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Globalized Factory Farms a Major Threat to Public Health & Environment

Science Vol. 310. no. 5754, pp. 1621 - 1622
December 9, 2005

Losing the Links Between Livestock and Land

Rosamond Naylor,1,2* Henning Steinfeld, 4 Walter Falcon,2 James
Galloway,5 Vaclav Smil,6 Eric Bradford,7 Jackie Alder,8 Harold Mooney,3

The industrial livestock sector has become footloose--no longer tied
to a local land base for feed inputs or to supply animal power or
manure for crop production. Spatially clustered within and among
countries, this sector is expected to meet most of the income-driven
doubling in meat demand forecast for developing countries by 2030
(1). Large-scale, intensive operations, in which animals are raised
in confinement, already account for three-quarters of the world's
poultry supply, 40% of its pork, and over two-thirds of all eggs (2).
International trade in meat is also expanding; during the past 15
years, annual trade volumes have increased by 5.5% for pork and 8%
for poultry (3). Livestock remains the world's largest user of land,
but its use has shifted steadily from grazing to the consumption of
feed crops. Unfortunately, environmental and resource costs of
feed-crop and industrial-livestock systems--often separated in space
from each other and from the consumer base--remain largely
unaccounted for in the growth process.

Figure 1 International linkages in supply and demand of livestock
products, 1992-2003 (3). Mmt, millions of metric tons.

Industrializing and globalizing livestock systems have hinged on
declining real prices for feed grains; advances that have improved
feed-to-meat conversion efficiencies, animal health, and reproduction
rates; relatively cheap transportation costs; and trade
liberalization. The most dramatic shift has been toward the
production of monogastric animals, such as chickens and hogs, which
use concentrated feeds more efficiently than cattle (or sheep) and
which have short life cycles that accelerate genetic improvements.
The average time needed to produce a broiler in the United States was
cut from 72 days in 1960 to 48 days in 1995, and the slaughter weight
rose from 1.8 to 2.2 kg (4). Meanwhile, feed conversion ratios (FCR,
kg feed per kg meat) were reduced by 15% for broilers and over 30%
for eggs (5). Annual growth in hog and poultry production in
developing countries was twice the world average in the 1990s (2). By
2001, three countries--China, Thailand, and Vietnam--accounted for
more than half the hogs and one-third the chickens produced worldwide
(1). Brazil is also a major producer and is expected to become the
world's leading meat exporter.

Virtually all of the growth in livestock production is occurring in
industrial systems-- a trend that has been evident in the United
States for several decades. Industrial poultry and pork operations
are largely uniform worldwide, which facilitates a rapid transfer of
breeding and feeding innovations. Larger firms typically control
production from animal reproduction to the final product, mainly to
minimize economic and pathogen risks. As these firms increasingly
supply major retail chains, corporate attention is directed toward
food safety and the production of homogeneous (yet diverse),
high-quality products. In addition to scale, industrial livestock
operations have become concentrated geographically in areas where
input costs are relatively low; infrastructure and access to markets
are well developed; and in many cases, environmental regulations are
lenient (6).

The most striking feature of this geographic concentration is the
delinking of livestock from the supporting natural resource base.
Feed is sourced on a least-cost basis from international markets, and
the composition of feed is moving up the chain from agricultural
by-products to grain, oil-meal, and fish-meal products that have
higher nutritional and commercial value. Although FCRs for chickens
and hogs on an edible weight basis are roughly one-fifth and
one-third, respectively, that of cattle (whose diets include
rangeland forage, crop residues, and by-products) (7), monogastric
diets are richer in cereal and legume feeds, which compete with food
crops for land and water.

Future land needs for industrial livestock production are potentially
great. For example, a balanced Chinese diet of the early 1990s
containing 20 kg meat per capita per year was produced from an
average land area of just over 1000 m2/capita, whereas a typical
Western diet required up to four times that area (7). China's meat
consumption, consisting mainly of pork, is increasing rapidly with
income growth and urbanization; it has more than doubled during the
past generation (3). If the world's population today were to eat a
Western diet of roughly 80 kg meat per capita per year, the global
agricultural land required for production would be about 2.5 billion
hectares--two-thirds more than is presently used (4). Continued crop
intensification could offset some of this land requirement, but would
also have consequences for water use and nutrient pollution even if
precision agriculture were widely practiced.

Land conversion in the Brazilian cerrado (grassland) and rainforest
exemplifies the large impacts of such growth on ecosystems and the
environment (8). Cultivated soybean area in these parts of Brazil
doubled over the past decade to 21 million ha and is expected to
expand by another 40 million ha, or perhaps more if current Amazonia
deforestation rates continue (9). These areas are supplying feed to
the growing livestock industry in Brazil, China, India, and other
parts of the world with unmeasured and often irreversible
consequences on biodiversity, climate, soil, and water quality (see

Industrial livestock operations also require large amounts of water,
especially for feed production, and water quality is reduced through
the release of nutrients, pathogens, antibiotics, and other chemicals
via return flows. Nitrogen and phosphorous run-off results from both
crop fertilization and animal production with the delinking of
production systems. Animal waste consists mainly of water, which
makes long-distance transportation of untreated manure from livestock
facilities to fields unprofitable. Nitrogen volatilized and leached
from field crops and animal wastes has become a major source of
aquatic dead zones, noxious odors, and ecological change (10).
Industrial livestock expansion in China, Thailand, and Vietnam along
the South China Sea is contributing to red tides and degrading water
and sediment quality in one of the world's most biologically diverse
shallow-water marine areas (1).

Expanding trade in meat products obscures the environmental and
resource costs of livestock production, particularly for meat
importers. Globally, trade in livestock products as a share of total
production has almost doubled to 11% during the past 25 years (3).
Steady growth in meat trade has resulted from advances in
transportation, container systems, and cold storage technology;
increasing specialization of production and processing operations;
heightened consumer demands for product cuts, quality, and safety;
low energy costs; and reduced trade barriers (2). Meat importers pay
the direct costs of production and transportation, but do not pay the
external resource costs, such as degraded water quality or
biodiversity loss, which remain largely unaccounted for in the
delinked livestock-crop systems.

A recoupling of crop and livestock systems is needed--if not
physically, then through pricing and other policy mechanisms that
reflect social costs of resource use and ecological abuse. Such
policy measures should not significantly compromise the improving
diets of developing countries, nor should they prohibit trade. They
should focus instead on regulatory and incentive-based tools to
encourage livestock and feed producers to internalize pollution
costs, to minimize nutrient run-off, and to pay the true price for
water. They also need to be accompanied by other methods to reduce
the waste burden, such as the use of enzymes and synthetic amino
acids to improve feed conversion (11). Without improved policies on
waste treatment and on land and water pricing, net importers of meat
and feedstuffs will continue to tax the resource base of exporting
areas, either within the same country or abroad.

As an example of recoupling, the Netherlands has experimented with a
set of policies that includes a tradable quota for hog production,
manure disposal contracts, and a nutrient accounting system that
tracks nitrogen inputs and outputs per farm (12). The cost to
producers has been roughly $4/hog--33% more than in the most
restrictive U.S. states (2). Owing to high administrative and
production costs, these output controls will be replaced by limits on
fertilizer and manure use in agriculture in 2006 (12). In the United
States, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program in the 2002 Farm
Bill provides funds for livestock producers to redesign manure pits
and treat wastes (13). Cost-sharing programs exist at the federal and
state levels to improve water management, to plant buffer strips, and
to introduce combined chemical and irrigation systems. Waste
discharge from livestock systems is regulated through the Clean Water
Act at the federal level, and some states, such as Nebraska, enforce
tougher restrictions than the federal standards (14,15). Although
these measures are a step in the right direction, other states, such
as North and South Carolina, have more lenient environmental
restrictions on livestock, and producers throughout the United States
do not pay the true economic and ecological cost of water use and
nitrogen runoff.

Although efforts to recouple are being pursued in some rich
countries, the challenge is more daunting in developing countries
where environmental legislation tends to be weak and funds for
incentive-based programs are limited. Introducing codes of conduct,
including careful siting of livestock operations, could reduce waste
problems, and certification programs could be developed to encourage
improved husbandry practices. In areas where new land is being
cleared for feed crop production, such as Brazil, the costs of losing
biodiversity and ecosystem services such as climate regulation should
be considered explicitly in development plans. A strong political
will is needed in all cases to implement conservation and
environmental policies at the partial expense of producer income and
foreign exchange earnings.

At a global scale, linking livestock to land would require the
difficult task of harmonizing production, resource, and waste
standards at higher levels than are seen in most countries currently.
If the major meat-and feed grain-producing countries were to invoke
strict environmental and resource standards, international meat
prices would almost surely rise, perhaps slowing the increase in
demand. Such a transition would be made easier politically if
consumers increasingly demanded meat products based on sound
environmental practices. In a global economy with no global society,
it may well be up to consumers to set a sustainable course.

References and Notes

1. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO),
Livestock Policy Brief 02 (FAO, Rome, 2005).
2. J. Bruinsma, World Agriculture: Towards 2015/2030: An FAO
Perspective (Earthscan, London, 2003).
3. FAO, Statistical database; ( (accessed
20 May 2005).
4. V. Smil, Popul. Dev. Rev. 28, 599 (2002).
5. J. Arthur, G. Albers, in Poultry Genetics, Breeding and
Biotechnology, W. M. Muir, Ed. (CABI Publishing, Cambridge, MA, 2003).
6. D. Hearth, A. Weersink, C. Carpentier, Rev. Agric. Econ. 27, 49
7. V. Smil, Feeding the World: A Challenge for the Twenty-First
Century (MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2000).
8. P. Fernside, Environ. Conserv. 28, 23 (2001).
9. United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), "The Amazon:
Brazil's final soybean frontier";
(accessed 1 August 2005).
10. J. Galloway et al., BioScience 53, 341 (2003).
11. National Academy of Sciences, "Nutrient requirements of
domestic animals"; ( (accessed
20 September 2005).
12. O. Oenema, P. Berentsen, "Manure policy and MINAS: Regulating
nitrogen and phosphorus surpluses in agriculture of the Netherlands"
(OECD, Paris, 2005);
13. USDA, Natural Resources Conservation Service;
( (accessed 20 May 2005).
14. EPA, National pollutant discharge elimination and effluent
limitation guidelines (EPA, Washington, DC, 2003).
15. Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality
( (accessed 20 May 2005).
16. The authors thank M. Burke, E. McCullough, K. Oleson, T.
Wassenaar, A. Hoekstra, T. Oki, A. Chapagain, H. Peters, J. Gaskell,
A. Priest, K. Classman, and M. Shean for helpful comments; and the
Stanford Institute for the Environment for funding.

1 Julie Wrigley Senior Fellow, 2 Center for Environmental Science and
Policy, Stanford University; 3 Department of Biological Sciences,
Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305, USA. 4 Animal Production and
Health Division, FAO Headquarters, 00100 Rome, Italy. 5 Department of
Environmental Sciences, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA
22904, USA. 6 Department of Geography, University of Manitoba,
Manitoba R3T 2N2, Canada. 7 Department of Animal Science, University
of California at Davis, Davis CA 95616, USA. 8 Fisheries Centre,
University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC V6T 1Z4, Canada.

*Author for correspondence. E-mail: