Keys to understand the controversy over the ‘macrofarms’

The controversial criticism of the Minister of Consumption, Alberto Garzón, against those known as “macrogranjas” have opened the debate on the effects of these intensive livestock farms on the environment, animal welfare or meat quality.

In an interview with The Guardian, Garzón accused factory farming of producing “a meat of worse quality” with practices of “animal abuse” and with “a huge ecological impact”, statements that have raised doubts in Spanish society about this type of livestock and have provoked a strong reaction in this productive sector and in the political sphere.

1. What are macro farms?

The term ‘macro farm’ does not appear in any regulations nor does it have an official definition, but it is used by environmental organizations to describe industrial or intensive livestock facilities where a large number of stabled and feed-fed animals are raised to obtain the maximum production of meat, milk or eggs at the lowest cost and in the shortest possible time.

Furthermore, in Spain there are no global official data that allow knowing the number of livestock farms of all kinds that house from hundreds to thousands of animals.

Thus, the Minister of Consumption uses as an example farms with 4,000, 5,000 or 10,000 head of cattle, but in the bovine sector only the project for the exploitation of 23,520 dairy cows in the Soria municipality of Noviercas stands out with a five-figure number.

The Ministry of Agriculture counts 115 farms with more than 626 dairy cows and, among those intended for raising calves, 3,730 with more than 100 wet nurses, but there are no specific data on the largest cattle farms, because they are exempt for now from reporting their polluting emissions.

2.What is its environmental impact?

However, active farms in the pig and poultry sector are obliged to do so. In this way, the inventory of the Ministry for the Ecological Transition called the State Registry of Emissions and Polluting Sources reveals that there are more than 2,400 farms with more than 2,000 places for fattening pigs of 30 kilos and 550 with more than 40,000 places for poultry.

Spain is the EU country where citizens have more meat at their disposal, with 98.79 kilos per year per inhabitant, according to the latest data from the FAO.

And, at least in the pig sector, during the last 13 years it has been registered in Spain a significant decline in the number of small farms, at the same time as the number of large livestock farms increased.

With data from the Ministry of Agriculture, the number of small pig farms fell by 30% during the last decade, while that of the largest grew by 3%.

And what is its impact on the environment? The livestock sector was in 2020 the third with more weight in the emission of greenhouse gases in Spain, with 14.1% of the total, behind the 27.7% corresponding to transport and 21.4% of industry.

An agricultural and livestock activity that increased these emissions by 1.2% throughout the year, mainly as a result of the growth of livestock herds, “responsible for 64.8% of emissions from this sector”, mainly due to those from manure management, as explained in an Ecological Transition report.

Intensive poultry and pig farming is responsible for 38% of the methane and 24% of the nitrous oxide emitted in Spain, two greenhouse gases with a global warming potential 21 and 310 times greater than that of CO2, respectively, according to the EU Nitrates Directive. In addition, methane was the second most important gas in total Spanish emissions in 2020, 14.3% of the total.

To control the environmental impact of livestock farming, Spain uses a State Registry that lists the more than 3,700 large farms that report their emissions, but which only includes pig and poultry farms, because cattle farms are not still required to provide that information.

3. Does it fail to comply with pollutant emission limits?

The fact is that the European Commission announced in December that it will take Spain to the Court of Justice of the EU for no have taken sufficient measures to combat nitrate pollution, after warning since 2018 that this country was in breach of the 1991 Directive on the matter.

This 1991 Directive obliges Member States to adopt measures to prevent nitrates from agricultural sources from contaminating groundwater and surface water, as well as to establish action programs that prevent and reduce this type of pollution.

Spain also exceeds the ceiling set for emissions of ammonia (NH3), an atmospheric pollutant generated by 96% by agricultural and livestock activities and which, according to the European Commission, harms human health and the environment because it contributes “to the process of acidification of the soil, the eutrophication of water and tropospheric ozone pollution”.

With data from Ecological Transition, Spain exceeded by 34% the ceiling of 353 kilotons of ammonia in force in 2019, emitting 474.4 kilotons into the atmosphere that year, and the figure has continued to grow by 2.7% since then.

The ministry confirms that the increase in these emissions recorded since 2013 is linked to the “increase in the livestock herd” and the use of fertilizers.

4. Do animals suffer abuse?

Regarding the accusations of mistreatment, the General Council of Veterinary Colleges ensures that industrial livestock farming complies with European and national animal welfare regulations, both on the farm and in transport and the slaughterhouse, although environmental organizations denounce that it encourages extreme overcrowding and objectification of animals and even protects cruel treatment.

The management of intensive pig farms with animal welfare requirements is regulated in a royal decree of 2020 that also limits the maximum number of heads to 750 mothers and 4,000 fattening places. Another more recent decree, from 2021, establishes the criteria corresponding to poultry farms.

For bovine farms, The Government is also finalizing a decree that will set accommodation and food conditions to prevent animal abuse and will limit the capacity of the new farms -not the existing ones- to 725 milking cows or 1,400 fattening calves.

Despite the framework of national and European regulations to guarantee animal welfare, Greenpeace states that the number of non-compliances is very high on pig farms, very few inspections and very few sanctioned installations. He even questions the legislation itself for being “tailor-made for the industry” and allowing “animals to live in harsh conditions.”

5. Is it meat of poorer quality?

As for the quality of meat from animals raised on Spanish industrial farms, it is subjected to rigorous controls, although there are no systems that allow it to be compared objectively with that of extensive livestock farming.

Veterinarians remember that it complies with rigorous sanitary controls throughout the production and distribution chain. And the European Commissioner for Agriculture, Janusz Wojciechowski, stresses that it is not of lower quality than the rest of the EU.

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But is it worse than that of animals raised in extensive livestock farms? The truth is there are no objective evaluation methods to measure meat quality depending on their origin, although the consumer organization Facua warns that it is worse due to factors such as the forced immobilization of animals, their diet and the drugs administered to them.

Complying with consumption requirements, technical-sanitary regulations and labeling regulations simply means “meeting a minimum quality requirement”, but meat from “an overcrowded animal” is “much fattier” and is also worse because of the type of food, point out Facua sources, who also ask for stricter protocols on the drugs they can receive.

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