Global Resources & Environmental Damage

Factory pig farming has disastrous impacts globally and locally. The industry’s demand for energy, water and cheap feed means its consequences stretch far and wide: land appropriation and misuse, deforestation, water table depletion, soil erosion, and increased carbon emissions to name a few.

Locally, water courses and tables are polluted by waste run off, while local residents are exposed to toxic gases released from pig barns and putrid fecal lakes that cause skin and eye irritation, nausea, headaches, respiratory problems, anxiety, insomnia and stress.

The industry often claims that intensive production is the only way to feed a growing population. This couldn’t be more wrong: its wasteful, polluting ways are fundamentally unfit for purpose and threaten food security for all.


Video abstract: Worldwide demand for crops is increasing rapidly due to global population growth, increased biofuel production, and changing dietary preferences. Meeting these growing demands will be a substantial challenge that will tax the capability of our food system and prompt calls to dramatically boost global crop production. However, to increase food availability, we may also consider how the world’s crops are allocated to different uses and whether it is possible to feed more people with current levels of crop production. Of particular interest are the uses of crops as animal feed and as biofuel feedstocks. Small shifts in our allocation of crops to animal feed and biofuels could significantly increase global food availability, and could be an instrumental tool in meeting the challenges of ensuring global food security.


Only 59% of the calories we produce globally actually becomes food we can eat.


In the United States, only 33% of calories produced directly becomes food we can eat.


People fed vs. Possible people fed


One-third of the world’s total cultivable land is dedicated to growing cereal and soya to feed livestock, while a further 7% is used for grazing animals. 97% of the world’s soya meal and 60% of its maize and barley are grown for livestock feed.[1]


Aerial view of an unpaved road dividing a soy (Glycine max) monoculture from the native Cerrado. Photo: Adriano Gambarini

Much of this land is acquired by destroying forests; thus, removing the earth’s natural CO2 sinks, and significantly contributing to global warming and loss of biodiversity. Between 2004 and 2005 around 1.2 million hectares of rainforest were cut down as a result of soya expansion, almost entirely for animal feed and livestock pastures.[3]

In Latin America the land devoted to soya crops doubled between 1994 and 2004, and deforestation, particularly of the Amazon rainforest, now accounts for around 75% of Brazil’s greenhouse gas emissions.[2]

The Atlantic Rainforest (extending from Brazil’s Atlantic coast, inland to Paraguay and into Argentina) is one of the worlds most biodiverse ecosystems and now covers 7% of its original area.  Soya expansion into this area could destroy another 1.5 million hectares by 2020.[4]


Soy’s impact in the Amazon has been less direct than ranching, with lands already cleared for pasture being converted to soy farms. Further, investments to facilitate soy expansion — including road development and ports — have promoted deforestation.

Soya cultivation is intensive and depletes the soils nutrients. Water supplies in soya producing areas are contaminated with mineral fertilizers and pesticide residues.

The soils found on soya plantations are exposed and vulnerable to erosion. Brazil loses 55 millions tonnes of soil through erosion each year.[5]

Europe imports 18 million tonnes of soya beans and meal from Brazil annually.[6] Three US-based agricultural commodities giants – Cargill, ADM and Bunge – are responsible for about 60% of the total financing of soya production in Brazil.[7] Together, these three companies control more than 75% of the soya-crushing capacity in Europe that supplies soya meal and oil to the animal feed market fuelling Europe’s intensive meat and dairy production.

Genetically modified soya accounts for 98% [8] of the soya harvest for Argentina and 90% for Paraguay.[9] Much is grown from Monsanto’s Roundup Ready GM seed for use with Roundup herbicide, prompting growers to use even more intensive methods to combat herbicide tolerant weeds.


The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s most recent report, Tackling Climate Change Through Livestock (Sept 2013) estimates that 14.5% of global human-caused carbon emissions originate from livestock production. Feed production and processing accounts for 45% of this figure, bovine digestive emissions 39% and manure decomposition 10% (the remainder relate to processing and transportation of animal products). The livestock sector is “one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global”. Livestock production, mostly factory farming, is expected to double across the globe by 2050.[1]

Proportion of greenhouse-gas emissions from different parts of livestock production. Adapted from FAO [1]

Proportion of greenhouse-gas emissions from different parts of livestock production. Adapted from FAO [1]

In addition, 64% of ammonia emissions originate in livestock production and contribute to air, soil and water pollution, acid rain and damage to the ozone.[2] The US Environmental Protection Agency considers the key factors in growth of nitrous oxide and methane emissions to be “the growth in livestock populations… and the trend toward larger, more commercialised livestock management operations.”


waste lagoon

Aerial shot of Texan industrial beef farm and waste lagoon. Photo: Mishka Henner

Around 9% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions from human activity are from livestock. Animals’ digestive systems and their manure create 37% of the world’s atmospheric methane emissions from human activity. Animal manure and the mineral fertiliser used to grow livestock feed are responsible for 65% of all atmospheric nitrous oxide emissions from human activity.[10] A factory farm with 5,000 pigs produces about 25 tons of raw faecal waste every day. In the US and much of Europe this is disposed of in huge open lagoons or sprayed directly onto fields.

In the UK effluent is generally enclosed in tanks with controls on how it is used on the land. Denmark and the Netherlands also have tighter regulations than the rest of Europe.

In most factory systems the pigs are closely confined in buildings with slatted floors, which allow their faeces to drop through to collect on concrete slabs below. From there, the manure, containing high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus, is pumped into nearby open-air lagoons or tanks. In Europe and the US, excess faeces may be sprayed onto nearby fields as well. This has polluted the environment and harmed both human and ecological health.

Lagoons can leak or overflow, releasing tens of thousands of gallons nitrates and phosphorus into rivers, streams and coastal waters each year, killing fish and causing pfisteria outbreaks. The untreated animal excrement is often over-applied to the farmland allowing it to run off the fields and pollute watercourses. The faecal lagoons give off large amounts of ammonia and methane, gases dangerous to both workers and local residents.


Livestock-waste lagoons overflowed on this North Carolina hog farm during Hurricane Floyd, representing a way local waterways and supplies can be contaminated in a flood. Source: Rick Dove



  • Prime cuts: valuing the meat we eat (WWF, 2013)
    This aims to explore the scope of what ‘less but better’ meat consumption could mean, to identify potential win-wins, trade-offs and evidence gaps, and to make recommendations for next steps.
  • Feeding China’s Pigs (IATP, 2011)
    Implications for the Environment, China’s Smallholder Farmers and Food Security
  • Hoofprints (Friends of the Earth, 2008)
    Livestock and its environmental impacts
  • Cesspools of shame (NRDC, 2001)
    How factory farm lagoons and spray-fields threaten environmental and public health

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