The perils of intensive farming

Image credit: Dreamstime

Factory farming isn’t new, but we're are only now realising the effects it can have on us and our environment. With other European countries ahead of the game, it's time for Britain to act.

Researchers and industry often overlook the consequence of intense factory farming on the environment. It seems we know very little about what these practices do.

In theory, we know that these practices can exacerbate issues with our water, air pollution and deforestation. However, there are surprisingly few research papers that examine the local impact. The benefits of a ban for animals are reasonably obvious. Intensive farming can be inhumane, and organisations like Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) claim to have plenty of examples. But what do we know about its wider effects?

A quick online review reveals very little academic research. One paper from 2005 examined the effects of concentrated animal feeding operations on air and water quality. The author, Warren A Braunig, argues that regulatory structures are poorly prepared to address the cross-media pollution and that corporate meat producers must generate information about their emissions.

Another paper from 2013 calls for an ‘ethical relationship’ with the environment and says "this is much more than a pollution problem". Broader research estimated that the food supply chain is responsible for 26 per cent of annual anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, according to a 2018 peer-reviewed meta-analysis.

Further searches on SSRN, a platform for early-stage academic research, also disappoint. It lists only 33 papers for the search term ‘factory farming’. Research seems insufficient. Even the United States Environmental Protection Agency may be behind the curve. Guidance by Pace University in New York criticised the EPA for having not yet researched factory farm runoff property or implemented any form of regulations.

I interviewed Phil Brooke, the research and education manager at the not-for-profit UK organisation CIWF. Brooke says we need more research into the environmental outcomes of intensive farming. He worries about ammonia in the air, that dust particles can cause respiratory disease in the air, antibiotic-resistant bacteria emerging, and the eutrophication of rivers or the seas. Specifically for the UK, researchers found evidence of surface nitrate pollution in intensively farmed regions. All of these topics deserve more attention.

Not research but journalism reported on the effects of poultry farming to the Welsh countryside, last year. It leaves a pretty grim picture on satellite images, too.

The UK is hooked on intensive chicken farming and previous estimates from 2017 claim that there are an estimated 1,313 intensive livestock facilities across England. A Guardian piece from last year claimed that these intensive farms contribute to pollution in local Welsh river systems.  

The organisation Wales Environmental Link, an environmental NGO, said that phosphate, nitrogen and ammonia pollution cause serious damage to sensitive habitats, rivers and air.

One commentator from Wildlife Trusts Wales said that algal blooming in the [River] Wye made it look like a 'pea soup' in the summer. By looking at space imagery, we can become witnesses to the development.  For a journalism presentation last year, I gave the matter more attention.  

Let's start with what do we know. The earlier the blooming starts upstream, the thicker it is at the bottom of the river in Ross-on-Wye, the Forest of Dean and Wye Valley. That helps to locate the area of interest on a map. 

Where are the poultry farms? From the reporting it appears density is particularly high in the Welsh county of Powys, with 116 intensive poultry units, each raising more than 40,000 birds.

How to track algal blooming? There are JavaScript scripts that help researchers to visualise it. We can apply it to open-source satellite planforms such as Sentinel Browser. One script is dedicated to revealing algae blooming (on how to work such a scrip, see this tutorial here). The example below shows algal blooming in Lake Utah in the US.

Lake Utah in the summer

Image credit: Sentinel 2

We can compare algal blooming for Claerwen Valley, close to Forest of Dean and Why Valley and upstream of River Wye. We can see it progressing between 2018 and 2020 (the more green, the more algae is detected in water bodies). We do this for the same period to ensure comparability. In the case below, we compare data for September.

Sentinel 2 sat images

Image credit: Sentinel 2 sat images

We can do this also for a large part of the river and see that for September of 2020 - compared with 2019 and April 2018 - the river increasingly moved from light blue to green.

River Wye

Image credit: Sentinel 2

We can walk the extra mile and use machine-learning techniques to ‘count’ the algae spread in the river near where intensive poultry units were reported.

AI to count algae

Image credit: Picterra, BenHeubl

Intensive beef farming is coming to the UK

Previous investigation highlighted an increase in intensive beef farming across the UK. In 2018, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism Investigation (TBIJ) highlighted how industrial style beef farming is a growing concern. At the core of the problem are lucrative opportunities for so-called ‘economies of scale’. The trend to larger farms is down to efficiency, a representative at the National Beef Association explains. In 2019, the UK had an estimated 800 mega-farms, up by a quarter compared to 2011, the Guardian investigation revealed.

Consumers are alarmed. A recent poll by the Soil Association, an activist group and charity that opposes intensive farming, found that among a non-representative sample of 1,000 respondents, eight in ten expressed concern that ‘US-style’ industrial farming is on the rise in Britain. Two out of five respondents demand a ban on intensive pig and chicken farms.

One regulatory problem to complicate oversight of intensive beef farms is that they don’t require the same government permits that large intensive pig and poultry farmers need. 

For cattle farming in the UK, Brooke would like farms to be less intensive and to use grass [for the cattle]. “That would be our ideal”, he says.

In its 2018 reporting, the TBIJ shows images of farms, but fails to specify names or the owners of the farms. A reverse image search suggests that one farm portrayed in TBIJ’s reporting is the Beckhithe farm. It's one of the largest cattle farms in the country.

Shortly after the investigation was published, the Eastern Daily Express ran an article and defended the owners against criticism of its industrial-scale agriculture.

Waitrose, a high-end supermarket chain being supplied with their beef said Beckhithe Farms performs "up there in the top 5pc across the board".

The owner of another farm, the Berryfields Farm, has also come under fire. Video evidence released from an investigation of the Northamptonshire farm last year by the advocacy group Animal Justice Project (AJP) suggested neglect and ill treatment of animals.

The bad publicity was costly. Major firms suspended meat supplies sourced from Berryfields Farm following the mistreatment claims. The owner has denied wrongdoing.

Open-source intelligence research shows the owner, a farmer with the name John Bell, to have been previously active in showing off the efficiency of his supply chains. In a post from 2017, the National Beef Association stated on Facebook that Bell will showcase the "benefits of a fully integrated beef supply chain. “John is a great advocate of co-operation and has been a key player in founding several integrated supply chains over his 35 years within the beef industry”.

What to do?

Brooke says he sees the biggest problems not in beef but in other intensive farming sectors. For Britain, he is most concerned with intensive farming with "pigs, poultry, dairy". If you'd include the US, he would also add beef farming. 

To get rid of the worst kinds of industrial farming, regulators must act. The industry must get rid of things like intensive broiling in sheds, with very fast-growing broilers with very high stocking densities, he explains. 

Intensive farming

Image credit: CIWF, E&T

CIWF acquired data to show where intensive farming is most densely distributed across the country (see E&T’s graphic).

Regarding hens, farmers should get rid of cages and preferably maintain a free-range and organic approach to farming.

Regarding pigs, he demands they should be kept outside longer for breeding. Pigs kept indoors must be provided with straw. It would also help to reduce ammonia output, he says.

For dairy, he would like to see cows to eat more grass and less concentrate [mixes] and avoid systems that keep them inside all the time.

Other European countries have been busy putting regulations in place to address shortcomings, he says. Sweden maintains laws to keep dairy cows a minimum period outside on pasture. For broiler chickens, the government could try regulating to limit stocking density per square metre, he says.

Across the rest of Europe, there is progress. Czech Republic banned cages for hens last year. Legislative changes are already underway in other parts of Europe, including Slovakia, Germany, Austria,and Luxembourg - Germany and Slovakia committed to prohibiting cages by 2025 and 2030, respectively. Such developments put pressure on the UK. “The idea that Britain is ahead of the game on these things is not true. That gives me hope that the government, who wants to have high standards [like other countries], will in time, do this”, he says.

Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.

Recent articles