June 18, 2003
by Dennis T. Avery , Tom Elam
The Worldwatch Institute, an environmental activist group, has a new doom story: the rise of “factory farming” in the Third World. Worldwatch’s Danielle Nierenberg writes that the production of low-cost pork and chicken on modern confinement farms overseas as an unmitigated disaster characterized by abused animals and a countryside ruined by the wastes from hog herds and poultry flocks.
Worldwatch should start, however, by applauding the improved nutrition available to Third World children because of modern livestock production. The lower-cost feed supplies (generated by today’s high-yield seeds and fertilizers), and the healthier birds and animals (protected by indoor facilities and modern veterinary medications) give millions of kids high-quality protein and key micro-nutrients such as calcium, iron, zinc, and vitamin B-12 from meat, milk, and eggs.
Without livestock products, infants are likely to suffer bone deformities, delayed cognitive development, and other nutritional problems. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control recently concluded that two infants raised and breast-fed by vegan mothers suffered retarded development due to serious deficiencies of vitamin B-12.
Fortunately for the Third World’s kids, meat consumption in the past twenty years increased seven-fold in China, five-fold in Mexico and Brazil, and more than three-fold in the Philippines. This is possible partly because of rising incomes, and partly because modern farms can raise chicken on only 75 percent as much feed and 10 percent as much farmland as is needed by the traditional farmers.
Ms. Nierenberg of Worldwatch paints a rosy picture of pastoral family farms raising a few free-range chickens and/or outdoor hogs under sunny skies and the careful eye of the peasant farmer. Then, she claims, giant corporations came along and built polluting mega-farms that put the small farmers out of business.
She’s left out a few things: The backyard farmers expose their birds and animals to predators, parasites, bad weather, and diseases. The confinement farmers don’t.
The traditional farmers’ birds and animals produce manure and urine at the same rates as the birds and animals in confinement. From the small outdoor farms, these wastes wash into the streams with every storm event. The fact that a million chickens are distributed on 10,000 small farms doesn’t make the wastes disappear. But the confinement farms save their wastes and spread them carefully as organic fertilizer to nourish the crops in the fields. The wastes turn from an environmental negative into an eco-asset.
Then there’s the problem that the peasant farms would need far more land to raise the livestock—land which would have to be taken away from wildlife. If the Third World put all of its 500 million hogs outdoors, at four hogs per acre, the hogs would need another 125 million acres, a land area equal to all the cropland in China.
China, in fact, has 430 million hogs, 26 percent of the world’s people, and only 7 percent of its arable land. This is why its hogs are kept in small pens. No nation in the world puts hogs out in pastures any more because hogs root and wallow and cause enormous soil erosion and stream bank destruction in addition to their water pollution.
The world currently feeds about 150 million tons of grain and oilseeds to its broiler chickens, virtually all of them are raised indoors. Outdoors, the birds suffer more from heat, cold, and stress, which retards their weight gain. Also, we’d need another 50 million tons of feed per year—and might have to clear another 30 million acres of the world’s scarce wildlands to raise the extra feed.
Of course, if we actually put the birds and animals back on peasant farms, the cost of meat would again become so high that few people could afford it. The price for giving up “factory farms” would be borne by the little kids who didn’t get enough meat, milk, or eggs for good health.
It’s no accident that the criticism of modern farming comes from the best-fed people in the history of the world. They are spoiled by the good fortune that allows them to take their good diets for granted. What would Ms. Nierenberg write if she spent a few years living on one of the outer islands of the Philippines, earning $500 per year, and eating mostly rice and corn?
Those who really want to help the poor of the world should be helping Third World farmers increase their productivity, not lower it.
Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.
Tom Elam is an associate Lecturer at Indiana University, Indianapolis and is an adjunct fellow with the Hudson Institute. Formerly he was Chairman of Elanco’s Market Research Committee of the U.S. Animal Health Institute.
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