MADRID – The number of macro farms in Spain has been growing for years. Thousands of pigs and cows are kept and exploited here in limited space. And as long as the food consumption pattern does not change, eliminating this type of livestock farming is impossible.
Although it is not widely publicised, the figures are impressive, writes Iñaki Iriarte Goñi in the newspaper ElDiario.es. Some pig farms concentrate 2,000 sows for breeding; a dairy farm in Caparroso (Navarra) has around 5,000 cows and plans to increase this number to over 7,000. This is the same company that presented a building project for over 23,000 cattle at a macro farm in Noviercas (Soria). However, in the case of poultry farms, the numbers shoot up even further. Furthermore, there are cases that manage the production of more than 200,000 animals.
Spain largest pork producer in Europe
According to Greenpeace, the population of these animals in Spain increased by 21.5% between 2015 and 2020. The huge growth is the result of the soaring demand for pork from China. Because this is where the swine fever epidemic decimated the number of farms in the country. Furthermore, in 2020, Spain became the first pig producer in the European Union, with 56 million animals and five million tons of meat. This is according to the Ministry of Agriculture.
Highest possible production per animal
The key to intensive farming is to achieve the highest possible production per animal in a predetermined time. Consequently, the animals are concentrated in prepared facilities where they are provided with the necessary amounts of food, water, supplements, and medicines. The latter includes antibiotics, essential to keep diseases and infections to a minimum. Foods with increasingly sophisticated mixes are also essential.
Ultimately, it is a matter of combining technologies and time to standardise as much as possible the breeding, fattening, or production of meat, milk, or eggs, based on applying to the animals the organic logic typical of large industries. They are called macro farms, but actually have more to do with industrial organisations and logistics systems than farms. Not to mention the welfare of the animals.
Controlled by multinationals
The huge intensive livestock network developed in Spain in recent decades has been controlled by multinationals since the 1960s. They provide the physical production space and especially the work. Their intermediary function is further subordinated to the large companies which provide them with the necessary resources to organise and maintain the activity. On the other hand, the no less large companies control food distribution and set the selling prices of the products.
Decrease in the number of farmers and farms
The increase in livestock production in Spain at the moment, as their size increases, is clearly accompanied by a decrease in the number of farmers and farms. By increasing the number of animals per farm and introducing increasingly complex and automated technical systems, an attempt is made to realise economies of scale that make it possible to maintain a position on the (world) market and to offer products as cheaply as possible. Thus, large companies directly or indirectly promote the macro-farm model that meets these objectives.
However, this commercial interest clearly encounters very divergent limits. The first is of an economic nature. The sharp increase in Spanish livestock production is based on the growth in exports that are not certain to be sustained in the future. This is especially evident in pork production, which is more than twice the national consumption. What is not consumed in Spain mainly goes to China in large quantities. Should China increase its own production, as appears to be the case, it cannot be ruled out that this export boom could turn into a real pig bubble.
But beyond that, there are environmental limits. The Hydrographic Society of the Duero Basin calculated that the 23,000 cows on the proposed Noviercas farm consume as much as 24 litres of water per second. The basin simply does not have these resources and therefore the permit has been suspended for the time being. Pigs also need an average of five thousand litres of water per year. All this in a country where many regions are seeing groundwater levels fall rapidly due to drought.
In addition to the excessive consumption of resources, there is the serious problem of the complex handling of faeces generated by the existing macro farms. “The slurry has a high nitrogen and ammonia content,” says Toni Jorge of the association ACEM-Ecologistas en Acción from Cardenete, Cuenca. “All that nitrogen, once the slurry spreads, goes through filtration to the aquifer.” Despite what the companies claim, it is highly questionable whether this waste can be recycled without causing a harmful overload to the surrounding area and to the aquifers around the large farms.
There are also limits in terms of health and hygiene. Despite the fact that technobiology and veterinary medicine are currently managing the animal epidemics in intensive livestock farms, mad cows, bird flu or swine fever still pose a real danger. It is obvious that the high concentration of animals on macro farms increases the potential hazards. Especially in light of possible zoonoses, infections that can be transmitted from animals to humans. It seems prudent to exercise caution now that we have seen the effects an uncontrolled pandemic can have on our society.
Rural depopulation as an argument
Proponents of macrofarms consistently point to the important role these farms play in countering the worrying depopulation of rural areas. However, according to Ecologistas and Acción, that argument is not convincing. According to a study conducted by this environmental group between 2000 and 2020 in places with less than 5,000 inhabitants, the places with intensive livestock farming lost more population than those where such activities do not take place.
In fact, because macro farms are highly automated, they generate very little local employment. Moreover, the side-effects of these businesses with unavoidable odors or with an abundance of trucks loading and unloading can negatively impact other complementary activities such as rural tourism, and work in exactly the opposite direction.
See also: Again shocking images from Spanish pig farms
As long as current food consumption patterns do not change, eliminating intensive livestock farming is impossible. However, that does not mean that their growth cannot be let go. If one is solely guided by economies of scale and competitiveness, the environmental limits, the hygienic prudence, and also the social prudence is more quickly exceeded, while these must be respected in order to prevent irreparable damage to the environment.
In addition to the limits mentioned faced by macro farms in Spain, there are other factors that threaten the industry. The enormously increased costs of raw materials, transport, and energy. One example is that the raw material used to feed the animals, mainly imported from Brazil (transgenic and glyphosate riddled soybeans) has risen in price between 20% and 40% due to shortages and speculation.
The skyrocketing energy prices are also heavily impacting these high-tech livestock farms, as is another of their major expenditures, maritime transport (involved in raw material imports and final product exports). The price of renting a container is multiplied by ten.
Demand from China is declining
In addition, the demand from China is now declining as the country has overcome the swine fever epidemic. The national market is saturated. In any case, people are not going to eat more meat. In July, Spain’s Consumer Affairs Minister Garzón called on people to eat less meat. They argued that ‘eating too much meat is bad for our health and our planet’.