome.” – Jonathan Safran Foer [1]

Dusty red barns and languidly spinning windmills, plump cows and pigs feeding on green, rolling hills, chickens pecking at seed-strewn dirt.

These pastoral images mount themselves proudly on the fronts of milk cartons, eggs, and neatly trimmed packages of chicken thighs. They are so prevalent and familiar that we often forget that red barns and green pastures are old-fashioned—a nearly obsolete tradition of farming and meat production.

You and I know better. We’ve squirmed in front of grisly YouTube videos and chuckled guiltily while ordering through talking drive-thru boxes. We know that nowadays, it’s mere romantic nostalgia to associate the word farm with anything more than steel manufacturing factories. You and I know better, but it’s easier to pretend forgetfulness.

Bear with me here. Reach back into the darkened corner of your mind where you keep unpleasant, albeit very real, things. Hold the truth close for a moment. Here’s my attempt at reminding you and me just one more time:

The Animals

In 1920s, vitamins A and D were discovered. Many farmers added the vitamins to their animals’ feed after realizing this meant the animals would no longer require exercise and sunlight to grow. It was then possible for large numbers of animals to be raised indoors year-round. Subsequent years saw the use of mechanization and assembly line techniques to boost productivity and reduce operating costs.[2]

Needless to say, problems arose when farmers found that raising animals indoors in rigorous, factory-like conditions spawned disease among the animals. It was a perfect storm: the animals were being bred and fed to such extremes that sickness was becoming inevitable. But rather than soften these harsh farm conditions and accept a slightly lower standard for farm efficiency, the food industry compensated for the weakened animals with drugs.

Result #1: Farmed animals are now being fed antibiotics non-therapeutically–before they even get sick.[3]

Result #2: We are purchasing and eating animals at a lower cost and higher frequency than we have in the past several decades.[4]

The Humans

The system is designed so as to make us feel like all of it is far away and we’re safe. The meat arrives more or less on our doorstep: neat, packaged, and ready to eat with a sprinkle of salt. As long as animal welfare isn’t our primary concern, an omnivorous lifestyle is perfectly acceptable.

But that’s where it gets a little complicated. The harm factory farms inflict isn’t contained within steel factory walls; rather, it roars out in sweeping waves and into our very bodies.

The research is endless and writer Jonathan Safran Foer puts it aptly,

“Each case of foodborne illness cannot be traced, but where we do know the original, or the ‘vehicle of transmission,’ it is, overwhelmingly, an animal product. According to the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC), poultry is by far the largest cause…The next time a friend has ‘the stomach flu’–ask a few questions, he or she was probably among the 76 million cases of foodborne illness the CDC estimates occur in America each year.” – Eating Animals[5]

Obviously, we as humans are different from cows, pigs, and chickens. Most of us might believe that we are smarter, stronger, and far more superior in every way than them. But even the proudest human being must recognize the influence the modern farmed animal has on us. Their lack of nutrition and quality care literally sinks into our own bodies with every bite we take. Simply put, the distance between us and them does not exist.

All Of Us

And so it comes to pass that in just 70 years, a mere fraction of farming’s history, these disease-ridden, unsustainable, and cruel farms now produce more than 99% of the animals grown in the United States. With extremely minute exceptions, to speak about eating animals today is to speak about factory farming.

According to research by the Union of Concerned Citizens and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the numbers look like this:

3 million pounds:  3 million pounds of antibiotics are given to humans in the U.S. each year.[6]

17.8 million pounds: 17.8 million pounds of antibiotics are fed to U.S. livestock each year–at least this is the number the industry claims.[7] (The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that the food industry underreports the 17.8 million pounds of antibiotic usage by at least 40%).[8]

85%: These new farming methods have devastated rural communities by reducing the need for human labor–from 27.5 acres/worker in 1890 to 740 acres/worker in 1990.[9] That’s 85%.

At the end of the day, factory farming isn’t about feeding people, it’s about money. It may be an oversimplification, but ask yourself if there’s a bit of truth in that statement. Given the above scale, it makes sense that the choices we make when we eat and produce food have a staggering impact on animal suffering, global warming, and our own health than anything else we do. Why would we even be given the option, if not for the monetary benefits?

As Farm Forward[10], a nonprofit advocacy group promoting conscientious food and farm choices, puts it, “Modernized farming was a good idea, but turning farms into factories was simply a mistake. It’s a recent mistake and, together, we’re going to correct it.”
To close with one more quote from Foer’s book:

“I’m not suggesting our reason should not guide us in many ways, but simply that being human, being humane, is more than an exercise of reason. Responding to the factory farm calls for a capacity to care that dwells beyond information, and beyond the oppositions of desire and reason, fact and myth, and even human and animal.”[11]

Interested in reading, watching, or hearing more?  Give the following resources a try:


· “Boss Hog” by Jeff Tietz

· Scientific American: “U.S. Pig Farms May Be ‘Flu Factories” by Eliza Barclay

· NPR: “Assessing Consumer Concerns About The Meat Industry”

· New York Times: “Dear F.D.A.: Stop Drugging Animals” by Mark Bittman


· Food Matters: You are what you eat

· Farm Forward

· Meatless Monday


· Forks Over Knives

· Food Inc.

· Supersize Me

· Farmageddon


· Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer

· The China Study by T. Colin Campbell

· The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan

· Animal Factory by David Kirby

[1] Foer, Jonathan Safran. Eating Animals. New York: Little, Brown and, 2009. Print.

[2] “Facts: Factory Farming.” Facts: Factory Farming. In Defense of Animals, n.d. Web. 02 Oct. 2012. <>.

[3] Foer, Jonathan Safran. “Eating Animals Is Making Us Sick.” CNN. Cable News Network, 28 Oct. 2009.

[4] “Frontline: Modern Meat.” PBS. PBS, n.d. Web.

[5] Foer, Jonathan Safran. Eating Animals. New York: Little, Brown and, 2009. Print.

[6] “Welcome to Farm Forward.” Home. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Oct. 2012,

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] “Demographics.” EPA. Environmental Protection Agency, 27 June 2012. Web. 02 Oct. 2012,

[10] “Welcome to Farm Forward.” Home. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Oct. 2012,

[11] Foer, Jonathan Safran. Eating Animals. New York: Little, Brown and, 2009. Print.

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Sarah Yoo

Sarah Yoo is the associate director of Life & Health but wears a few dozen hats as other this-and-thats, as is the norm in non-profit work. Her favorite part about working at Life & Health is meeting the people that Life & Health content has helped. Ultimately, Sarah dreams of doing humanitarian work in a developing country with her family.

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