Our messed up meat industry

  • Career Insights
  • By Shimoi Kalra
  • Published on May 16

Shimoi Kalra is in her first year of high school in Toronto. As a fellow at Alt Protein Careers, she is excited to be working on reshaping public perception and understanding of cultivated meat in her free time.

Our messed up meat industry

We kill over ONE TRILLION land and sea animals per year for meat consumption. That’s 30,000 animals slaughtered every second.

The harsh realities of factory farming reach well beyond our dinner tables, yet, most people are unaware of them.

Factory farming is the status quo for our meat industry

Factory farms are intensive farming systems designed to maximize profits from meat, milk, and egg production while minimizing resource use. This profit-driven approach means many animals live in inhumane, unhygienic, and unsustainable conditions throughout their short lives.

Cramped Conditions in Factory Farms. (Photo: Factory Farm via Shutterstock)

So long as digital authenticity still exists, photos showing the conditions of factory farms will be available. However, the growth of text to image and video AI models could give producers plausible deniability, claiming their farming conditions aren’t as bad as the visuals portray, but decades of documentation prove otherwise.

In short, factory farms prioritize economic efficiency, giving rise to ethical, health, and environmental challenges that affect us all.

Factory farming is a significant driver of environmental degradation

The colossal demand for land, water, and feed puts immense pressure on ecosystems. To put it in perspective, one pound of beef requires as much water as a person consumes in 10 years. We give 10 years’ worth of water to an animal for a single meal. 

Approximately 260 million acres of US forested land have been cleared, with over 67 percent used to feed livestock instead of people.

Not only does factory farming’s demand for land fuel deforestation, but industrial animal agriculture is also responsible for 15.4 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions—that’s nearly equal to the entire global transportation sector.

These absolutely insane realities call for an urgent reassessment of our food production practices for the sake of the environment and future generations to come.

Dead fish in a polluted bayou off the Pearl River in St Tammany Parish, Louisiana — farm pollutants trigger harmful algal blooms, with campaigners highlighting factory farm as a major culprit. (Photograph: Julie Dermansky/Getty Images)

The largest intentional manure release in Illinois history, stemming from a factory farm.  (Photograph-Hudson/Factoryfarm.org)

Unpacking the health risks of conventional meat

Limited nutrition and health implications

The factory farming system not only exploits animals but also poses significant health risks to consumers. Animals raised in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions require extensive use of antibiotics, contributing to the alarming rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

In 2011, 80% of all antibiotics sold in the United States were consumed by livestock, with more than half of these antibiotics considered critical to human medicine. This overuse of antibiotics in animals directly affects human health contributing to antibiotic resistance. It’s estimated that antibiotic-resistant infections could kill millions annually worldwide by 2050

Distribution of antibiotics sold in the United States in 2014.

Negative impact on agricultural workers’ well-being

Beyond the consumer health risks, the workers in these factory farms face hazardous conditions. The routine tasks of tail docking, beak trimming, and other practices expose them to physical and emotional stress. The quantification of animals as production units dehumanizes the entire process, impacting the mental well-being of those involved in the industry.

Tail docking — (Photo: Konrad Łoziński / Open Cages)

Factory farming is harming communities in ways we might not even realize.

Living close to these farms results in exposure to harmful toxins from animal waste, leading to problems like brain damage and depression. It’s also linked to higher risks of miscarriages, birth defects, respiratory issues, and bacterial infections from E. coli and campylobacter.

We need to reevaluate the practices of factory farming for the sake of consumer health, the well-being of agricultural workers, and the broader welfare of communities.

The unhygienic and dangerous conditions in factory farms. (Photo credit: Vera Chang)

Neglect of animal well-being

In the world of factory farming, where the objective is to produce the largest quantity of meat at the lowest cost, cost-cutting strategies such as confining animals in small quarters and exposing them to harsh conditions have severe consequences.

The milking carousel. (Photographer: Lucy Hewett for Bloomberg Businessweek)

Confinement in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) AKA Factory Farms. ( Photo: Andrew Skowron)

From physical alterations to cramped spaces, the animals in factory farms are denied the space and freedom to move or engage in natural behaviours. The animals are killed through captive-bolt guns and live-shackle slaughter, endure painful procedures like tail-docking and debeaking, and live through forced pregnancies, a common practice that subjects animals to repeated cycles of impregnation, contributing to both physical and psychological stress.

These challenges, along with the 80% of pigs dealing with pneumonia, 30% of broiler hens with walking problems, and 5–10% death rate during forced moulting — aren’t exactly easy to swallow.

But, it’s the reality of what we are unintentionally backing.

A numbers-driven system with consequences

Beyond the physical and psychological torment, factory farming operates on a quantified model that prioritizes profit over compassion. Animals are often seen as units of production, subjected to meticulous calculations of feed efficiency, growth rates, and reproduction cycles.

This reduction of living beings to mere statistics perpetuates a system where their suffering is considered an acceptable cost for the sake of profit.

So, there you have it, a quick factory farming 101.

But what can we do to flip around the status quo?

Because let’s be honest, people don’t want to give up their meat, and I understand that. Many people consume meat because they enjoy its taste and perceive it as nutritious or necessary for a balanced diet. Meat is also very deeply rooted in our world; it’s a part of culture, tradition, families, and religion.

Meat is not something that we can take away and we shouldn’t.

Cultivated meat represents a promising solution that addresses the ethical, health, and environmental concerns deeply rooted in our conventional agriculture system while not having to have a mass behaviour change. You can still enjoy your meat without harming animals, yourself, or the world around you!

Cultivated meat is not an alternative protein, it’s an alternative to conventional protein.

Cultivated meat is genetically similar to traditional meat and presents an opportunity for innovation in its composition and structure.

Cultivated meat spares animals from the harm and exploitation of factory farming and protects the environment by reducing our use of natural resources and releasing fewer  greenhouse gas emissions in the process. Us consumers also benefit from cultivated meat’s sterile production environment—reducing our exposure to antibiotics and the risk of foodborne disease.

It’s a win-win-win situation! 

And that’s why I’m excited to be working on reshaping public perception and understanding of cultivated meat in my free time.