Proponents of sustainable agriculture find common ground in criticizing the polluting practices of factory livestock-feeding operations. But when it comes to minimizing the ecological costs of keeping the country fed, the definition of sustainability runs the ideological gamut, from "mom-and-pop" ranches to veganism.
On the community level, factory farms have drawn opposition from more traditional producers like Francis Thicke of Jefferson County, Iowa, who runs an organic, grass-based dairy farm and also serves on the stateâ€™s Environmental Protection Commission. Under the weight of large-scale industrialization and a "bigger-is-better mindset" pervading the sector, he told The NewStandard, "agriculture is losing the family-farm model, where the farmer was the owner of the farm and animals, and provided the management and the labor... Weâ€™ve lost the whole model of a farmer being really a farmer."
According to the US Department of Agriculture, large-scale and non-family farms are steadily eclipsing smaller operations. Only 8 percent of the total value of pork production and 4 percent of poultry production came from small family farmers in 2003.
Thicke tries to resist the spread of factory farms through his own work. His dairy farm uses traditional methods of letting the animals graze freely, rather than concentrating them â€“ and their waste â€“ in unsanitary feedlots. By providing a better balance between the number of cows and the land grazed, he explained, the "ecological model" prevents a build-up of excess manure that could contaminate waterways.
While activists debate the fate of agriculture amid soaring consumption and dwindling farmland, critics of US farm policy say that the government not only ignores sustainability issues, it actually fosters unsustainability.
John Ikerd, an economist specializing in sustainable agriculture, said the existing system for regulating large livestock operations is entwined with corporate interests. He noted that government grant programs intended to help factory farms mitigate environmental damage have often funded stronger containment facilities just to hold huge quantities of manure.
A more sustainable alternative, in Ikerdâ€™s view, would take root in decentralized, owner-operated farms, geared toward strengthening local economies while reducing the exploitation of natural resources.
Whereas corporations prioritize shareholder profits, he said, "an individual family farmer is going to be concerned about whether or not the neighbors are bothered by the smell from these hog operations. Heâ€™s going to be concerned about whether or not they have a spill that goes into the stream and kills the fish, because his kids probably swim in that streamâ€¦. So if you have an individual involved in making this decision, then they feel a social responsibility to the community."
Some advocates for more ecologically conscious food production say that raising animals for consumption is never truly sustainable, whether the livestock is force-fed in feedlots or grazed over bucolic pastures.
Many who reject meat-based diets altogether in turn acknowledge that relatively "natural," small-scale livestock production may avoid the most obvious environmental impacts of factory farms. But in the long run, they say, these methods are still far from sustainable, simply because they are not an efficient use of natural resources.
Groups like the food-sustainability coalition Global Hunger Alliance warn that as meat consumption grows around the world, it will inevitably outstrip what traditional, small-scale farming methods are able to produce.
According to a 2003 study by the Center for Sustainable Development at the University of Amsterdam, growing crops is, meal-for-meal, less environmentally taxing than raising livestock. Compared to grain, meat requires many times more energy, water and other natural resources to yield a comparable amount of nutrition.
Researchers found, for example, that raising livestock â€“ which feed on vegetable nutrients that could otherwise directly feed humans â€“ consume six to seventeen times the land that soybean production would require. Similarly, compared to soy protein, animal protein tends to generate seven times as many harmful acidifying compounds, such nitrogen oxide and ammonia.
As the demand for food stretches available resources, confined feedlots have emerged as a way to cram more animals into less space, but critics say environmental costs of industrial livestock production outweigh its supposed economic efficiency.
"Though land scarcity is an issue, the answer is not factory farming." said Dawn Moncrief, executive director of pro-vegetarian advocacy group Farm Animal Reform Movement. She asserted that while the pastoral model of livestock farming is less objectionable, ultimately, "reducing or eliminating meat is ideal."
The Global Hunger Alliance opposes industrial livestock production, but also promotes "sustainable cultivation of traditional plant crops for local consumption as the most cost-effective method of feeding the world." Coordinator Pattrice Jones remarked to TNS that at current levels of consumption, "whichever methods of production are used, animal agriculture will continue to waste, deplete, and pollute water and other natural resources at an unconscionable as well as unsustainable rate."