Industrialized livestock production can be characterized by five key attributes: confinement feeding of animals, separation of feed and livestock production, specialization, large size, and close vertical linkages with buyers. Industrialized livestock operations—popularly known as CAFOs, for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations—have spread rapidly in developed and developing countries; by the early 21st century, they accounted for three quarters of poultry production and over half of global pork production, and held a growing foothold in dairy production.
Industrialized systems have created significant improvements in agricultural productivity, leading to greater output of meat and dairy products for given commitments of land, feed, labor, housing, and equipment. They have also been effective at developing, applying, and disseminating research leading to persistent improvements in animal genetics, breeding, feed formulations, and biosecurity. The reduced prices associated with productivity improvements support increased meat and dairy product consumption in low and middle income countries, while reducing the resources used for such consumption in higher income countries.
The high-stocking densities associated with confined feeding also exacerbate several social costs associated with livestock production. Animals in high-density environments may be exposed to diseases, subject to attacks from other animals, and unable to engage in natural behaviors, raising concerns about higher levels of fear, pain, stress, and boredom. Such animal welfare concerns have realized greater salience in recent years.
By consolidating large numbers of animals in a location, industrial systems also concentrate animal wastes, often in levels that exceed the capacity of local cropland to absorb the nutrients in manure. While the productivity improvements associated with industrial systems reduce the resource demands of agriculture, excessive localized concentrations of manure can lean to environmental damage through contamination of ground and surface water and through volatilization of nitrogen nutrients into airborne pollutants.
Finally, animals in industrialized systems are often provided with antibiotics in their feed or water, in order to treat and prevent disease, but also to realize improved feed absorption (“a production purpose”). Bacteria are developing resistance to many important antibiotic drugs; the extensive use of such drugs in human and animal medicine has contributed to the spread of antibiotic resistance, with consequent health risks to humans.
The social costs associated with industrialized production have led to a range of regulatory interventions, primarily in North America and Europe, as well as private sector attempts to alter the incentives that producers face through the development of labels and through associated adjustments within supply chains.