Factory farming only really began 40 years ago, and it seems unlikely to continue for another 40 years in its current configuration. Even leaving aside the massive, huge ethical problems with abusing our fellow sentient creatures, the logic behind factory farming is based on some assumptions that won't be true for much longer.
So how much longer does factory farming have left? And once it's over, how are we going to feed over 7 billion people? We talked to some experts to find out.
Why is factory farming doomed?
Basically, factory farming is based on the availability of cheap corn. Before 1973 or 1974, corn wasn't fed to pigs or chickens, according to Evan D.G. Fraser, a professor of geography at the University of Guelph in Ontario and co-author of Empires of Food: Feast, Famine, and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations. The rise of corn as animal feed dates from the U.S. Farm Bill, which subsidized the production of corn, but left American corn producers with more corn than they could sell.
And cheap corn, in turn, depends on the easy availability of tons of water. Right now, U.S. livestock producers are hurting because drought has pushed corn prices up to $8.50 per bushel, says Fraser. Between that drought and the decline of the Ogallala Aquifer, feed prices are going to keep going up.
"Factory farming as we know it today is really predicated on the availability of cheap corn," says Fraser. "The day of cheap corn is probably over, if not soon to be over."
Rabobank, a major agricultural lender, just put out a report predicting record prices for slaughter-ready cattle in 2013. "The world's largest livestock cull is underway," says Fraser, "which in the short term is causing a drop in meat prices." But by next summer, prices will go up massively. Beef consumption has already dropped in the past 10 years, and consumers are willing to switch to other protein sources if beef gets more expensive.
Factory farming also relies extensively on cheap fossil fuels, notes Shannon Hayes, who writes cookbooks and blogs about working on a grass-fed cattle farm at GrassfedCooking.com. There's no sign of a replacement fuel that can supply the energy needs of a factory farm cheaply enough to make sense economically. Some farmers are experimenting with solar-powered equipment, but that's going to work better for smaller family farms than for huge operations.
There are other long-term challenges for factory farming, too. Like the over-reliance on antibiotics to protect the livestock from infections caused by being cooped up together. There's some evidence that antibiotic-resistant bacteria is growing more prevalent in these animals. But even if the chances of a huge outbreak of drug-resistant bugs among pigs or cows are low, there's also a chance that the federal government will crack down on antibiotics, making these claustrophobic arrangements hard to maintain.
Also, there may be more resistance to factory farming as people get annoyed by "unsustainable amounts of toxic gasses including methane and nitrous oxide entering the atmosphere through the flatulence and manure of concentrated overpopulations of animals," says Karen Davis, president of United Poultry Concerns.
But the main problem that will probably ruin the economics of factory farming is the feed prices, says Fraser. Take away that prop for the system, and it collapses.
Some scenarios for a world after factory farming
There will be more "hippie" local organic meat. As overall beef consumption goes down, we're seeing a huge spike in consumption of "hippie rootsy organic" locally farmed meat, says Fraser. He predicts a continued rise in consumption of these "small scale" pasture-raised animals, which will be "much more expensive" than factory-farmed meat, and really aimed at an "elite" consumer. This will be "chops and roasts" for "special occasions," not for everybody, every day.
We will change how we eat meat. Currently, we only use a small portion of the animal, because of fatphobia and pickiness, says Hayes. But as meat becomes more expensive and scarce, we'll go back to an older system where we use every part of the animal — we'll eat more fat, because fat is "calorically dense and satiating," allowing us to eat less without going hungry. Every scrap of bone, grizzle and fat will be saved for broth. We'll be making a lot more broth out of leftover meat, and we may return to an older system where "broth formed the foundation of family nutrition." (Hayes covers a lot of this in her cookbook A Lot on a Little.)
Cattle may eat something other than corn. One strong candidate is edible algae, which could be a huge food source for pigs or cows. There are "huge technological hurdles" in the way of feeding cattle algae, says Fraser — but you only need nutrients, carbon dioxide and sunlight to produce algae. There are pilot projects to create an agriculture system around filling tubes with algae. Also, algae don't necessarily need the full spectrum of light, just certain wavelengths — so you could create lighting systems that only give algae part of the light spectrum.
One possible answer is to put algae farms right next to a power plant that produces lots of waste heat — so you get the excess carbon dioxide and heat from the power plant to produce the algae. Which, in turn, you feed to nearby pigs. In any case, algae requires a lot less water per "usable calories" than corn does, says Fraser.
We may find totally new protein sources Or you could just take pigs out of the equation altogether and have people eat algae. Given that the pigs are just a vehicle for transforming the algae into a human-friendly food source, it may make more sense to remove the middle-pig. You may also have a new, "extremely industrial protein system," that involves things like plants and sea creatures — and may or may not include land animals in the mix at some point, suggests Fraser.
Some other totally disgusting protein sources. The Atlantic has done a lot of pieces on insect proteins and soy-glazed mealyworms. And these things could become acceptable to diners, more quickly than you realize. It wasn't that long ago that lobster was considered a disgusting food, "the bottom-feeding insect" of the ocean, points out Fraser. Lobster was fed to prisoners, while elite diners would have been revolted to touch it. Also, just 20 years ago, American pop culture was full of jokes about how disgusting sushi was — who would ever eat raw fish? — and now every mall in America has a sushi bar. So foods that Americans might consider disgusting now could catch on within a generation — including, say, scorpions or mealy worm burgers.
Already, there's a popular fungus-based meat substitute called Quorn, which is sold as chicken nuggets, Fraser points out. "Once you've processed it, breaded it and deep-fried it, everything tastes like chicken."
You could also have in vitro meat. As we've written in the past, there's been a lot of progress recently on lab-grown meat — but it's not quite ready for the drive-thru window. The cost per unit is still way too high, and there are problems producing a large quantity of the stuff. But within a generation, it's entirely possible that the problems will have been worked out, and we'll be consuming lots of in vitro meat — while "real" animal meat will be pasture-raised and only for special occasions, says Fraser. Basically, a scenario that will make both the "local foodie" and "science fiction fan" sides of your personality happy.
More people will have to become farmers. Right now, less than 2 percent of the population farms — but that's going to have to go back up, says Hayes. During the war, Victory Gardens were able to provide 40 percent of the nation's vegetables, and we'll see a return to that kind of spirit, she predicts. She expects to see "increasing numbers of small farms, shared pigs in surburbia, city chickens, city rooftop beehives, or cattle and sheep grazing roadsides and campuses instead of lawn mowers." Instead of having 40 million acres of lawn in the United States, we may be planting more gardens, she predicts.
How long will this transition take?
I don't think the transition will happen with the blink of an eye. I think we are already seeing it take place. Farmers that I meet regularly talk about how to make their enterprises more resiliant to climate change and fossil fuel shortages. Families are starting to grow their own food to offset expenses (the current economic crisis is certainly helping to push us to live more sustainably).
That said, the transition won't be easy for everyone. There is hard work to do, and there will be people taken by surprise. The thing is, the more of us who start working on the transition now, the more resiliant our communities will be. And when our communities become more resilient, it will be easier to help more people make the change when it becomes necessary. I don't like to predict a fearful, foreboding future. Because if we are afraid of it, we won't make the necessary changes, and change is imperative. And if we can make the transition, then I feel confident that the life that greets us on the other side can be far more enjoyable, healthful, meaningful and fullfilling than the quiet desperation that confronts so many folks today. It can be good. But we've got to do the work to make it so.