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By Jessica Corbett

Critics of factory farming renewed demands for U.S. policy reforms on Tuesday in response to new federal data on the nation’s agricultural activity, which is released every five years.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) put out its report about the 1.9 million farms and ranches that collectively spanned more than 880 million acres as of 2022 — a loss of nearly 142,000 operations and over 20 million acres since 2017.

The document features state tallies and other details including inventory and values for crops and livestock.

“The USDA’s new data show that without policy changes, factory farms will continue to get bigger and bigger, wreaking havoc on public health, the environment, and the climate,” warned Environmental Working Group (EWG) Midwest Director Anne Schechinger.

Schechinger highlighted some of the key data points for EWG’s website:

“For cattle and broiler chicken farms, the number of the largest factory farms has grown since 2012. In 2012, there were 1,124 cattle farms in the U.S. with 5,000 cattle or more per farm. But that increased to 1,270 mega factory farms in 2017 and 1,453 in 2022, according to the USDA’s Census of Agriculture data — a 29% increase.

“And the largest chicken farms increased by 17%, from 6,332 farms with 500,000 or more birds in 2012 to 7,211 farms in 2017 and 7,406 farms in 2022. The number of the biggest hog factory farms increased greatly, from 3,006 in 2012 to 3,600 in 2017 but went down slightly to 3,540 in 2022.

“Across all three animal types — cattle, chickens, and hogs — the number of animals produced in the largest factory farms increased. There were 28% more cattle produced in the largest facilities in 2022 than in 2012, 24% more hogs, and 24% more chickens.”

Food & Water Watch (FWW), which also analyzed the new government data, found that “there are currently 1.7 billion animals raised on U.S. factory farms every year; an increase of 6% since 2017, 47% more than roughly 20 years ago in 2002.”

The group emphasized that “as factory farms take over, the number of small dairies raising animals outside the factory farm system plummeted, with barely one-third as many today compared to 20 years ago.”

FWW Research Director Amanda Starbuck declared that “America today is truly a factory farming nation. Status quo legislating in Washington is enabling a corporate feeding frenzy in rural America.”

“As industrial confinements drive family-scale farmers off their land, we are left with skyrocketing numbers of animals on factory farms producing enormous amounts of waste,” she continued. “The benefits flow to private coffers while our communities and environment are left holding the bag.”

The 24,000 U.S. factory farms produce 940 billion pounds of manure annually, according to Starbuck’s group.

That is “twice as much as the sewage produced by the entire U.S. population” and “52 billion pounds more than in 2017, equivalent to creating a new city of 39 million people (or nearly two New York City metro areas) in the past five years,” FWW explained.

Animal waste from factory farms, or concentrated animal feeding operations, “often pollutes our water and air,” noted EWG’s Schechinger. “These environmental damages are also dangerous for public health, with toxins from animal manure sickening people and poisoning wildlife.”

Starbuck argued that “enough is enough — Congress must pass the Farm System Reform Act to ban factory farming now.”

That bill (S.271/H.R. 797) “would, among other things, strengthen the Packers & Stockyards Act to crack down on the monopolistic practices of meatpackers and corporate integrators, place a moratorium on large factory farms… and restore mandatory country-of-origin labeling requirements,” according to its sponsors, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.).

The pair reintroduced that legislation in February 2023 alongside the Industrial Agriculture Accountability Act, Protecting America’s Meatpacking Workers Act, and Protect America’s Children from Toxic Pesticides Act.

“I have been very proud to partner with Sen. Booker to try and reform our broken food system to maintain fair competition, high animal welfare standards, and level the playing field for family farmers, ranchers, and agricultural workers,” Khanna said at the time.

“These bills shine a light on the disturbing practices in our current system and can help usher in a new, safer, and more resilient system.”

Originally published by Common Dreams.

Jessica Corbett is a senior editor and staff writer for Common Dreams.