The rising tide of factory farms: A look at the growing impact on animals, environment, and farmers

There has been a 29 percent increase in cattle farms with 5,000 or more cattle since 2012, and a 17 percent increase in the largest chicken farms.


The landscape of American agriculture is undergoing a dramatic transformation, as revealed by the latest federal data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Released every five years, the recent report sheds light on the 1.9 million farms and ranches covering over 880 million acres, marking a significant decrease in both the number of operations and the land they encompass since 2017. This shift is attributed to the continued expansion of factory farming, a trend that has sparked renewed calls for policy reform from critics and environmentalists alike.

Anne Schechinger, the Midwest director of the Environmental Working Group (EWG), expressed concern over the findings, stating, “The USDA’s new data show that without policy changes, factory farms will continue to get bigger and bigger, wreaking havoc on public health, the environment, and the climate.” The report’s state tallies and other details highlight a worrying increase in the size and number of factory farms, particularly those raising cattle and broiler chickens.

The growth of factory farms is evident in the numbers. According to the USDA’s Census of Agriculture data, there has been a 29% increase in cattle farms with 5,000 or more cattle since 2012, and a 17% increase in the largest chicken farms. The report also noted a significant rise in the number of animals produced in these large-scale operations, with 28% more cattle, 24% more hogs, and 24% more chickens produced in the largest facilities in 2022 compared to 2012. This escalation in factory farming has led to a corresponding increase in the number of animals raised, with 1.7 billion animals now being reared on U.S. factory farms annually, a 6% rise since 2017 and a 47% increase from 2002.

The environmental and public health implications of this surge in factory farming are profound. Factory farms, or concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), are known to produce vast amounts of animal waste, which often leads to pollution of water and air. The 24,000 U.S. factory farms generate an estimated 940 billion pounds of manure annually, an amount double that of the sewage produced by the entire U.S. population. This waste not only poses a threat to environmental health but also contributes to the emission of methane and nitrous oxide, potent greenhouse gases that exacerbate climate change.

The rise of factory farms has also had a significant impact on small dairies and family farms, many of which have been unable to compete with the scale and efficiency of large operations. The number of small farms raising animals outside the factory farm system has plummeted, with barely one-third as many today as there were 20 years ago. This decline has not only affected the agricultural landscape but also the fabric of rural communities, leading to a concentration of profits in the hands of a few large corporations at the expense of family-scale farmers.

In response to these challenges, there have been calls for legislative action to curb the growth of factory farms and address their environmental and societal impacts. The Farm System Reform Act, reintroduced by U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), aims to place a moratorium on large factory farms, strengthen regulations on monopolistic practices in the meatpacking industry, and restore mandatory country-of-origin labeling requirements. Rep. Khanna emphasized the need for reform, stating, “These bills shine a light on the disturbing practices in our current system and can help usher in a new, safer, and more resilient system.”

As the debate over the future of American agriculture continues, the call for change grows louder. Amanda Starbuck, research director at Food & Water Watch, succinctly captured the sentiment of many advocates and critics of factory farming, declaring, “Enough is enough—Congress must pass the Farm System Reform Act to ban factory farming now.”


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Alexandra Jacobo is a dedicated progressive writer, activist, and mother with a deep-rooted passion for social justice and political engagement. Her journey into political activism began in 2011 at Zuccotti Park, where she supported the Occupy movement by distributing blankets to occupiers, marking the start of her earnest commitment to progressive causes. Driven by a desire to educate and inspire, Alexandra focuses her writing on a range of progressive issues, aiming to foster positive change both domestically and internationally. Her work is characterized by a strong commitment to community empowerment and a belief in the power of informed public action. As a mother, Alexandra brings a unique and personal perspective to her activism, understanding the importance of shaping a better world for future generations. Her writing not only highlights the challenges we face but also champions the potential for collective action to create a more equitable and sustainable world.