Why the expression “Factory Farming” is not particularly helpful

By Christian DürnbergerMesserli Research Institute, Unit of Ethics and Human-Animal Studies (Vienna, Austria) and Institute Technology-Theology-Natural Sciences, Ludwig-Maximilian-University Munich, Germany

People in the chicken meat industry often face questions and criticism from those concerned about modern farming and animal welfare.  It is sometimes difficult to communicate our thoughts and values effectively simply because of the emotional aspects of the concern.

These discussions centre on value judgments and ethical considerations, not black and white economic or scientific matters.  In this context, the expression “factory farming” often gets used to describe modern agricultural practices.

In this article, Christian Dürnberger, our Guest Blogger from Austria describes why this term “factory farming” may not be helpful in promoting a constructive debate about farming practices and animal welfare.


This blog was first published in German on 13 April 2015 on the website www.gefluegel-thesen.de operated by the Information Group – German Poultry.  It is reproduced here with the kind permission of the author.

“Factory farming” is not a descriptive term.  Those who use it would like to accuse rather than describe in a neutral manner.

As early as the 1970s, when the expression first appeared prominently in debates, it served as a catch cry to make the point in a clear manner regarding the negatively perceived overdevelopments associated with a certain kind of agricultural system.  The associations that the term raises are clear and unchanged to this day: too many animals in too small a space; animal cruelty; inappropriate animal husbandry; in short a production animal husbandry which is aimed exclusively at maximising profit and does not care about the individual wellbeing of the animals.

Young meat chickens

Ideal image of agriculture as paradise removed from technology

Saying this, I do not mean to imply that those critical of “factory farming” necessarily seek to retain a dreamy and soft image of agriculture, but one thing has to be clear: whenever certain forms of agriculture and livestock farming are discussed and judged, more than clearly quantifiable criteria are being considered; these debates always play out before a very influential background of ideas which are rarely made explicit and which therefore often tend to hinder the discussions rather than assist them.The “factory farming” expression indicates moral indignation.  But more than that: the critic alludes to alternative models of a completely different agriculture.  Often it not only focuses on higher animal ethical standards but also smaller farms which are ideally owned and operated by a family; an agriculture that is not dependent on technology and automation; an agriculture therefore that does not respond or is not influenced by the dynamics which govern the rest of society.  In many such idealised presentations of agriculture – in this context, one may usefully consider the current marketing strategies of agrifood companies – technology and innovation do not play any role.  Agriculture presents itself on the contrary as a paradise well removed from technology.  Or do you know of milk which is sold using the slogan “We use the most modern milking equipment”?

Comparatively small influence of farm size on animal welfare

28 day old broiler flock

How does the term “factory farming” fare in this context?  Does it assist the necessary discussions and help provide clarity and structure? What is its main meaning?  The Scientific Advisory Board on Agricultural Policy at the German Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (Wissenschaftlicher Beirat für Agrarpolitik), which has recently published its much discussed report about possible future forms of livestock husbandry*, views this critically.  The Council notes in this regard: “According to current knowledge, farm size has comparatively little impact on animal welfare compared to other contributing factors, such as the quality of management.”  Whether it is a small or a large barn has little to do with an individual animal’s health and wellbeing, the Council finds.  It is therefore quite possible that a large new barn provides not only for better hygiene and food safety but also higher animal ethics standards.  This makes the Council conclude that the current strong focus on the concept of “factory farming” is of little assistance in this whole debate.  This focus needs to be countered, the Council concludes.  The desired intensive discussion between industry, civil society and politics and including the sciences should instead address the significant questions concerning animal welfare and environmental protection:  What is the animal health status?  What does species-appropriate animal husbandry mean?  How can fears and stress experienced by livestock be reduced?  How is the disposal of manure best managed?  But also:  How are the people treated within the animal husbandry operation?  What are the conditions under which they carry out their work?

The expression “factory farming” makes discussion and consensus more difficult

Looking at the whole argument, one could suggest that the term “factory farming” has played a useful role; it has sensitised several generations to ethical questions around livestock farming.  It woke up the moral outrage.  But when it comes to building on the outrage to lead to constructive action, the term is of little help.  It polarises positions and accuses many of being unethical.  The expression allows in particular those of us who do not keep livestock to point the moral finger conveniently at those who keep animals in such a way while ensuring that we can still buy meat cheaply in our shops.  I know that this opinion has by now become a slogan; nevertheless it is not a feasible path to only focus on cheaper prices for foodstuffs and simultaneously request higher animal ethical standards.  At the same time – and this point must not be ignored – it is not an acceptable way forward for the agricultural sector to justify all deficiencies by referring to a lack of consumer will.  The debate must be freed from this impasse where each side accuses the other.  Stigmatising statements put an end to the dialogue at a point where the debate regarding animal welfare, food safety and environmental questions should begin.


Christian Dürnberger is scientific collaborator at Messerli Research Institute, Unit of Ethics and Human-Animal Studies (Vienna, Austria) and Institute Technology-Theology-Natural Sciences, Ludwig-Maximilian-University Munich, Germany

* The Executive Summary is available in English at http://www.bmel.de/EN/Ministry/Scientific-Advisory-Boards/_Texte/AgriculturalPolicyPublications.html;jsessionid=6A46F9F0061DCC01593CC52271313564.2_cid296

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