Clearing the confusion on ‘factory farms’

May 31, 2017


That was my reaction to the level of misinformation in a recent New York Times op-ed calling on the incoming World Health Organization director-general to crack down on health and environmental challenges associated with animals raised for food.

The blame is laid on “factory farms” – a term I like to refer to as the “double F bomb.” Who knows what the authors’ definition of a “factory farm” is, but it’s become a catch-all for everything that some people perceive as being wrong with modern farming technology.

The article perpetuates claims that have been previously debunked or clarified, but since they’re being cited again, let’s look at a few of them point by point.

  • The World Health Organization (WHO) now classifies processed and red meat as carcinogenic.
    This is a reference to a report from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a body under the umbrella of the WHO. The report sounds scary until you put it into context with every day practices and products classified as carcinogenic. For example, sunlight, wood dust, alcoholic beverages, nightshift work, working as a barber, and high-temperature frying are all listed as “carcinogenic” or “probably carcinogenic.” It’s important to understand that IARC panels look at “hazards,” whereas regulatory agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration evaluate actual human “risks.” IARC does not assess how likely a person is to actually get cancer or how high the exposure level would have to be for the hazard to become a true risk.
  • Humans are unwittingly consuming antibiotics in low doses from the meat we eat.
    This misconception is perpetuated by those wanting to increase fears about antibiotic use in food animals. There are multiple systems and strict government regulations in place to be sure foods from animals treated with antibiotics are safe to eat and drink. Farmers must adhere to specific withdrawal times that have been established to ensure that no meat containing unsafe residue enters the food supply. The FDA, Department of Agriculture and food companies routinely test meat for unsafe antibiotic residue and violations are very rare.
  • Ban the use of growth-promoting antibiotics in farm animals.
    We all recognize that the development of resistance to antibiotics and the resulting loss of their effectiveness poses a serious public health threat. Farmers, veterinarians and regulators in the United States collaborated to find solutions. Specifically, we’ve already stopped using medically-important antibiotics for growth promotion in farm animals. Keep in mind, there are real dangers in going too far in restricting antibiotic use in food animals. One WHO official put it this way when asked about antibiotics used in animals that produce food: “If we lose that ability, we perhaps begin to lose the ability to have adequate food supplies in the world.”
  • Factory farms generate more greenhouse gas emissions than all forms of transportation combined.
    This is a reference to information in a 2006 United Nations report challenged by University of California-Davis professor Frank Mitloehner. He contended meat and milk production generates less greenhouse gas than most environmentalists claim and that the emissions figures in the report were calculated differently from the transportation figures resulting in an “apples-and-oranges analogy that truly confused the issue.” The U.N. acknowledged Mitloehner’s point was valid and its numbers were wrong. Leading scientists in the U.S., as well as the EPA, say livestock production in the U.S. accounts for only 4.2 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions compared to 27 percent by transportation.
  • Meat eaters are responsible for twice the greenhouse gas emissions of people on plant-based diets.
    This is such a silly argument. The reality is that a growing number of people around the world are no longer growing their food – they’re buying it. And, they can now better afford and prefer to eat meat. Plus, meat is an excellent source of protein, vitamins and nutrients essential for any healthy diet. There are studies that show children that have a source of animal protein at a young age (meat, milk and eggs) have higher IQs. A better question might be one posed by the World Bank – “What if all livestock farmers could become as efficient as the top 10 percent?” Livestock farmers in developed countries have significantly lessened their environmental impact. This expertise needs to be implemented around the world.

To meet the growing global demand for food while protecting the environment, the focus of all food producers must be on smart production: doing more using fewer natural resources through innovation and the responsible use of technology, which farmers have been doing for decades.

There are a growing number of choices for consumers today. We can buy conventional, local, or organic food and people with access to land can enjoy the harvest of their own gardens. But suggesting that a certain type or size of farm is inherently better than another is an over simplification. Safe, nutritious, and affordable food is produced all kinds of ways.

The public has a right to expect farmers to operate responsibly in delivering food that is safe, healthy and affordable. But those who suggest we need to reject modern farming methods and return to practices of the “good old days” are risking unfortunate unintended consequences that would hit poorest populations the hardest.

I welcome your thoughts and questions. Please feel free to send me an email at or call me at 844-288-3623. You can also browse our Resource Library to learn more about this important topic.