The Fog of Words: “Factory Farm” Moves from Oxymoron to Connotation
The term “Factory Farm” was an oxymoron when I grew up decades ago in the Midwest. Factories were for manufacturing. Our farms were for corn, soybeans, hogs, and cattle. The two concepts were in parallel worlds. According to a survey reported in Feedstuffs (click HERE for link), the term still evokes parallel connotations. Although all sides seem to consider it a negative label, they do so for varying reasons. For some, the term represents large facilities where animals suffer, antibiotics are overused, and food safety is an issue. For others, the term is a slur used to generalize about all farm production systems that have moved beyond the old ways.
A non-factory farm is the one I grew up on. Cattle grazed in pastures by small creeks, hogs rooted around in the dust of feed lots, and chickens fluttered around, spreading feathers in small fenced areas. On still summer nights, I heard the hogs on the neighbor’s farm lifting the lids on outdoor grain feeders. Cattle in our pasture moved along in foraging groups and occasionally became truly “free range” when they broke through a weak spot in the fence. Chickens raised an alarm if a fox lingered too long outside the coop.
In reality, most of these farms are gone, replaced by larger family farms or by an agri-business set-up of some type. More grain and animal products are produced now, but which of these can be labeled as a “factory farm”?
A Google search of the term brings nearly half a million hits. Most definitions contain a reference to agribusiness and confinement practices, but opinions vary about size and specific practices. For some, any type of mass-production, when it comes to animals, is wrong. Others are certain that the old ways will not produce enough food to feed growing populations. The key question probably is: No matter what techniques are used, is the producer considering the welfare of the animal and the safety of the consumer? In the end, the farmer needs to answer this.
Factory farm is no longer an oxymoron, but I’m not sure it is yet a dictionary definition either. Many have their own connotations of the word, so the more we communicate about agriculture and solid farming techniques, the better. Research can help. CAST has published several related papers including a recent Issue Paper, Ethical Implications of Animal Biotechnology: Considerations for Animal Welfare Decision Making. Click HERE to access. CAST offers many other science-based publications, most of them free. To check the list, click HERE. Dan Gogerty Oct., 2010

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