Does Factory Farming Exist in Canada? Here’s what the data says.

On December 11, 2019, Ontario MPP Goldie Ghamari spoke in the Ontario Legislature to provide support for Bill 156, Ontario’s new Ag-Gag bill: Security from Trespass and Protecting Food Safety Act. Bill 156 aims to hide animal cruelty by increasing trespassing fines for people exposing animal abuse on farms, creating “animal protection zones,” and silencing whistleblowers who expose animal cruelty under “false pretenses.” (June 2020 update: Ontario has passed bill 156 on June 17, 2020). In support of this bill, Gharami stated:

Mr. Speaker, it’s unfortunate that a lot of people think that in Canada, we have factory farming, but, the reality is that over 97% of Canada’s farmers have small farms, and they’re family-owned farms, and they’ve been in the business for generations. Factory farming does not exist in Canada. Factory farming is something that happens in the States, but there’s nothing like that here.

Ontario MPP Goldie Ghamari – Full Text

This post won’t examine Bill 156 as there has been much written about it on all sides, from both supporters and critics. Instead, we will examine Goldie Ghamari’s claim: “Factory farming does not exist in Canada” by looking at how farming in Canada has dramatically changed in the past half century.

What is Factory Farming?

Like many Canadians, Ghamari mistakenly believes that factory farms and family farms are mutually exclusive. The reason being is that factory farming (or intensive animal agriculture) is not characterized by who owns the farm (family, corporation, etc.). Rather, factory farming is characterized by the approaches, practices, and technologies used to produce animal products. The following definition is instructive here:

“Intensive animal farming or industrial livestock production, also known by its opponents as factory farming, is a type of intensive agriculture, specifically an approach to animal husbandry designed to maximize production, while minimizing costs. To achieve this, agribusinesses keep livestock such as cattle, poultry, and fish at high stocking densities, at large scale, and using modern machinery, biotechnology, and global trade.”1 (Emphasis added)

While a family may own the farm, the approaches that the family uses may resemble the mechanisms and physical industrial structures of factories more than they do the idyllic green grass fields that are commonly portrayed to consumers. In the animal agriculture industry, animals are seen as products, and anything that can increase efficiencies and lower production costs is adopted. To be competitive in animal agriculture, a farmer needs to produce more with less. This means more animals, less space. This extreme concentration of animals is the single-most defining characteristic of factory farms, and also the most significant shift of how animal agriculture has changed since the post-war period. Although there are many other common features that exemplify factory farms (such as heavy antibiotic and hormone use, selective breeding, and reliance on automation), we will focus on the consolidation and densification of the Canadian “family farm”. For a thorough overview of factory farming and its characteristic modes of production, Sentient Media provides an in-depth analysis that can be found here.

Fact check: “Factory farming does not exist in Canada.”

Not only does factory farming exist in Canada, it is an essential feature of our contemporary mass-production agricultural system. Canada would not be able to produce and slaughter over 800 million land animals annually using traditional farming methods. Canada’s rural landscape is littered with feedlots and long shiny “barns” where tens of thousands of animals are packed tightly together on concrete floors and metal crates, under perpetual artificial light, unable to ever see outside, and in some cases, unable to even walk or turn around. There is very little about modern animal agriculture that resembles “farming” the way the public typically thinks about farming. Farms have become industrial powerhouses designed to extract as much value as quickly as possible from animals.

We can look at the intensification of farms to demonstrate the scope of factory farming in Canada. Data from Statistics Canada shows how the agricultural landscape is drastically changing. In the past 45 years, there exists an inverse relationship between the number of farms in Canada and the average number of animals on each farm. The number of farms has decreased significantly, while the average number of animals per farm has shot up dramatically. From 1976 to 2016, the average number of sheep per farm doubled from 56 to 112. The number of cows more than doubled, from 67 to 166. For turkeys, the average number increased almost five fold, from 639 to 3,123.

Over this time period, the most significant intensification occurred for chickens and pigs. The number of chicken farms decreased substantially from 99,128 to 23,910, but the increase in animals per farm was seven fold, from 878 to 6,086. And finally, the most staggering example of intensification in Canadian animal agriculture is pig farming – the number of pig farms decreased from 63,602 to 8,402, while the average numbers of pigs per farm increased over 18 times, from just 91 in 1976 to 1,677 in 2016.

The relationship is the same for every kind of animal: the number of farms are decreasing, while the number of animals on each farm is increasing. Intensification of animals of this magnitude is characteristic of factory farming. It is impossible to maintain thousands of animals on one farm without using modern industrial technologies and high densification that typify industrial animal agriculture. “Small, family farms” simply can’t (and don’t) sustain the meat, dairy, and egg industries.

Taken together, we can get a more realistic picture of what farming actually looks like in Canada: less farms, more animals. Factory farming is the norm, and it is only getting worse.

From 1976 to 2016, the total number of animal farms decreased from 412,404 to 119,699. Meanwhile, the number of animals increased from 117 million to 181 million. Not only are the average numbers of animals per farm increasing, but more animals are killed each year than ever before in Canada (for a full analysis of how many animals are killed in Canada, read our post here). This means that more animals live on fewer farms, yet more animals are being slaughtered at ever increasingly rates. This is in large part due to selective breeding and use of hormones which significantly reduce the life span of farm animals so that they reach their slaughter age extremely young.

The Family Farm Masquerade

The “small family farm” is quickly becoming thing of the past. Farms may be owned by families, but they operate as factories. Today, the “family farm” is a misleading trope used by politicians and producers to portray the meat, dairy, and egg industries. They try to create an illusion that animal agriculture consists solely of small, local farms – where farmers heed careful attention to their animals’ welfare, and the animals live happy lives running around in green grass and engaging in normal animal behaviors with their kin.

While small family farms certainly exist in Canada, these are the exceptions, not the norm. For an industry that kills nearly one billion land animals in Canada each year, the sheer volume of animals killed necessitates that factory farming exists. Animal agriculture wouldn’t be economically viable otherwise.

For an overview of what factory farming looks like in Canada, view the videos in our post: Animal Agriculture in Canada.