Factory farms are expanding into developing countries, bringing these nations a wealth of environmental and public health concerns, finds a new paper by the Worldwatch Institute. And the environmental and health hazards of factory farms are only part of a global issue affected by increasing global meat consumption, tighter environmental standards in developing countries and international trade, according to Worldwatch Institute researcher Danielle Nierenberg.
"Factory farming methods are creating a web of food safety, animal welfare, and environmental problems around the world, as large agribusinesses attempt to escape tighter environmental restrictions in the European Union and the U.S. by moving their animal production operations to less developed countries," said Nierenberg, author of "Factory Farming in the Developing World."
In her paper, published in the May/June 2003 edition of "World Watch," Nierenberg notes that global meat production has increased more than five times since 1950 and factory farming is the fastest growing method of animal production worldwide. Feedlots are responsible for 43 percent of the world's beef, Nierenberg writes, and more than half the world's pork and poultry are raise in factory farms.
Meat consumption "has been perceived as a measure of social and economic development," according to the author, and two thirds of the gains in meat consumption in 2002 were in the developing world.
Economies of scale and rising demand have helped factory farms become the dominant force in meat production, but the environmental and health concerns of operations with capacities often in excess of one million animals are severe.
Water pollution from animal waste runoff is a serious environmental and public health problem, as is the widespread use of antibiotics to speed up growth. Agricultural interests say these concerns are often overstated and that pollution runoff from factory farms can be - and is - often properly managed. But a growing number of individuals in the developed world, in particular the United States and Europe, are not convinced.
With increasing pressure for stricter environmental standards and a shift away from factory farming, it is not surprising that meat producers are looking abroad for less oversight and cheaper production costs.
Nor is it surprising that some developing nations are eager for economic boost factory farms appear to offer.
Factory farms are expanding the former Soviet Union, Mexico, India, China and the Philippines, Nierenberg says. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization finds that Asia has the fastest developing livestock sector.
Nierenberg hones in on the Philippines as the main case study for her paper, identifying a range of threats from large scale factory farms. The Philippines is an emerging center of largescale livestock production and processing in the developing world.
And these operations, Nierenberg writes, threaten the survival of the nation's indigenous livestock and contribute to groundwater pollution, the spread of food-borne illnesses, and antibiotic resistance.
Annual production of poultry has increased five times since 1980 in the Philippines, but most family farmers have been forced out of business or into adopting factory farming methods. The stock of native Filipino chickens has nearly been wiped out, Nierenberg reports.
But the economic benefits of these businesses tempt many to look the other way when faced with the environmental and health consequences.
The Philippines now houses Asia's largest pig rearing operation, producing some 100,000 hogs a year. Local water supplies near these hog farms have been polluted and local residents have "named the river where many of them bathe and get drinking water the River Stink," Nierenberg writes.
"Apart from the stench, some residents have complained of skin rashes, infections and other health problems from the water. And instead of keeping the water clean and installing effective waste treatment, the farms are just digging deeper drinking wells and giving residents free access to them."
The residents, Nierenberg explains, fear losing this water supply so they remain quiet about the smell and health effects of the hog farming operations.
The myriad of forces that have brought factory farms to the Philippines and to other developing nations will make this a difficult trend to reverse. International regulations on factory farming and improved zoning to minimize environmental impact can help, Nierenberg writes, but a much greater cultural and social shift is needed to stem the growing tide of factory farms.
"Changing the meat economy will require a rethinking of our relationship with livestock and the price we are willing to pay for safe, sustainable, humanely-raised food," Nierenberg says. "Preserving prosperous family farms and their landscapes, and raising healthy, humanely treated animals, should also be viewed as a form of affluence."
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