Europe should end factory farming

Updated: Mar 7, 2019

The EU should abolish intensive animal farming by 2030.

Mara-Daria Cojocaru argues that despite a growing consensus that factory-farmed meat is highly problematic, for various reasons people still primarily consume such meat. There is a gap between what people have reason to believe and how they act. Currently, we “privatise” this problem and hope for consumerism to solve it, while what is needed is structural, political change.

For many, the topic of eating (certain) meat or not is personal, so let me start with a slightly amended personal anecdote. A few years back, during a conference in Paris, I went for lunch at a restaurant affordable for early career philosophers. A Canadian colleague ordered a meat dish, commenting that she always felt good about eating meat in Europe because, here, animals were not factory-farmed and she wanted to consume meat with a clear conscience. While I was staring incredulously at my salad, feeling guilt creep up my spine about the water-intense, potentially drug-cartel-financed avocado, another colleague, a man from Germany, blurted out that she was clearly mistaken. At a place like this, she was almost certainly consuming meat that even failed to live up to most of the national welfare regulations. Speaking of Europe, the EU was making life hard for farmers who wanted to pursue alternatives. His parents owned a farm where every animal had a name, where slaughter took place on site, and where a host of animal-welfare standards were in place that exceeded national requirements by far. However, he argued, such “happy meat” is not only very expensive, but the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), with its direct payments relative to the size of the farm, is stacked against small farms and supports large-scale industrial farming. The mood at the table had considerably dropped. I decided not to raise the idea that killing “happy” animals might strike some as particularly twisted. The poulet à la parisienne on my Canadian colleague’s plate was barely touched, a fact yet another (American) colleague considered wasteful; he asked for a doggy bag. When the French waiter brought it back, together with a steep bill, I asked him whether their meat was organic and whether they knew the farm or even the particular animal it came from. I lack the words to convey the disdain in his eyes when he professed not to understand my questions.

I am telling this not only to show that the question of whether or not to eat meat and, if yes, what kind of meat, involves various complex cultural habits. I am telling this also in order to show that there is a gap between the expectations most EU citizens - and trusting visitors - have regarding the way the meat they eat is produced and what they are actually being served. This conversation took place in 2015. In June 2018, the European Commission issued its memo on how to modernise and simplify the CAP beginning in 2020, which is consonant with the general trend I am sensing: There is clearly a concern for economic fairness as regards direct payments to agricultural producers, but also a concern for animal welfare, for sustainability, and for healthy food. However, the planned changes do not focus enough on factory-farmed meat, an issue that arguably raises more problems than four budding moral philosophers were able to discuss over lunch.

Three years of research later, and after being tested in the Twelve Stars online debate, my argument runs as follows: First, I give an account of why factory-farmed meat is problematic. Next, I propose that the EU should work to abolish factory farming by 2030. Third, I address objections and demands for specification. Finally, I return to that table in Paris and imagine how a lunch break of a group of moral philosophers who care about the suffering of animals might look in 2030.

“Factory farming”: a multidimensional problem and a restatement “Factory farming” is shorthand for what is commonly understood as the form of animal husbandry for the purpose of producing meat that is part of industrialised agriculture and that prioritises maximisation of production over other concerns, such as animal welfare, environmental integrity, or good working conditions for humans. Standards for such farms will vary, and it is true that the practice is more heavily regulated in the EU with regard to said concerns than in the US, for instance. However, the practice remains problematic in many ways. I identify five: animal welfare, public health, environmental integrity, economic fairness, and food justice.

Factory farming falls short of living up to the minimal moral standards concerning the treatment of farm animals that the majority of EU citizens expect. The latest Eurobarometer on animal welfare, from 2016, has shown that 94 percent of EU citizens think that animal welfare is important, and 82 percent think that more needs to be done for farm animals. In addition, support for demanding animal-welfare standards can be generated from any of the most widespread ethical theories in the European context (utilitarianism, deontology, virtue ethics, Christianity, Islam, Judaism), suggesting that public opinion is indeed on to something.

However, even on purely self-interested grounds, factory farming is problematic due to the risks to public health. These are posed by zoonoses, such as salmonellosis (typhoid fever), swine or bird flu, as well as multi-resistant bacteria bred by overuse of antibiotics; the latter alone are responsible for 90,000 deaths annually in Europe. Many more people die from cardiovascular diseases and cancer, the risk of which is significantly linked to the overconsumption of meat. Air and water pollution typically associated with factory farming pose additional health risks, such as respiratory diseases, methemoglobinemia, or E. coli infections.

Speaking of air and water pollution, the negative effects of factory farming on the local and global environment are considerable and well-known. Locally, factory farming promotes monoculture, pollutes the soil and water, and uses sometimes scarce water. Globally, it contributes to climate change; in fact, factory farming contributes almost as much greenhouse gases as the use of fossil fuels. In the southern hemisphere, moreover, it destroys small-scale farming and is one of the main drivers behind deforestation, thus doubling the negative effects on the atmosphere.

There is also an issue of economic fairness. Under the EU’s CAP, factory farming - including feed production - reaps the lion’s share of the direct payments simply because of the size of the farms. In addition, products that would not survive on the market receive subsidies in order to balance out the losses in price on the market, or farms receive money to cover storage costs. Factory farming also destroys many rural areas and leads to a loss of jobs. The costs of this unsustainable practice that favours agroindustry fall on European taxpayers.

Finally, factory farming contributes to the risk of hunger and poverty in the Majority World in three ways: First, crops adequate for human consumption are exported as feed. Second, monoculture farming of feed crops for export to richer countries reduces the local production of food crops. Third, the subsidised dumping of overproduced factory-farmed meat onto, for example, African markets destroys the less industrialised local producers, making the supply of food to the local population less reliable.

In light of this, it becomes clear that the problem is not just about the numbers of animals or whether they are kept under conditions that do or do not conjure up the image of a factory. While there may not be a general consensus on what exactly the problem is, there is a convergence in the view that large-scale, subsidised production of cheap animal products is unacceptable. Not least because many people push back against generalised criticism of “factory farming” (and my Twelve Stars online debate was no exception to that), I suggest that we specifically label the practice as problematic because it is at odds with EU citizens’ expectations, with considered self-interest, as well as with economic and global justice. I understand factory farming to include all forms of animal husbandry that are ethically problematic for one of these reasons: animal suffering, public health risks, local and global environmental destruction, economic unfairness, food injustice.

Let us abolish factory farming by 2030 Planned changes in its CAP suggest that the EU is already willing to move towards showing greater concern for protecting the environment and for mitigating climate change – which also includes some concern for improving animal welfare. However, the realities confronting this are sobering: pushback from farmers’ lobbies and food companies, misleading marketing labels, increased import of animal products from non-EU countries that do not comply with EU standards, and ongoing violations of extant animal-welfare and environmental regulations (e.g. pig tail docking is standard practice, and then there are the more egregious cases of horrific conditions on farms, which are sometimes owned by politicians themselves). Moreover, some of the most promising policies are optional.

On the grounds that the practice is clearly problematic but hard to improve incrementally, the EU should therefore work towards abolishing factory farming by 2030. The model could be the planned ban on single-use plastic.

Objections and demands for specification In the following, I am going to address concerns some may have and provide answers that I have had the chance to develop as part of the Twelve Stars online debate, and that I have thought through since.

A ban is one thing; the question of alternatives is another. Poor people, in particular, might no longer be able to afford to eat meat because it has become much more expensive. What should people eat if factory-farmed meat is banned?

“Happy meat” is one alternative, and it is much more expensive indeed. Also, this would never be an option for everyone simply because not enough meat could be produced while complying with the standards. There are other alternatives, though: clean meat, meat substitutes, no meat. No meat and some meat substitutes are not more expensive than factory-farmed meat. Clean meat may be affordable in the future (possibly even by 2030), if appropriately incentivised.

Speaking of incentives, isn’t that a better way to go than a ban? Rather than issuing a controversial ban, the EU could work via sanctions and rewards by cutting subsidies for industrial farming methods while only supporting those that are ethical.

True, but there are reasons to worry that change won’t come fast enough by means of incentives. Public opinion has disagreed with the CAP principles for quite some time, e.g. with the idea that funding should be relative to farm size. It is only now that some changes will be made, and it is unclear that the planned reduction of payments as of €60,000 and the cap at €100,000 will be considered agreeable. Simply capping a mechanism of distributing subsidies that is problematic in the first place, rather than reforming it, might not be enough.

It could, of course, be strategically more advantageous to work within existing schemes, using extant ideas on conditionality and eco-schemes within the CAP as points of entry. However, one would hope that especially the latter would be compulsory and, what is more, that national and EU politicians would support only those practices that are truly environment- and climate-friendly, and, on top of that, animal-friendly, too. At present, the focus on animal welfare is negligible, and the CAP’s effectiveness on this has been justly doubted in the past.

Speaking of alternatives that are truly friendly to the environment, the climate, and animals, shouldn’t we learn – for sustainability reasons alone – to do without animal products? It would be disingenuous of me not to admit that, personally, I agree. However, this proposal strikes me as not fully supported by public opinion. While public opinion is rarely considered to be the sole arbiter of moral and political change (think of the death sentence), ethical theory has not yet converged on this point either. Still, the EU should financially support experiments in vegan farming as part of the research supported by the European Innovation Partnership (EIP-AGRI). It should also prepare its market for clean meat and other, plant-based meat alternatives.


I argue that by neither producing nor importing factory-farmed meat, EU agriculture would be more in line with the ethical expectations of European citizens. Given that almost a third of the European budget is dedicated to the CAP, and given that ethical views and political concerns are converging in favour of an agriculture that transcends all the problems posed by factory farming, this proposal has the potential to truly innovate EU politics.

Back to the table: If all goes well, in 2030, Anton, Betty, Carla, and Don will go for lunch. Betty, who just loves the taste of “real meat”, will be amazed by the newest “foulet” à la parisienne made from clean meat. Anton will gladly inform her that his parents have been in the business of producing meat alternatives, a sector in which the EU has been heavily investing over the last decade. And Carla will politely express bewilderment as Don regrets that he can’t afford to have dinner at that famous place in Pigalle where they painlessly kill a “happy” animal the customer chooses right in front of you. Maybe, eventually, their conversation will revolve around the latest proposal to include animals in the health care system, discussed in the European Parliament, and how curious it is that, in 2019, it was the animal issue that really united an otherwise largely divided European citizenry.

Further reading Jacy Reese, The End of Animal Farming: How Scientists, Entrepreneurs, and Activists Are Building an Animal-Free Food System, Beacon Press, 2018.

Monique Janssens and Muel Kaptein, The Ethical Responsibility of Companies Toward Animals: A Study of the Expressed Commitment of the Fortune Global 200, Journal of Corporate Citizenship 2016(63), 2014.

Online Debate

On 2 June 2018, Mara-Daria Cojocaru defended her proposal in the Twelve Stars debate. The main objections are presented below. Rebuttals can be followed in the online debate.

Background Research

Read up on current initiatives and proposals concerning this topic in our background briefing.

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