eliminating factory farms: impossible or just diffiicult?

Cecil makes a strong argument that, while giving up meat would certainly free up lots of resources, it would be difficult to convince people to give up meat willingly. But difficult doesn’t equate to impossible. Consider what huge strides have been made in convincing people not to smoke cigarettes, or drive while intoxicated. We’ve managed to dramatically change those behavior in large percentages of the population over the last few decades. Why couldn’t the same happen with meat consumption? I’m not suggesting that we would ever reach 100% vegetarian, any more than you’d expect 0% drunk driving, but it certainly seems possible that we could cut meat consumption in half, or even lower.

So, if we managed to cut meat consumption down to 20% of current levels, would that free up enough resources that we could eliminate factory farming?

Alternatively, if the problem is that we used to need 39 farmers to grow enough food for 1,000 people and now we get by on just 7 farmers, then couldn’t that be addressed by simply convincing 3.2% of the population to switch back to being farmers? They wouldn’t even have to be full-time. The same could be accomplished by asking 12.8% of the population to work 10 hours per week farming in their own backyard vegetable gardens. I heard something about vegetable gardens in Cuba. It seems they were so successful that over half of the food eaten in Havana is grown inside the city limits. The Cubans did it, why can’t the rest of us?

It seems to me that either of these changes would accomplish the OP’s goal and certainly both of them together would accomplish it. So, let’s not be so quick to say it’s impossible, just lay out what would be required and leave it up to the reader to decide how difficult it would be to convince people to try it.

Why could we not reach 100% vegetarian? This is like saying 200 years ago that we cannot reach 100% slave-free. Of course we can, this is the way morality is heading and we are almost there. I bet anyone that in 50 years mammal consumption will be prohibited in the EU, and the rest of the world will follow.

smoking and drunk driving kill people. that’s why those campaigns have been so successful, particularly the case of drunk driving, backed up by stiff criminal penalties.

eating meat doesn’t. can’t imagine a government criminalising meat-eating.

I’ll bet you a steak dinner it doesn’t happen.

165 million of acres is roughly montana. It does not seems to me that at the level of a state it is ridiculus to imagine to go back to 1955, so why the juvenile dream?

Slavery still exists. It isn’t always called slavery, but involuntary servitude is very much alive and well in the world today.

While I understand that there is a segment of vegetarians who want to outlaw the consumption of animal protein I don’t think that will ever happen.

And why just mammals? Don’t you think birds are capable of suffering?

If it’s going to happen, and I think meat-eating will never go away entirely, it will happen slowly with reasonable-sounding changes that will gradually make meat consumption too expensive or taboo for the average person to continue regularly.

Things like saying that antibiotics can only be given to sick animals instead of being given as a matter of course, forbidding certain animal from being eaten due to intelligence/rarity/health/etc, putting stricter USDA rules on time to expiration of meat, ending subsidies on grain that goes to feed animals, requiring more space per animal on a farm… all of these sound reasonable (and some of them are even good ideas anyway), but they will have the effect of slowly driving up prices on meat. And that’s probably the thing that will most cause factory farms to be eliminated - people eating less meat because it costs more.

I don’t think Cecil properly answered the question, which was: is it possible to feed America or the world without factory farms? To which the answer is clearly, yes. It is possible to feed everyone with less-intensive agriculture. It would involve disruptions of existing agriculture as well as societal changes–like, yes, eating less meat–but the world wouldn’t be doomed to starve.

I eat meat. I like meat. I want to keep eating it. At the same time, it would behoove all of us/policymakers especially to weigh the total true cost of providing cheap eats now versus health and environmental problems later.

It won’t happen of course.

With all due respect to Mr. Adams, this has been one of the worst columns I have seen.

This is demonstrably false considering all the yogas teachers in India historically convinced a ‘significant chunk’ of Hindus to become vegetarians, and even after the cultural exchange between India and the West, as of 2006, nearly a third of the country remains pure vegetarians with another 9% eating eggs but no other meat. Cite. So Indian vegetarians alone make up 5% of the global population. About 3 - 5% of the population of OPEC nations are vegetarians. I did not see data on Africa or South America though, but I would venture about 10% of the global population are vegetarians. I would consider that a significant chunk, and yogas teachers still have not spread across the world yet.

There is no ‘later’. If we do not deal with them now, there very well likely will not be a ‘later’. The retail price may not reflect the true costs, but they factor into the total social costs we face through environmental degradation and lead to higher prices for other goods, and higher taxes when governments have to clean up messes by private enterprises.

In practical terms then, a valid plan would be to lower current consumption to a humane and sustainable level. A modest goal would be to strive for the global average of about 42 kilos per year (or just 4 oz of meat per day, which seem like a generous amount). Requiring producers to factor in their real costs would help raise the price and lower demand. The rise of social accounting is helping to determine more accurately those costs and the mindful producers are pricing accordingly. The growth of ‘humane’ butchers (yes, I know the irony of the term, but still preferred over the alternatives) such this shop shows that many are willing to pay the true price.
Personally, I pay that gladly. Especially if I get this over this.

The fact that Americans think they can continue to eat nearly 200 lbs of meat per year, and encourage other countries to do likewise, is an obscene fantasy. Far better to strive for sustainability than to pursue blatant unsustainability. Plus it tastes so much better!

Last note, on the chart linked above, I noticed how little meat consumption is in Islamic countries that only prohibit consumption of one animal. Eating large amounts of meat is a cultural practice regardless of our genetic abilities, and one of many that is changing as our world is starting to mature and we realize how fragile our ecosystem is.

That sounds like a perfectly viable business strategy. “Socialize costs, privatize profits.” You only have to survive to next quarter’s revenue report, after all. And when it all collapses, the ones with the money will also be the ones with the guns. So the ones that matter (in their own eyes) are the ones that are more likely to survive.

You’re right. And also completely wrong, because the people who actually decide these things prefer Plan “B”: “Screw y’all, I’m getting mine.” Or, more elegantly, " Après moi, le déluge."

And never underestimate the power of denial: “That won’t happen. You can’t convince me it’ll happen. Even if you prove it, I won’t believe it.”

So hypothetically we get people to eat 50% less meat (which is close to the 40z per day mentioned above.) The market demand for meat shrinks drastically. So why would the supply suddenly go back to a more resource intensive, less efficient method of production? It likely allows for a specialty meats branding like Kobe beef that creates a sub-market but that doesn’t eliminate all factory farms. Most of the market will still be served by the most efficiently produced meat under whatever the situation is.

I think Cecil is mixing up cause and effect by saying that we can’t maintain current levels of meat production without factory farms. Americans eat more meat than they used to because it’s so cheap. Make it more expensive (as moving away from factory farming will definitely do), and they will eat less of it. There’s no necessity to maintain current levels of production, just to meet demand, which will fall with price increases. I don’t understand that argument.

Impossible, especially if we are counting ‘factory farms’ as more than just those that produce meat (which I assume is the broader definition of factory farming). There is zero chance that we could feed the worlds population using non-factory farming methods. Personally, I think Cecil punted on this one by focusing only on the meat aspect, where obviously he WANTED to say that eating meat is not good and we shouldn’t do it, while conceding that, yeah, there is no way we are going to stop and in fact the opposite trend seems to be happening, where as countries get more prosperous their consumption of meat goes up, not down. Even in India, the model of vegetarianism afaik less than half of the population is vegetarian, and in India ‘vegetarian’ does not necessarily mean vegan (i.e. a lot of folks who label themselves as vegetarian still eat some animal based products like milk).

I think we COULD cut meat consumption in the US in half, but that the real factor will be the market and not based on pie in the sky ‘we should eat less meat because it’s good for you!’. When the price of meat goes up to a certain point you’ll see folks shift away from every day consumption of meat to something else, but it won’t be because vegan types are all angst ridden about killing animals or because it’s good for everyone, it will be because people don’t have the extra money for the luxury of meat every day. Basically, the reason why meat consumption in the US used to be lower than today is because people had less disposable income to spend on having meat every day with every meal…and the reason why meat consumption world wide has gone up is because countries that used to have large numbers of subsistence level poor now have populations with disposable income (and meat consumption is seen by many as almost a status symbol, thanks in part by the US who has gone over board on eating meat with every meal).

Not a chance, even if you are only talking about meat production. You still can’t feed the worlds craving for meat with non-factory methods by simply cutting consumption by 20%, even if you could do that (and I think that IS possible, but it will be because of price not because of most other reasons given by vegans or veggie types for not eating meat). And, of course, this will do nothing to change the necessity for factory farming for non-meat agricultural products.

The basic premise is flawed. The questioner in the article cited is focused solely on meat production, it seems, and so misses the broader point that factory farming is what feeds the Earth’s teaming billions…and nothing short of large numbers of humans dying off is going to change that back to the bad old days. I think you COULD lower meat consumption in the US (I think it will happen), but it will be due to economics and the market not health concerns or angst over animals dying, and even if you shifted this in the US I don’t think it would matter, as consumption globally will fill the gap. I seriously doubt you’ll ever get a majority of humans to eat all vegan or all vegetarian, and that goal is unrealistic, but lowering consumption is certainly more than possible…we’ll probably see it happen in the US at some point as the price of meat continues to go up.

I think this is a very good point. If meat consumption does go down, it’s not going to be due to moral concerns but due to money.

And in the long run, I’m not particularly sure that such a thing is ever going to happen. Across the world, incomes rise over time, and I’d be surprised if the price of meat outstrips general inflation. My feeling is that vegetarians are fighting an uphill battle, with meat consumption going to rise around the world for a long time. I can’t really imagine a future wherin people are prosperous and wealthy and choose not to eat meat.

I think you misread what I wrote. I said “cut meat consumption down to 20% of current levels”, not “cut consumption by 20%”.

Do you have some calculations to back that up? How about a cite?

Cecil said “producing a pound of beef is dozens of times more resource-intensive than producing a pound of whole-grain bread”. I’m not sure what he meant by “dozens”. Let’s use a factor of 24.

Let m represent the amount of resources it takes to produce enough meat to feed a person who is 100% carnivorous. If the average American eats 1/3 meat and 2/3 vegetarian, then our total consumption is m/3 + ((2/3)m/24) approximately 0.361m. But if we could convince the average American to cut back to 1/12 meat and 11/12 vegetarian, then total consumption is m/12 + ((11/12)m/24), which is approximately .122m. The ratio of these two consumptions is nearly 3 to 1.

Which means we could afford to feed 3 times as many people using the same resources and the same methods, OR we could feed the same number of people with 1/3 the resources using the same methods, OR we could feed the same number of people with the same amount of resources if we switched to farming methods which are only 1/3 as efficient.

He may well have wanted to say that eating meat is not good, I am not sufficiently familiar with his views to know. But I really have to work at eating enough fruits and vegetables. My own inclination is meat, dairy products, nuts. I do not know why, but I am a protein junkie. I have a cousin who is vegan, and she’s sickeningly healthy at almost 62. But she has a hard time finding people who are on her wavelength as far as veganism goes. It really is not common. Veganism is the center of her, around which all her choices are made. She travels the world, adventuring, but she won’t go here because they hunt whale, and she won’t go there, because… etc. I keep stopping myself from telling her, “You know… all these wild animals are really aware of being on the food chain. That is their existence. They are predators and they are prey.”

She thinks she’s making a difference for them, so let her.

Excellent point there. If we reduce the demand, naturally the supply would simply adjust to accommodate the new levels and there’d be no pressure to actually change the farming methods. So what would be required is some other kind of pressure. Like, for example, if there was a law which forced factory meat farms to pay through the nose for all the resources they consume hence causing the price of factor-farmed meat to actually go higher than organic free-range meat, then people would choose the latter instead of the former. But there’d be less meat to go around, so people would have to be content with eating less of it.

It looks obvious to me that what I just described is, in fact possible. If you want to argue about whether it’s likely to happen, whether it’s a good idea, whether it does or doesn’t fit with your ideals about how the world should be, then that’s another discussion. But could it physically be done, without anyone starving? Heck yes, it could.

The question the OP didn’t ask is this: Could we also do the same thing with factory vegetable farms? Would it be physically possible to have everyone grow enough veggies in their own back yard that we could shut down the factory vegetable farms (by whatever means you care to imagine) and still be able to feed ourselves, without anyone starving, and without needing to reduce the size of our population? I’m not sure about this one, but my back-of-the-envelope calculations above leads me to say yes, it could be done.

The OP makes a good point about smoking. I bet most industries hold up what happened there as a cautionary tale. That’s why we have lobbies. If anyone says anything that may harm said industry, there is a well-heeled lobby there to fight back, with their own facts. If doctors and nutritionists and other influential people say eating red meat is bad for you, the beef lobby is there to dispute those statements with their own facts. And if that starts to fail, they roll out how many jobs would be in jeopardy if we stopped eating beef. Look what happened to Oprah when she said she would never eat beef again.

Look at the coal industry now - everyone knows burning coal is bad, but the new spin is “clean coal” that is not as bad as the old coal. Saying soft drinks have no place in a healthy diet, that industry comes out with “Mixify” to help spread the word of healthy soft drinks part of a good diet.

As long as lobbies have plenty of funds, it will be tough to convince people to change habits, regardless of facts.

Good luck with that, then. This is like saying we can increase solar to 80% of our total energy production. It’s a hollow statement of wishing, not based on any sort of reality connected to the real world. Realistically, you might get meat consumption down some percentage in the US from what it is today, but drop it to 20% of what it is today? No chance short of a major economic down trend that renders most of the country so poor they can’t afford meat anymore.

All of this misses the point, which is even if you could do this you wouldn’t be reducing factory farming, since the beans or wheat or whatever you are replacing the meat with will also be factory farmed, except for the rich yuppy types who can afford to eat premium ‘organically farmed’ foods which are much more resource intensive (thus, why they cost more to produce and why only rich yuppy types can afford it). I think attempting to extrapolate from Cecil’s one liner there is essentially worthless in calculating how much additional farm land could be re-purposed to produce more veggies instead of animals for consumption. In a lot of cases farm animals are grazed or fed on waste and only finished with corn or grains when they are ready for processing, so you aren’t going to get even close to a 1 for 1 re-purposing of land. And regardless you will still have to factory farm to feed the worlds billions as there is no way to use organic farming methods or small scale farming methods to feed so many people, so it’s kind of a moot point even if it wasn’t a moot point in any case because you aren’t going to get down to 20% of today’s meat consumption in the US or probably anywhere else, nor are you going to get folks on board with demonizing meat in the same way they have cigarettes. If you want to continue to think that’s realistic then that’s fine…there are lots of folks on this board who think that we’ll have 80% (or some equally unrealistic number) of our energy produced from solar someday soon as well, so you are in good company.

The entire notion of going back to small, individual farms is nothing more than a variation of “back t the land” and/or Five Acres and Indendence… and those who want to return to that backbreaking, low-profit lifestyle are welcome to do so.

We can’t feed 7 billion people with small farms, not any more than we can build airplanes in bicycle shops, cars in blacksmith shops or iPhones in a suburban garage.

Reducing meat and other economically/ecologically-inefficient foods is a completely separate issue from what it appears to be tangled with here, which is Ain’t It Fuckin’ Awful That Giant Corporations Own Farms. Get Uber it…