The middle of a worldwide food crisis may seem an odd time to worry about a system that's delivered enormous amounts of relatively cheap and reasonably high quality food. But in fact long-term sustainability issues lie at the heart of decisions we'll need to make going forward, because the current system poses unacceptable risks to public health, the environment, our rural communities and the welfare of the animals themselves.
That's the conclusion of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, which recently released its report following two and a half years of work. After meetings held around the country, public hearings, on-site visits, input from stakeholders and reams of scientific papers, the troubles have become far clearer.
We've gone from a system where a family farm might have 50-100 hogs and a few chicken coops, to gigantic farms with up to 50,000 pigs or 10 million chickens. Unfortunately, with the economies of scale have come equally scaled up problems.
The intensive confinement practiced in these industrial settings sets the stage for rapid disease transmission that can quickly wipe out an enormous numbers of animals. And to make matters worse, the stress of the confinement itself can increase the incidence of disease. To stem that, antibiotics are given so imprudently that while one problem is solved, another one - antibiotic resistance - is created, leaving at risk a critical line of medical defense against disease.
Meanwhile, communities near such huge facilities may suffer from groundwater contamination or air emissions that can cause respiratory and neurological problems, especially in the most vulnerable - children and the elderly. Yet because modern farming remains scrutinized under the old model, it is largely exempt from federal and state industrial exposure monitoring, inspection and disease reporting.
The environment suffers greatly as well. The tremendous quantities of waste far overwhelm localized systems of treatment and absorption. The concentrated chemicals and excess nutrients find their way into our lakes, rivers and streams, ultimately robbing them of oxygen and killing aquatic life, while spreading pesticides, heavy metals and antibiotics.
It's also becoming impossible to ignore the welfare of the animals themselves, from both the scientific and ethical points of view.
Numerous studies have shown that animals so confined that they can't even turn around, for months on end, become more susceptible to and more likely to spread disease.
But beyond that, we now know that modern farming need not be inconsistent with treating even our food animals in an ethically decent fashion. A 2005 study by an association representing a majority of the country's egg producers indicated that switching to a cage-free barn system, rather than battery cages where six hens spend their lives in the area of a file drawer, would increase the cost of an egg by less than a penny.
And finally we have to come to grip with the impact of industrial farming on rural life. With the current system slanted toward livestock processors who control the contracts under which many animals are raised, farmers become locked out of open and competitive markets. Few benefits of the corporate owners flow back to the rural communities, leaving farm families on an increasingly narrow treadmill.
The good news is that we can take steps toward solving all of these problems. We can eliminate the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics, implement a better disease monitoring system, treat industrial farm waste properly, phase out the most inhumane confinement practices, provide a level playing field for strapped farm families and increase funding for animal agricultural research.
The appearance of food being cheaply produced because of benign industrial farming is deceptive. In fact, the costs have been pushed elsewhere - to money spent on the growing problem of increased antibiotic resistance, to the price for cleaning up the pollution of rivers and streams, to the impoverishment of rural areas and to a system that treats animals so poorly it impacts human health. It's not a model we can afford to maintain.
ROBERT P. MARTIN is the executive director of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production.