What if…we banned the intensive farming of animals?

Hazel Healy imagines a world without cheap meat, eggs and dairy.

Credit: Andy Carter

The grey blocks rising out of Yaji mountain in southern China look more like offices than farms. Pigs will spend their lives inside buildings up to nine-storeys high, confined in pens under strip-lights, stacked 1,270 to a floor. Piglets are shuttled up and down in lifts, corpses disposed of by chute.

These ‘hog hotels’ are just one example of industrial-livestock operations, which produce some 50 billion animals every year. Ever since its invention in the US and Western Europe some 100 years ago, the industry has been hell-bent on producing meat with grim efficiency – faster, fatter, and at ever-lower unit cost.

But there are signs Big Livestock may be in trouble. The pandemic wreaked havoc on meat supply chains, inflicting heavy losses, as sales of plant-based meat substitutes exploded. In an ever-more resource-constrained world, Goldman Sachs thought industrial livestock’s prospects so shaky it named it the only commodity ‘as precarious as oil’.

So, let’s capitalize on this moment to imagine how we might we bring this shameful chapter in animal-human relations to a close…

Public support for a phase-out could come from any number of quarters.

Pressure might build from a new public-health scare – perhaps the emergence of a powerful pathogen in the style of salmonella, or, worse still, another zoonotic disease, which jumps from overcrowded chicken sheds.

Or the industry could be taken down by climate activists. We now know the top five meat corporations emit more greenhouse gases than the oil giant ExxonMobil. Already, campaign group Feedback Global is calling for divestment, moving to name and shame the industry’s major financial backers who channelled $126 billion into the meat and dairy industry from 2015 to 2020.

Action will have to be global – and balanced. To kick-start things a ‘factory-farming non-proliferation treaty’ and immediate end to development finance of industrial farms in the Global South would be needed to stop ‘off-shoring’.

Then, hot on its heels, a set of legally-binding targets – perhaps tied to the Paris climate deal – would provide a roadmap for reducing industrial meat production to zero within the decade. We could start by capping numbers of animals per hectare on farms in those countries where meat consumption per capita is highest – like the US, Canada, Australia, as well as Brazil and parts of Europe. And roll it out worldwide, building in loss and damage provisions for vulnerable economies.

The phase-out would reduce global meat supplies by two thirds. But the impact would be concentrated in countries such as the US where the average citizen eats over 100 kilograms (equivalent to 50 chickens) every year, 99 per cent of it factory farmed.

Meat would become a luxury again across most of the Global North and for affluent classes in middle-income nations. Fast-food chains would pivot fast to plant-based junk food. But creative government interventions will be needed to cap demand and reverse what academic Tony Weis has coined the ‘meatification of diets’. These might include targeted public procurement to make nutritious planet-friendly diets affordable (think: beans, lentils, nuts and seeds, more vegetables), with schemes to ration out the remaining meat, eggs and dairy, and promote alternatives.

Here governments have a trump card to play: redirecting the vast sums of public money that prop up animal farming (both livestock and feed crops). In the EU, this would release up to $38 billion-worth of subsidy to fund a transition to new, sustainable options for farmers, workers and consumers.

In the Global South it’s a dramatically different story. The end of mega-farms would go all but unnoticed in places such as Ethiopia, where the average person eats seven kilograms of meat per year and smallholders supply 98 per cent of milk.

For communities where protein and micronutrients run low, development funds should be used to bolster access to land for pastoralists, improve the health, diversity and fodder for small herds – buffalo, cattle, goats, camels or alpacas – raised for the most part on marginal lands. The 30 per cent of arable soils currently given over to monocultures for animal feed could be returned to its indigenous owners, across large areas of the Americas and Australia say, or used to grow calories for direct human consumption. Pressure will ease on Brazil’s Cerrado grasslands and the Amazon rainforest.

Come 2030, the beef feedlots, industrial dairies and barns of broilers and layers would have disappeared from the face of the Earth. De-industrialization would continue, until all animals are in small herds or flocks integrated into mixed farms, eating a mix of antibiotic-free foods and returning concentrated nutrients to the fields where they breathe fresh air, experience the passage of day into night and the rhythm of the seasons.

This article is part of the Food Justice files, a dedicated one-year series that is funded by the European Journalism Centre.