According to a new survey, there are more than 1,000 American-style mega-farms in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, some of which keep up to a million animals.

In the United States, mega-farms are defined as those holding more than 125,000 birds raised for meat, or 82,000 laying hens, 2,500 pigs, 700 dairy cows or 1,000 beef cattle. These are labeled by US authorities as a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO).

In 2021, the number of farms in the UK that met the US definition of a CAFO, or mega-farm, was 1,099, according to research.

This figure is known to be an underestimate due to the omission of Scottish data, which was unavailable due to a cyberattack in 2020.

Quick Guide

Megafarms

Spectacle

What is a mega-farm?

There is no UK legal definition of a mega-farm. The Environment Agency, and its regional counterparts, classify farms as “intensive” if they hold at least 40,000 poultry or 2,000 pigs or 750 breeding sows. In the United States, large concentrated animal feed operations (CAFOs) are defined as those housing 125,000 broiler chickens, 82,000 laying hens, 2,500 pigs, or 700 dairy cattle or 1,000 beef cattle. There are now 1,099 mega-farms of this size in the UK.

Why are they controversial?

Mega-farms and intensive farms are controversial because they require keeping tens of thousands of animals in a small space, which activists and independent experts say can hamper their ability to express natural behaviors, such as move naturally and nest. Animals are often kept indoors throughout their lives, although on some farms they are allowed access to outdoor areas at least part of the time. There are also concerns that animals on mega-farms could be over-medicated with antibiotics, as if one got sick the whole herd usually had to be treated.

Why do some people think we need it?

Mega-farms and intensive farms take up much less space than traditional farms and keep animals safe from predators and potential disease carriers. Their conditions are tightly controlled, allowing farmers to monitor the amount of daylight, water and feed for animals, and if disease develops, livestock can be treated quickly.

Thank you for your opinion.

The march of these American-style mega-farms in the UK was revealed in a 2017 Guardian investigation, but updated data was published this week in a book, Sixty Harvests Left: How to Reach a Nature-Friendly Future, by Philip Lymbery, Managing Director of Compassion in World Farming (CIWF).

In England alone, the number of mega-farms has increased from 818 in 2016 to 944 in 2020. Of these, 745 are for domestic poultry and 199 are for pigs. There are four poultry farms in the UK registered for 1 million birds, with the largest holding up to 1.4 million. For pigs, the three largest farms hold more than 20,000 pigs.

There are also at least 19 dairies that meet the criteria of a ‘mega-dairy’. The cows kept in the intensive dairies are “without pasture”, which means that they are not allowed to go out into the fields and are permanently housed in sheds. The largest in the UK appears to hold 2,000 animals.

In addition, nine mega-farms hold 1,000 or more beef cattle. American-style beef feedlots, where cattle are fattened before slaughter, were first identified as existing in the UK in a 2018 Guardian investigation.

In the UK, there are nine mega-farms holding 1,000 or more beef cattle, where they are fattened before slaughter.
In the UK, there are nine mega-farms holding 1,000 or more beef cattle, where they are fattened before slaughter. Photograph: Office of Investigative Journalism

Industrial farming maximizes production while keeping costs down to produce cheap meat and dairy – the UK slaughters 1 billion chickens, 10 million pigs and 2.6 million cattle a year – and the majority of UK farm animals are raised in intensive units.

However, there are fears that intensive agriculture is causing climate change, water and air pollution, loss of biodiversity and negatively affecting local communities, including by introducing potential health risks associated with ammonia pollution. Intensive animal husbandry has also been accused of increasing disease risk.

In Europe, the Dutch government has recently presented plans to drastically reduce livestock numbers to limit excess nitrogen from intensive farming.

Animal welfare activists say animals on mega-farms are denied the ability to express natural behaviors. Keeping animals in “crowded and largely sterile conditions” and using fast-growing breeds of chickens and farrowing crates for pigs “challenges our pretensions to being an animal-loving nation,” he said. said Philip Lymbery, managing director of Compassion in World Farming.

Lizzie Wilson of the National Pig Association said big doesn’t necessarily mean bad: “Larger-scale farms are often able to provide more resources, like more breeding staff, a dedicated veterinarian. .that actually facilitate animal welfare.”

British Poultry Council chief executive Richard Griffiths said that all production systems in the UK include good welfare: “Systems perceived as ‘higher welfare’ are more resource intensive with greater efficiency. and productivity, with an impact on the environment and the cost of production.”

A spokesman for the National Farmers’ Union said: ‘No matter the sector or size of farm, whether indoor or outdoor, animal health and welfare is a constant priority for all UK farmers. , because they know that the public greatly appreciates the high standards of animal health and welfare that farmers work to.

Cattle in a pen on a farm in the UK
The UK is now home to more than 1,000 mega-farms with herds of up to 3,000 cattle at a time kept in grassless paddocks for long periods. Photograph: Office of Investigative Journalism

A spokesperson for the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) said the vast majority of beef and dairy cattle in the UK “are grazed outdoors all year round too as long as weather conditions permitted.

As British farming changes, calls for reform are being made. The Scrap Factory Farming campaign is suing the European Court of Human Rights, alleging that the government is failing to protect the public from climate change and the threat of future pandemics linked to factory farming.

“Let’s stop denying that factory farming is inherently cruel and a major driver of wildlife decline and climate change,” Lymbery told the Guardian.

A spokesman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said all farms, regardless of size, must comply with UK animal health and welfare legislation, planning, veterinary drugs and environmental legislation.

“The Animal Welfare Act 2006 also makes it an offense to cause unnecessary suffering to a captive animal or fail to meet the animal’s welfare needs – and we will not hesitate to take action against those who do not meet these standards.”

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