Fifty years ago, US chicken farmers found that by keeping their birds in sheds they could produce chickens for the table more cheaply and with less work than by traditional farmyard methods. The new method spread: Chickens disappeared from fields into long, windowless sheds. Factory farming was born.
It isn't called "factory farming" merely because those sheds look like factories. Everything about the production method is geared towards turning live animals into machines for converting grain into meat or eggs at the lowest possible cost.
Walk into such a shed -- if the producer will let you -- and you will find up to 30,000 chickens. The National Chicken Council, the trade association for the US chicken industry, recommends a stocking density of 548cm2 per bird -- less than a standard sheet of typing paper. When the chickens approach market weight, they cover the floor completely. No chicken can move without having to push through other birds. In the egg industry, hens can barely move at all, because they are crammed into wire cages, which makes it possible to stack them in tiers, one above the other.
Environmentalists point out that this production method is unsustainable. For a start, it relies on the use of fossil fuel energy to light and ventilate the sheds and to transport the grain eaten by the chickens. When this grain, which humans could eat directly, is fed to chickens, they use some of it to create bones and feathers and other body parts that we cannot eat. So we get less food back than we put into the birds -- and less protein, too -- while disposing of the concentrated chicken manure causes serious pollution to rivers and ground water.
Animal-welfare advocates protest that crowding the chickens keeps them from forming a natural flock, causes them stress, and in the case of laying hens, prevents them from even stretching their wings. The air in the sheds is high in ammonia from bird feces, which are usually allowed to pile up for months -- and in some cases for a year or more -- before being cleaned out.
Medical experts warn that because the birds are routinely fed antibiotics to keep them growing in such crowded, filthy and stressful conditions, antibiotic-resistant bacteria could cause a public-health threat.
Yet, despite these well-founded criticisms, over the last 20 years factory farming -- not only of chickens, but also of pigs, veal calves, dairy cows and, in outdoor feedlots, cattle -- has spread rapidly in developing countries, especially in Asia. Now we are discovering that the consequences may be far more deadly than we ever imagined.
As University of Ottawa virologist Earl Brown put it after a Canadian outbreak of avian influenza, "High-intensity chicken rearing is a perfect environment for generating [a] virulent avian flu virus."
Other experts agree. Last month, a UN task force identified as one of the root causes of the bird flu epidemic, "farming methods which crowd huge numbers of animals into small spaces."
Supporters of factory farming often point out that bird flu can be spread by free-range flocks, or by wild ducks and other migrating birds, who may join the free-range birds to feed with them or drop their feces while flying overhead. But, as Brown has pointed out, viruses found in wild birds are generally not very dangerous.
On the contrary, it is only when these viruses enter a high-density poultry operation that they mutate into something far more virulent. By contrast, birds that are reared by traditional methods are likely to have greater resistance to disease than the stressed, genetically similar birds kept in intensive confinement systems. Moreover, factory farms are not biologically secure. They are frequently infested with mice, rats and other animals that can bring in diseases.
So far, a relatively small number of human beings have died from the current strain of avian influenza, and it appears that they have all been in contact with infected birds. But if the virus mutates into a form that is transmissible between humans, the number of deaths could run into the hundreds of millions.
Governments are, rightly, taking action to prepare for this threat. Recently, the US Senate approved spending US$8 billion to stockpile vaccines and other drugs to help prevent a possible bird flu epidemic. Other governments have already spent tens of millions of dollars on vaccines and other preventive measures.
What is now clear, however, is that such government spending is really a kind of subsidy to the poultry industry. Like most subsidies, it is bad economics. Factory farming spread because it seemed to be cheaper than more traditional methods. In fact, it was cheaper only because it passed some of its costs on to others -- for example, to people who lived downstream or downwind from the factory farms and could no longer enjoy clean water and air.
Now we see that these were only a small part of the total costs. Factory farming is passing far bigger costs -- and risks -- on to all of us. In economic terms, these costs should be "internalized" by the factory farmers rather than being shifted onto the rest of us.
That won't be easy to do, but we could make a start by imposing a tax on factory-farm products until enough revenue is raised to pay for the precautions that governments now have to take against avian influenza. Then we might finally see that chicken from the factory farm really isn't so cheap after all.
Peter Singer is professor of bioethics at Princeton University.
Copyright: Project Syndicate
Hon Hai Precision Industry Co founder Terry Gou (郭台銘) might be accused of twice breaking his promises and betraying the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), then launching a signature drive for himself to stand as a candidate in January’s presidential election, only to turn around and quit the race. It clearly shows that rich people are free to do as they like. If that is so, then Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) Chairman and presidential candidate Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) is the perfect example of a political hack who changes his position as easily as turning the pages of a book. Taiwanese independence supporters
Since the rancorous and histrionic breakup of the planned “blue-white alliance,” polls have shown a massive drop in support for Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) Chairman and presidential candidate Ko Wen-je (柯文哲), whose support rate has dropped to 20 percent. Young people and pan-blue supporters seem to be ditching him. Within a few weeks, Ko has gone from being the most sought after candidate to seeking a comeback. A few months ago, he was the one holding all the cards and calling the shots, with everything in place for a rise to stardom. The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was still dealing with doubts
Counterintuitive as it might seem, the opportunist presidential candidate Ko Wen-je (柯文哲), chairman of the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), responds to the need for an economic left in the Taiwanese political landscape. The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has been seen as a left-leaning party because of its advocacy for gender equality, and LGBT and minority rights. However, the DPP has tended toward free-market liberalism under President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) leadership. How did the once grassroots, populist party turn to free-market liberalism? One reason is that Tsai is a cautious, piecemeal reformist. Recall the days when the Tsai administration started with a landslide victory
US think tanks, societies and organizations have recently not been shy or hesitant to get involved in Taiwanese matters; they seem to do so with an apparent purpose. Earlier this month, Simona Grano, a senior fellow on Taiwan at the New York-based Asia Society, penned a lengthy and thorough primer on Taiwan’s elections next month. In her primer, Grano noted that Washington had “reservations” about all four (now three after Terry Gou [郭台銘] dropped out) candidates for the presidency. With these reservations, one senses a clear change and expansion of purpose from the Asia Society. Originally formed in 1956 by John