FOCUS: Feeding The Risk Society: Factory Farming And The Intensification Of Risk

FOCUS: Feeding The Risk Society: Factory Farming And The Intensification Of Risk

Richie Nimmo

The world faces unprecedented challenges in the coming decades, arising from the conjunction of the climate crisis, collapsing biodiversity, a growing and rapidly urbanising population, and intensifying consumption of finite resources. Central to these challenges is the question of how we produce, consume and think about our food, and the profound implications for the natural environment as well as for human and animal health, security and wellbeing. Across the world older models of farming and animal husbandry are increasingly being replaced by industrial animal production operations, with the proliferation of ‘factory farming’. This process began in the mid-twentieth-century in the US and Europe, but is now accelerating worldwide alongside changing patterns of consumption linked to dominant models of agro-economic development. Current trends point to a global trajectory of growing consumption of animal-derived foods alongside increasing industrialisation and intensification of animal production. This trajectory brings an iceberg of overlapping risks, to environmental sustainability, food security, human health and animal welfare, with consequences reaching into every corner of life on earth. There is therefore increasing recognition of the need for a transition to more sustainable food systems which can mitigate these risks and nourish over the long term those things we most value, otherwise the century ahead presents a series of daunting systemic threats to human societies and the ecosystems that support human and nonhuman life.

This issue of Discover Society brings together six articles addressing various aspects of the complex nexus of food, farming, animals, environment, health and welfare from differing yet complementary perspectives. Steffen Hirth critically unpacks the notion of ‘plant-based foods’ in order to show how the sustainability case for animal-free food production and consumption is rooted in the material and ecological inefficiencies of animal farming. Meanwhile Lindsay Hamilton points to the widening gulf that separates consumers’ knowledges of food from that of producers and notes how this fuels food anxieties and polarises food discourses, arguing that bridging these ways of knowing through sensory practices could enable a more nuanced, grounded and constructive food ethics and politics. Maisie Tomlinson’s article notes that changing scientific conceptions and measures of animal welfare have influenced animal food production methods and regulations, and examines the significance of a new qualitative methodology for scientific animal welfare assessment rooted in recognition of human-animal intersubjectivity. In her article Camille Bellet looks at how animal health technologies have both shaped and been shaped by changing knowledges and meanings of animal health and wellbeing, outlining how the rise of digital animal health technologies in farming should be situated within a longer history in which standardisation and routinisation of animal healthcare has been integral to factory models of animal production. Elisa Pieri’s article looks at the risk of global pandemic outbreaks associated with such human practices as intensive animal farming. Pieri highlights how the preparedness measures currently in place involve radical uncertainties in the face of complexity yet neglect input from all affected stakeholders, including citizens, on such matters as setting priorities, whilst being more willing to focus on risky practices depicted as ‘pre-modern’ and ‘exotic’ than how industrial animal farming promotes the spread of monoculture, deforestation and encroachment of animal habitats all of which contribute to pandemic risk. This Focus article introduces the special issue. It discusses intensive animal agriculture and considers how theoretical frameworks from sociology can help us to better understand the current trajectory, its implications, and how it might be transformed.

In the years following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986, as the true scale and nature of the disaster gradually became more widely known, the German sociologist Ulrich Beck began publishing his theory of the Risk Society. This argued that the period since the mid 20th century had seen the emergence of qualitatively new risks, which he called mega-hazards, and which could no longer be adequately managed by the social and political institutions of the industrial era. The institutions and practices that had operated as a security pact against the many risks and uncertainties brought into being by industrial society, consisting of a patchwork quilt of public and private insurance arrangements, together with precautionary aftercare and the polluter pays principle, were now rendered meaningless by the worst imaginable scenarios brought into being by the new techno-scientific and ecological risks. The only means of assurance available for the political authorities in seeking to legitimise the risks attendant upon techno-economic ‘progress’ was therefore to deny the extent and severity of these risks and to espouse the dogma of techno-scientific infallibility. Since the worst imaginable scenarios posed near-existential risks which could not be meaningfully mitigated or planned for, the very possibility of their occurrence had to be denied. This in turn had led to a social and political crisis, as every accident or ‘near-miss’ further exposed the fallacy of this dogma and the insidious ubiquity of unmanageable large-scale risk, leading to a gradually deepening loss of public trust in the institutions and experts offering technical assurances, and the spread of ‘rational paranoia’. The result was a high-stakes global experiment with the health and security of humanity at large alongside a deepening institutional crisis arising from the non-management of existential risk and the increasing public visibility of this.

Very influential in the 1990s, Beck’s thesis in its various iterations has since fallen somewhat out of favour and has been the subject of some trenchant criticism, not least in the way it oscillates between emphasis of different mega-hazards—here nuclear energy, there climate change, here biotechnology—as suits the argument, as well as its tendency to overlook the socio-cultural variability of risk perceptions, and its lack of acknowledgement of the complexities of the role of science and expertise in late modern capitalist democracies: which is by no means simply that of denying or minimising risk. As an ambitious grand theory of a now rather old-fashioned sort, the risk society thesis is problematic in many ways on a close analysis of its value as an explanatory theory. Where it does still have considerable value however is as a sensitising framework which can be drawn upon more broadly in order to make overall sense of a complex and dynamic situation and arrive at a ‘big picture’. It is in this way that I want to suggest that Beck’s theory is useful in thinking about factory farming.

Factory farming is in essence a project of subjecting complex living systems to highly instrumentalised forms of knowledge and disciplinary control with the aim of ratchetting up their productivity and efficiency. That is why it is possible to make something like a sustainability argument in defence of intensive animal production on efficiency grounds. According to this rationale, the environmental impacts of animal farming are rooted in the inefficiencies of feed conversion, since a large part of the nutritional energy from plant foods is lost to humans by being converted into the animal’s movement and respiration, rather than into production of the milk, meat and eggs subsequently consumed by humans. This is usually mobilised as an argument for animal free diets, highlighting that significantly more land, water and other resources are consumed in the process of nourishing a given number of people on animal foods than if the same number of people were fed on plant foods alone. But a very similar logic can be used to argue that intensive farming systems are more sustainable than less intensive livestock farming practices because in their relentless pursuit of lower production costs through greater efficiency they minimise the energy lost through the animals’ ‘unnecessary’ movement as well as significantly reducing the amount of land required. What this overlooks however is risk, and how risk mediates society-environment relations in ways that tend to be overlooked by efficiency-based sustainability models.

In pursuing maximum efficiency through seeking to control every variable that might increase outputs and lower costs, factory farms create a boundary between the enclosed artificial environment of the factory farm and the wider environment beyond, across which movements and flows into and out of the system are regulated and controlled. Viewed in terms of resources, what flows into the system is capital, labour, expertise and technologies, water, land, and various plant-based feeds, whilst what flows out is animal-derived foods, meat, milk and eggs, transformed into consumable commodities. But viewed more materially, these do not exhaust the inflows and outflows of the factory farm, which vary according to region and regulatory regime but may also include medicines such as antibiotics and other pharmaceuticals such as hormones, various pollutants such as nitrates and phosphorous, methane emissions, other gases including hydrogen sulphide and ammonia, micro-organisms, pathogens and viruses, and huge volumes of biological waste. These constitute the messy material excesses left over from the efficiency-equation of factory farming, which there is no fully sustainable or non-toxic way of processing, containing or dealing with, given the vast quantities and high concentrations involved. This excess is not meant to exist and is therefore variously spread over the ground as manure, stored in pits or ponds, washed into rivers and waterways, transported to be discretely dumped elsewhere, or otherwise allowed to disperse or leach into the local environment. It may be socially and economically deleted, but its material residue persists. In one way or another most of this excess enters into local, regional or global ecosystems, that is to say, into the web of life, where it poses interconnected risks to human individual and public health, biodiversity and climate stability. It is this combination of instrumental control and intensification of complex natural systems treated as factors of production, together with an inability to ever fully control the material outflows that result from this, that underpins the nature of factory farms as incubators of risk.

As with the mega-hazards around which Beck’s theory is constructed, factory farms pose risks across multiple spatial and temporal scales. These range from the simmering background risk of a rapidly spreading global zoonosis such as avian flu or other pandemic emerging from a failure of biosecurity in such pathogen-incubating conditions, to the slow burn of accumulating antimicrobial resistance arising from the heavy non-therapeutic use of antibiotics as a disease-inhibitor and growth agent. They also encompass risks to animal welfare. Indeed research in human-animal studies has shown how relentless downward pressure on animal welfare standards is built into the very principles of operation of the ‘animal-industrial complex’, because the pursuit of ever-greater efficiency and productivity means instrumentalising every aspect of the animal’s existence and subjecting animal bodies to ever-greater degrees of mechanical, spatial, techno-scientific and pharmaceutical control, a logic simply incompatible with the flourishing of complex sentient creatures. Nor has this been entirely invisible to the public, at least since Ruth Harrison’s influential Animal Machines in 1964, which first brought the living—and dying—conditions of animals in industrial agriculture to widespread public attention, leading to a steady growth of popular concern for the welfare of intensively farmed animals. The response of the industry to the dilemma this posed has formed the basis of the tacit social contract which has served to legitimise factory farming in the intervening years.

On the one hand, there was an emphasis on the primacy of human needs and human welfare in terms of nutritional and socio-economic considerations, which meant that ensuring an abundant supply of affordable animal protein was viewed as an important marker of social and economic progress. This required producing as much animal food as possible as cheaply as possible, a paradigm known as ‘productivism’. At the same time, animal welfare was progressively transformed into a series of measurable indicators aligned with animal health, distanced from moral or emotional sentiments, and capable of being incorporated into the techno-scientific apparatus of intensive animal production systems. In this way, factory farming was rationalised by a modernist combination of humanist values, prioritising human welfare and socio-economic progress, alongside a scientific approach to animal health and welfare which, whilst subjecting some of the more overtly cruel practices to regulation, has otherwise allowed for business as usual within measurable parameters certified as acceptable by technical expertise. This has not entirely stymied the growth of public concern about farm animal welfare however, and factory farming meets with significant opposition from consumer groups and the wider public whenever its ongoing expansion becomes visible, in the form of a proposal for a new mega-dairy or intensive swine farming operation for example. Indeed, factory farming proliferates by relying upon the generally limited knowledge of animal production among increasingly urban populations, and by inhabiting the shadowy liminal space between people’s routine consumption habits and practices and their ideas and values concerning what is desirable and acceptable when it comes to animal welfare and the provenance of their food.

If the global growth and proliferation of factory farming is inconsistent with a future in which climate stability, protection of public health and rising standards of animal welfare are achievable, then what might risk society theory have to tell us about how this trajectory can be reshaped, mitigated or averted? Beck was pessimistic, but believed in true dialectical fashion that the risk society itself was its own worst enemy, as every ‘near miss’, accident or incident exposed not just the ever-present possibility of a larger catastrophe but its virtual inevitability in the long term. The main hope of escaping the self-endangering momentum of the risk society, for Beck, lay in the emergence of what he called ‘subpolitics’—social movements and organisations determined to question official accounts of risk and risk analyses, seeking to challenge the dogma of techno-scientific infallibility and the politics of techno-economic ‘progress’ as a fait accompli, and committed to opening up techno-political decision-making to wider scrutiny and debate by including the views of lay and dissenting experts. Fully realised, this would amount to an ecological extension of democracy.

Applied to factory farming this vision has some interesting implications. The erosion of trust in techno-scientific expertise and authority Beck pointed to is easily identified in the context of the agro-industrial food system. A succession of animal-related food scares and scandals —from BSE to H5N1 and swine flu, to campylobacter and salmonella, to the 2013 horsemeat scandal—have contributed to a growing perception of the animal-industrial complex and its products as risk-laden in multiple ways, and fuelled the burgeoning interest of growing numbers of consumers in the provenance of their food. Significant numbers are increasingly choosing to eschew foods they regard as too highly processed, as ‘unnatural’, unhealthy, or unethical, or to eschew animal foods either partially or entirely by turning to vegetarian or vegan diets. These trends are significant, as reflected in the marketing strategies of supermarkets and other retailers, which increasingly cater to these markets, albeit alongside business as usual in much of their other produce. They are rooted in rationales which often combine and connect concerns around risks to individual and public health, environmental as well as animal ethics, and distrust of extended and non-transparent food chains and their standards of hygiene, animal health and welfare, and environmental sustainability. The productivist social contract that has underpinned industrial animal farming is breaking down under the pressure of this emergent food-environment-animal-health subpolitics nexus.

Such trends are regionally variable however, and currently tend to be concentrated predominantly in urban areas in western countries. On a global scale they are counterbalanced if not overridden by the nutrition transition, the trend towards increasing consumption of animal foods across rapidly developing countries as they grow in affluence as well as population, which is in turn driving the rapid growth of industrial animal farming in those regions. Hence if the nexus of food-environment-animal-health subpolitics is to be an axis of systemic transformation of the kind required, then it must develop beyond its dominant consumerist modality and be effectively mobilised at the level of political-economic, industrial and financial dynamics. There are some tentative signs that this is at least partially underway in various developments and initiatives. One interesting example is the Jeremy Coller Foundation’s FAIRR (Food Animal Investment Risk and Return) Initiative, which seeks to facilitate growing recognition that the multiple interconnected environmental, social and governance risks associated with factory farming are financially material. In other words, these risks are of real significance for investors and merit serious consideration even on purely financial and business grounds, quite apart from questions of ethics or morality. Such developments parallel the emergence of the fossil fuel divestment movement, which seeks to promote and accelerate the recognition that a large proportion of existing fossil fuel reserves are effectively ‘stranded assets’ which cannot be burned, because doing so would be so catastrophic in its consequences as to undermine the global environmental, social and economic conditions required for their value to be realised. A similar logic applies to factory farms as icebergs of risk which will eventually undermine their own profitability and conditions of possibility. The socio-material logic of our current trajectory dictates that this point will arrive, but the critical question is whether it will arrive in time to leave an abundant, biodiverse and liveable world for ourselves and other animals.

Ulrich Beck (1992) ‘From Industrial Society to Risk Society: Questions of Survival, Social Structure and Ecological Enlightenment’, Theory, Culture and Society, 9: 97-123.
Charlotte Fabiansson and Stefan Fabiansson (2016) Food and the Risk Society: The Power of Risk Perception.
Ruth Harrison (1964) Animal Machines: The New Factory Farming Industry.
Pew Commission (2008) Industrial Farm Animal Production in America: Executive Summary.
Andrew Wasley and Madlen Davies (2017) The Rise of the ‘Megafarm’: How British Meat is Made, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, July 17.


Richie Nimmo is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Manchester. He researches and teaches in human-animal relations and environmental sociology, and has particular interests in human-animal-technology-environment assemblages. He is the author of Milk, Modernity and the Making of the Human, and editor of Actor-Network Theory Research, as well as numerous articles and chapters in human-animal relations, on topics ranging from Colony Collapse Disorder and the pollinator crisis to the emergence of the earliest mechanical devices for milking cows.

IMAGE CREDIT: iStockPhoto/Somrerk Kosolwitthayanant