24 January 2018

Are industrial megafarms the solution for feeding the world?

The renewed interest for food production..,

Until the second part of the first decade of this century, few were those who cared about food. Food was hardly an attractive sector, as food prices had, for decades, followed a declining trend, and FAO projections of the number of hungry showed a progressive decline of the proportion of undernourished in world population. For most people, it looked as if the food problem was “under control”.

The 2007-2008 food crisis was a wake-up call as it revealed that food production was fragile and that tensions could appear any time on unstable food markets that could result in hardship for hundreds of millions of people. Food was again seen a strategic sector and, with the sudden rise in food prices, a sector where there was big money to be made.

Moreover, as climate change had become a prominent issue on the international agenda and as an increasing number of studies demonstrated the central role of food in climate change, both as a cause and as a potential victim, food became a topic of interest for governments, from that point of view.

In short, food (and agriculture), which had been relatively low on the agenda for three decades, became almost overnight a centre of interest both for the private and the public sector throughout the world.

One of the leitmotivs of this renewed interest was the concern about our ability to produce enough food to feed the world by the middle of this century, as world population was projected to reach almost 10 billion people. Programmes mushroomed throughout the world in reaction to the food crisis in order to boost food production [read]; private investment in food production boomed, including through the establishment of major so-called “land-grabbing schemes” [read].

But most of these programs were designed with an inadequate perspective, as if the problem was just to produce food more at any cost and in any way, while in fact the food crisis was once more the illustration of the dual nature of the food issue : producing food to ensure sufficient availability matters of course, but the way in which food is produced, who produces it and who benefits from additional production also matters [read], as the bulk of the hungry in the world are small farmers who, unless they benefit from food growth, will be increasingly marginalised, leading to more hungry people, as already illustrated by the UN’s latest estimates [read].

..leads to the proliferation of industrial megafarms.

One of the consequences of this new trend and the priority given to production has been the multiplication of megafarms based on the use of intensive industrial farming technologies. This has particularly been the case for livestock production, as the demand for animal products was booming with the appearance, in emerging countries, of hundreds of millions of middle-class consumers. Megafarms had developed earlier in the US, but they were then spreading all over the world and have now become the main suppliers of large supermarket chains. It is estimated that there are now more than 50,000 concentrated animal feeding operations, and that worldwide, such type of operations account, according to the UN, for 72% of poultry, 42% of egg, and 55% of pork production. The key argument in favour of such outfits is that they offer considerable economies of cost and scale and opportunities for profit making, given rising food prices.

Megafarms have also developed in Europe, in Germany, in the UK and, to a lesser extent, in France. In the UK, for example, there are currently close to 800 such megafarms.

In France, the process of industrialisation and concentration of food production is also on the move although it does not lead to spectacularly large production units. In the milk sub-secteur, the “1000 cows farm” has been in the media for years, creating strong resistance by civil society organisations and new regulatory measures by the government, as well as an on-going judicial case in which NGOs, the Government and the farm are involved. However, more generally, French  milk production has followed a concentration process: between 1993 and 2013, the number of milk farms decreased by almost 60%, while milk production grew by around 5%.

Similar movements are observed in crop production, largely encouraged by the area-based direct payment system implemented by the EU under its CAP [read].

Some major negative impacts of industrial agriculture

The development of megafarms for animal production has several dramatic consequences.

Because of the concentration of large numbers of animals they cause, they are a source of considerable local pollution (smell, noise, effluents) and may become sources of disease outbreaks. Megafarms are also contributing to the inefficiency of our food system as herbivores in such outfits (e.g. cattle) are fed with cereals and other grains (soya, in particular) when they could be fed with grass. These animals thus become direct competitors for grains for humans (currently half of world grain production is being consumed by animals). The animals living in such centers are also systematically treated with antibiotics, as a precautionary measure, thus increasing the risks of antibiotic-resistant infections [read].

Moreover because of the high concentration of animals, these farms cannot rely solely on locally produced feed and depend on feed imported from far away places. They also contribute to increasing the energy and water content of our food. All these dependencies make that this system vulnerable to changes in price of energy and feed, and to water shortages that are likely to become more frequent in the future [read].

Last but not least, mega animal farms operate with much less labour than family farms, thus contributing to a reduction of employment in the agriculture sector.

In crop production, concentration is also increasing and so is the use of chemicals : 30% increase of world consumption of nitrogen fertiliser between 2002 and 2011, 250% increase of world use of pesticides between 1990 and 2012 [read]. The consequence of this intensive use of chemicals has been a dramatic loss of the level of biological activity and biodiversity in soils with the consequence that the level of exchange between plants and the soil is reduced, impacting directly on crop yields [read].

Globally, large scale industrial farming is technically less efficient than family farming, as illustrated by the infographics produced by ETC (see below).

Concentration means also increased reliance on transport, storage and processing, processes that each contribute to the emission of greenhouse gas (GHG) causing climate change. Currently, it is estimated that food production is responsible for 35 to 40% of all GHGs, of which 7% are due to transport, storage and processing of food, and 7% to animal production.

Large scale industrial farming does therefore not appear to offer a sustainable solution to the food issue, be it from a technical, environmental or social perspective. And much of the financial profitability is artificial as it is a consequence of support being obtained from agricultural policies in place and of the non payment of real costs, particularly environment- and health-related costs. [read].

Yet, better alternatives exist…

Yes, better alternatives exist. Family farms yet weigh around 70% of food production, although their number (more than 500 million worldwide) is in regression as they are unable to compete with large commercial farms who often capture the largest part of public support [read].

Agroecological farming, organic farming or permaculture offer technologies and approaches that are sustainable, generate employment, produce less GHG, store more carbon in the soil, and maintain a high level of biological life in it.

Source: ETC, 2017.

But policies in place penalise these technologies and make it difficult for local sustainable food systems to emerge [read]. Dominant thinking has yet to challenge the priority given to large scale industrial input intensive farming, even though lip service is usually given to “inclusive development” in poor countries where family farming still involves a large share of the population (see the case of the recent Annual Agricultural Policy Conference held in Tanzania).

Numerous initiatives that contribute to developing more sustainable food systems are taken everywhere in the world. They make some feel optimistic about the future. Our opinion at is that, as long as policies will not encourage the necessary transition towards more sustainability, theses initiatives will only represent a small part of our food system and involve only the most informed or motivated citizens.


To know more :

  1. ETC, Who Will Feed Us? The Industrial Food Chain vs.The Peasant Food Web, 3rd Edition, 2017.

  2. Harvey, F. and A. Wasley, Rise of mega farms: how the US model of intensive farming is invading the world, The Guardian, 2017.

  3. Demeke, M., G. Pangrazio and M. Maetz, Country responses to the food security crisis: Nature and preliminary implications of the policies pursued, FAO, 2009.

Earlier articles on related to the topic:

  1. Food, Environment and Health, 2017.

  2. Sundaram, J. and T.Z. Gen, Catastrophic Antibiotic Threat from Food, Opinions, 2017.

  3. Are existing food and agricultural policies supportive to local sustainable food systems?, 2017.

  4. Land: an unequally distributed, threatened but essential resource, 2013.

  5. Water and Hunger, 2013.

  6. MacMillan, A., Personal Reflections on Harnessing Ecosystem Services and Investing Sweat Equity, 2013.

  7. Food crises: A consequence of disastrous economic policies, 2012.

and articles under our themes “sustainable agriculture” and “research”.


Last update:    January 2018

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