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Beyond Protein FactoriesChris Hartlove

Beyond Protein Factories

Our taste for cheap meat has industrialized agriculture, drained natural resources and hurt our health. There has to be a better way.

At the 172-acre, family-run One Straw Farm, they know their animals by name. There's Easy, the world's most energetic duck-chasing Labrador; Houdini the Spanish goat; and Carl the Berkshire pig.

Considering he'll eventually be somebody's bacon, Carl is living the swine equivalent of the life of Riley. No pens for Carl; instead he bunks down with 20 of his piggy buddies in a converted hay-strewn greenhouse, where huge hay bales on three sides serve as windbreaks. There's not a single antibiotic coursing through Carl's body. His feed is completely free of genetically modified organisms. Heck, he even gets an occasional beer (a Corona last time, no lime) with his slop. Carl will spend his final weeks living off acorns, foraging in the near wild in woods adjoining the northern Maryland farm. Seen through a meat eater's lens, it's an idyllic setting, as humane as animal production gets.

But it begs two questions: Is this a viable alternative to the modern approach to industrial food animal production? If not, do we need to revisit the demand for meat?

Our taste for meat is literally changing the American landscape. The farm belt is mostly corn and soybeans for animal feed-reducing biodiversity and diminishing the soil, says CLF's Robert Lawrence.

The numbers tell the tale. Most people choose to eat meat. In a 2010 paper, economists estimated that 2 percent of the U.K. population was vegetarian. In the U.S., a 2012 Gallup poll found that roughly 5 percent of Americans were vegetarians. A 2008 report funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that the average American ate 221 pounds of red meat and poultry in 2005. For many societies, the growth in wealth is reflected in the amount of meat they consume: According to U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization data, China's rising middle class has caused more than a 22-fold increase in yearly meat production since 1980. It's not the One Straw Farms of the world that have made this protein-palooza possible. Instead, it's the rise of industrial food animal production (IFAP).

IFAP is the assembly-line organizing principle driving so-called Big Ag, particularly the growth of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Unlike tiny One Straw Farm's score of pigs, a large CAFO, as defined by EPA, processes at least 2,500 swine, 1,000 head of cattle, 125,000 chickens or 10,000 sheep or lambs. Many CAFOs are much larger. (See page 7.) This industrial revolution of farming, which mostly has taken place since the 1970s, allows roughly 40 U.S. poultry companies to process 9 billion broiler chickens annually.

It also has made the retail price of meat more affordable. In 2005, Americans spent 2.1 percent of their annual income on red meat and poultry-half of what they spent in 1970, according to the Livestock Marketing Information Center. Reduced prices helped Americans increase their red meat and poultry consumption by almost 14 percent from 1970 to 2005.

Many would see more affordable meat as a good thing; however, public health researchers say IFAP has immense hidden costs. Environmentally, animal waste effects are enormous. IFAP-confined animals produce more than three times as much waste annually-500 million tons-as humans, according to the 2008 Pew report. Most surface water and shallow ground-water pollution by IFAP is through spraying waste on fields and excess manure application to croplands. The waste can overwhelm soil capacity for absorption, polluting waterways and creating algal blooms that suck the oxygen out of water and create fish-killing "dead zones." Air pollution by ammonia and hydrogen sulfide, as well as by danders, endotoxins and dried manure, is also a major problem.

CAFO waste and CAFO-produced meat put humans at risk for antibiotic- resistant infections and other serious medical issues. IFAPs use a tremendous amount of antibiotics prophylactically at sub-therapeutic doses. (Some 80 percent of antibiotics in the U.S. are used in animal production, most administered through feed or water.) "The majority of the antibiotics sold for use in food animals are the same ones we use in clinical medicine," says researcher Keeve Nachman, PhD '06, MHS '01. "That's a big part of the worry." Numerous investigations at the Bloomberg School and elsewhere are looking at the effect of all these antibiotics and their impact on human health. (See page 14.)

In addition, significant ethical issues involving animal treatment exist. In many cases, the animals live and/or meet their demise in appalling conditions. An October 2013 Washington Post story, based on USDA data, found that instead of being euthanized, "nearly a million chickens and turkeys are unintentionally boiled alive each year in U.S. slaughterhouses."

Equally disturbing are so-called gestation crates, intended to manage conflict between sows in the crowded conditions of CAFOs and to protect piglets from being crushed by the sow. The crates, which tightly confine sows, limit movement and all normal behaviors. Though they're being banned in many countries, University of Missouri researchers found in 2012 that, in U.S. CAFOs handling 1,000 or more sows, more than 80 percent of pregnant sows were put in gestation crates. A Humane Society of the United States report found that pregnant swine were so confined that they "could not turn around." The result? Distress, disease and deformities.


  • Lloyd Martin

    California 02/25/2014 05:11:36 PM

    Couldn't agree with you more. This policy has destroyed the farming infrastructure and otherwise good health of nations that rely on America for food, like Jamaica that imports over 80% of food from America. It is no wonder that Jamaica leads the world in the highest incidence of prostate cancer. I am one of them who was fortunate to survive. see

  • Carol Newill, MD PhD

    United States 03/05/2014 08:43:22 AM

    Fantastic issue. Have forwarded it to friends who moved from Baltimore to a 12+ acre farm in Delta, Pennsylvania in 2009 to establish Sunnyside Farm. They raise chickens, turkeys, pigs, cattle "organically." The poultry live in movable pens that are moved over the fields so the birds can eat fresh food directly from the pasture, and in turn fertilize the fields. Our family buys a weekly share of delicious chickens and eggs from Sunnyside Farm, which we pick up in Towson. The meat goes further when you can trust that the bones and gizzards are free of extraneous chemicals and can be used safely to feed your family.

  • Ursula Connolly, MHS

    Mill Valley, CA 03/10/2014 04:01:24 PM

    As an alumna of the JHBSPH, I look forward to receiving this magazine every month. It rarely disappoints me with its well-written and incredibly interesting articles about the amazing work Hopkins' faculty and alumni are doing on cutting edge public health issues all over the world. This issue, however, was so impressive that I wanted to write in to thank you. Living in Northern California, food and where it comes from is a topic that many of us are familiar with, but I am flummoxed, baffled, amazed, that so many educated, political citizens in this country do not seem to be aware of, or care about the dire consequences that are the result of the agri-businesses controlling our government's food and farm policies. People do not seem to realize that we all NEED to make changes. And we need to make them now. To see these words, written in plain English from a top notch, unbiased, school of public health gave me a tiny bit of hope that perhaps some people will start to pay attention to these crucial issues. Thank you and congratulations Johns Hopkins for another stellar issue of this excellent public health magazine.

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