Animal Factory

St. Marten’s Press, 2010, 512 pages

Animal Factory: The Looming Threat of Industrial Pig, Dairy, and Poultry Farms to Humans and the Environment is a captivating journalistic narrative that follows the stories of three families and their communities as they campaign against concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO), more commonly referred to as factory farms. Kirby’s exceptionally well-researched book is a detailed account of the issues that CAFOs cause to both the environment and to the humans who neighbour them.

While the inhumane conditions of some large-scale farming operations have raised public awareness about the origins of food, many people still do not know how smaller grocery bills can lead to larger environmental costs. Kirby’s book is a hybrid, mixing investigative journalism with more academic text. It creates an engrossing read. The reader can take it as a gripping story about community advocates and their struggles with CAFOs, or accept his book as a guide to further their own research, advocacy and consumer decisions. Either way, the power of Kirby’s work lies in his engaging writing.

Animal Factory approaches the topic from a mainstream perspective, introducing a wider audience to the systematic difficulties of animal production. He does not saddle the blame on farmers, but rather emphasizes the perspective put forward by Fred Kirschenmann, that the production method is systemically faulty.

A couple of things in the book dilute his central message. First, Kirby notes in the introduction that he is not a vegetarian, and that he occasionally consumes fast food. Kirby also includes a grocery bill comparing protein products of non-CAFO and CAFO origin, which again points out the short-term financial benefits of factory-farmed food. In this respect, the argument for abstaining from factory farm products loses its impact. Offering alternatives could have reinforced the message. The low cost of factory-farmed food is a result of consumer demand. A strong case can be made that there is a moral obligation for the public to investigate the origins of their food and to alter their diets to reduce the intake of animal products.

Regrettably, Animal Factory advocates not so much for progress in the treatment of animals at production facilities, but for a fundamental shift of their categorisation as material goods. However, Kirby does build a very solid argument for the enforcement of regulatory laws and the supervision of factory farms, similar to the standards applied to other mega-production facilities.

Animal Factory is a skillfully written book that allows a broad audience to consider its message. Some readers may finish the work and continue their consumerist practices without immediate change. However, Kirby’s message is one that will resonate on the conscience of most readers when they pick up that next steak, bottle of milk or carton of eggs.

Marie-France Boissonneault is an Adjunct Professor in the Ontario Veterinary College (OVC) at the University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada, and author of Every Living Being: Representations of Nonhuman Animals in the Exploration of Human Well-Being (2010).

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