The history of factory farming is the history of chicken farming. In the 1920's, the discovery and synthesis of essential vitamins led to the possibility of raising chickens indoors. In 1928, the Republican Party ran a campaign for a new age of "Republican Prosperity" which included a "chicken in every pot. And a car in every backyard, to boot." While the Great Depression that quickly followed might have put a dent in the car plan (not for too long, though, as we all know), chicken factory farming took off.
The term "concentrated animal feeding operation" (CAFO) was first defined by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1976, as a follow-up to the Clean Water Act of 1972. The reasons for the definition was to try to get some control over the immense polluting animal factories that previously had no real oversight. A large CAFO was defined, for chickens, as a facility with 125,000 or more chickens.
According to the Worldwatch Institute, 74% of chickens worldwide are raised on CAFO's and these operations essentially account for the vast majority of chicken eaten in this country. There are over 600 large CAFO's in Alabama alone, and many of these have well in excess of 1,000,000 live chickens at any given time.
So first there is the issue of waste - how much is there? Your average broiler in a CAFO will produce 0.14 pounds of feces per day. There are an estimated 16 billion chickens alive in the world at any given time. Some simple math: Worldwide Annual Fecal Production in CAFO's: 302.5 million tons
, similar to the total world output of potatoes!
One of the huge issues here is that CAFO manure isn't put back into the land, as opposed to that from, say, pastured chickens. This is extremely toxic stuff that, in concentrated form, has so much nitrate that it will burn any plant it comes into contact with. This stuff is often stored in lagoons where it might be broken down by bacteria and algae over the years. Of course, there have been numerous episodes of lagoon breaks, resulting in death to millions of fish. The Gulf of Mexico dead zone, a 22,000 square kilometer area of no aquatic life, can thank CAFO's for at least 15% of its regular supply of death-dealing nitrogen (the oil spill, in comparison, is about 20% as big).
And what happens to the chickens who die from the stress of the CAFO environment, before they even hit the slaughterhouse? There's about 7,000,000,000 of these every single year, ~5% of the total. These chickens become the "property" of the CAFO farmer (as opposed to the live ones which are leased from a corporation) and the disposal is at their discretion, usually through incineration in the United States. That at least is preferable to China, where up to 80% of these downers end up in the food supply anyway.
Okay, I'll wrap this up with a comment about E. coli. The contamination of more that 99% of supermarket birds by E. coli, and the resultant one million or more cases of food poisoning in the United States each year, is more the result of slaughtering practices, but these practices have come hand in hand with the CAFO's they support. Basically the crowded conditions guarantee that all chickens will share pathogenic strains of bacteria. They are then slaughtered well in advance of consumption, allowing the feces tainting their bodies to harbor a sizeable population of E. coli. Bon appetit!References:
2. Estimating Manure Production
3. Image of an old-fashioned CAFO that has only one floor and has natural sunlight, from Wikipedia.