Agriculture as Assembly (or, what is the nature of the factory in ‘factory farming’?)

By Jim Sumberg and John Thompson

When considering the nature and spatial distribution of economic activity, two fundamental contrasts take centre stage: ‘urban vs. rural’ and ‘industry vs. agriculture’. While it is clear that ‘urban agriculture’ and ‘rural industry’ are possibilities (indeed important realities), it is the ‘urban + industry’ and ‘rural + agriculture’ associations that continue to frame both social imaginaries and policy discourse.

Perhaps it is because they play on and appear to contradict these deeply rooted associations that terms such as ‘factory farming’ and ‘industrial agriculture’ – which are used to simultaneously name, frame and shame – have such power. But what are we to understand by factory farming?

Campaigning and advocacy groups that uses the term and the image of factory farming draw attention to what are said to be general characteristic of modern livestock production including: scale (large); stocking density (high); diversity (low); use of technology and capital (intensive); product quality (low); welfare and ethical standards (low); and sustainability standards (low). In so doing they evoke the worst of the noise, regimentation, abuse and misery of a 19th century factory and the ‘dark Satanic Mills’ of William Blake’s Jerusalem. In this telling, factory farming is bad for livestock, bad for employees, bad for consumers, bad for the environment and, through the concentration of considerable power in the hands of a few, even bad for democracy. The contrast, sometimes explicit and sometimes not, is with systems of livestock production that are smaller in scale, less intensive and more embedded in local knowledge, traditions and environments – in other words, production that is more artisanal. Those campaigning against factory farming rely on a willingness on the part of their interlocutors to equate artisanal with higher welfare and ethical standards and enhanced quality and sustainability.

Such assumptions deserve to be unpicked, but that is not our primary interest here. Instead of focusing on the conditions of production, we want to highlight another less often cited dimension of modern commercial livestock production that may be relevant to the notions of factory farming and pathways.

Over a broad range of products the manufacturing sector has responded to globalisation and increased international competition with strategies such as the out-sourcing and ‘just-in-time’ delivery of component part manufacture. These component supply chains are managed in ways that are demanding (of the supplier) while providing maximum flexibility to respond to changes in global markets. As a result, the ‘factory’ from which finished products emerge is now often primarily an assembly plant: few if any raw materials may actually be transformed into component parts on site. This contrasts with the historic image of a factory (in at least some industries) as a site where diverse trades, skills and knowledges came together to transform a variety of raw material into component parts and ultimately finished products.

In many ways poultry farming has also evolved along similar lines, such that a modern poultry farm, particularly confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), is essentially a site of assembly of components sourced through highly competitive supply chains that may stretch around the world. It is now likely that there will be few if any historical, spatial, agro-ecological or co-evolutionary links between a particular poultry farm and e.g. the breed, feed or equipment used. Here the poultry producer plays the role of an assembler, following a tightly specified regime designed (by others) to deliver consistent and uniform products at least cost. Instead of factory farming we might better conceive of this as ‘assembly farming’.

The anthropologist Paul Richards famously talked of ‘agriculture as performance’, with rice farmers in Sierra Leone performing by calling on a whole repertoire of context specific moves and (largely locally produced) resources as they sought to responded to the unfolding risks and uncertainties of a cropping season (early or late rains, poor burn of the bush, accidents, sickness etc). What we want to highlight in an analysis of factory farming is the change in the nature of that performance, where the ‘agriculture as assembly’ that characterises commercial poultry production is so tightly orchestrated through vertically integrated chains that even the slightest misstep can be the difference between profit and loss, survival and bankruptcy.

There is a deep irony here. If modern poultry production is an example of ‘agriculture as assembly’, much of the post-production activity within the globalised food system – as evidenced by the booming world trade in ‘chicken parts’ – is about disassembly. In Ghana, where we are launching a new STEPS project focused on the poultry sector, imported frozen chicken parts (from Brazil, the USA and Europe) account for approximately 60% of the poultry meat consumed. These global dynamics of assembly and disassembly within the broader agrifood system must necessarily frame our analysis of pathways to sustainability within Ghana’s poultry sector. It may be that there are reasons to be concerned about ‘factory farming’, but let’s first understand the changing nature of the factory and its consequences for a range of producers and consumers and other actors.

Thus, in our study, we are planning to apply and extend the STEPS ‘Pathways Approach’ to analyse the dynamics of socio-technical change within the poultry system in Ghana and its connections to actors and interests in other parts of the world. We will focus on the interactions between different poultry pathways – from ‘large-scale industrial’ (i.e. the factory farms) to ‘intermediate commercial’ to ‘small-scale backyard’ – and identify their distinct features, dynamic interactions and interdependencies. We believe such an analysis could lead to deeper understandings of what may be called ‘Pathway Bundles’ that are co-dependent. In this way we hope to shift the emphasis from a choice between opposing or alternative pathways to an analysis of the drivers, dynamics and implications of their co-evolution.