animals for food and other human uses, such as producing leather, wool and even fertilizer. This type of farming primarily applies to cattle or dairy cows, chickens, goats, pigs, horses and sheep but it is also increasingly relevant for other animals such as donkeys, mules, rabbits and insects such as bees which are now being raised as part of livestock farming¹.
Livestock farming has been a part of human society for most of history, ever since humans started domesticating animals to make their life better. But as with most forms of farming, such as agriculture, livestock farming too has intensified, particularly in recent decades. This has allowed the goods of livestock farming to become more widely available and cheaper to buy; which is particularly important if you think that staples such as milk, honey, eggs and meat are all products on livestock farming. However, the practices of intensive livestock farming have had on several occasions given a lot of concern in terms of food safety, animal welfare and environmental impacts – to the extent that livestock farming is often referred to as “factory farming” ².
Advantages of intensive livestock farming
At face value, it is hard to discount the importance of this industry: the direct contributions of livestock farming to the economy are estimated at about 883 billion dollars¹ and this does not account for the services that rely on it, ranging from butchers, retailers, transport companies to feed producers and equipment manufacturers. Beyond its economic value, livestock farming supports the livelihoods and provides food security to almost 1.3 billion people³. Today, it is one of the fastest growing sectors of the agricultural economy³. This has been made possible through the increasing intensification of livestock farming practices which have helped increase yields and efficiency while bringing down costs. For example, the practice of concentrated animal feeding operation, or CAFO, means farmers can rear more animals by confining them in concentrated areas maximizing the potential of the land area they have at their disposal⁴. In other words, pigs, cows, chickens, and other livestock are kept in a very small area of land which makes livestock easier to manage while increasing output for a smaller amount of land.
Disadvantages of intensive livestock farming
At the same time, we cannot discount the increasing animal welfare, environmental and health concerns that the intensification of livestock farming brings. When it comes to animal welfare, cost saving techniques often have an impact on the health and wellbeing of the animals. Legislation in many countries and regions, such as the European Union and New Zealand, recognises animals as “sentient beings” and not merely commodities which means that they can experience emotions, including pain and distress. This means that it is not accepted that animals reared as livestock should live under strenuous conditions. Unfortunately, practices where animals are transported long distances to market under inhuman conditions or slaughtered in painful ways still persist.
Media and civil society still report cases where animals are raised in pens so cramped for space that as a result mean that they grow up to be limp or with severe health problems⁴.
At the same time, the often very crowded conditions under which livestock animals are kept in intensive farming, means that the animals are more susceptible to diseases. In low- and middle-income nations, 13 livestock-related diseases that can affect humans causes up 2.4 billion cases of human illness⁵. In an effort to ensure animals do not contract diseases, farmers use antibiotics which in the long-term lead to the evolution of bacteria and the rise of drug-resistant pathogens.
Environmental problems of intensive livestock farming
In terms of the environment, it is fairly well-known that livestock sector accounts for 14.5% of human-induced greenhouse-gas emissions, exceeding that from transportation⁶. Moreover, animal waste and discards is often not treated appropriately with farmers often disposing their waste in rivers where they pollute the water and threaten the ecosystem’s biodiversity⁷.
While there are clear challenges to intensive livestock farming, the need to address food security and undernutrition as well as sustainability concerns has led to the expression of the concept of “sustainable intensification”. As the name suggests, this concept seeks to marry the need to maintain livestock farming activity with an eco-friendly approach which supports high animal welfare standards. In this respect, some innovative companies, such as DeLaval, which provides equipment to dairy farmers, have identified ways in which to maximise animal welfare and in so doing increase a farmer’s productivity.
For example, DeLaval provides a swinging cow brush which rotates on contact at an animal friendly speed. It swings freely in all directions, smoothly up, over and alongside the cow stimulating blood circulation whilst helping cows to keep clean and calm.
This is important as a study by Cornell University showed that increases in blood circulation means better animal health while another study showed that cows using this brush exhibit 35% lower rates of clinical mastitis and higher lactation⁸.